By Dominic Kelly and Gill Wyness
The personal statement – a key element of the university admissions process – has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. The main criticism levied at the personal statement concerns fairness: students from disadvantaged backgrounds may have fewer extra-curricular experiences to highlight in their personal statements and are less likely to have access to high quality advice and guidance when writing their statement.
So, it is welcome news that UCAS recently announced the personal statement is to be reformed, by replacing the free text personal statement into a structured format consisting of six short questions. While these reforms may address some of the fairness issues that many are concerned about, these reforms do not go far enough, and a better solution would be to abolish the personal statement altogether.
What’s the problem with personal statements?
Under the current rules, students applying to university through the UCAS system must submit a personal statement alongside their educational attainment (based on predicted A-level or equivalent grades). The personal statement is a free-text essay, with no specific question, just some loose advice, and a word limit of 4,000 characters. The essay is automatically sent to all the courses an applicant applies to.
There are three key reasons personal statements have been criticised – that they may favour students from more advantaged backgrounds, that they may not be great predictors of ability, and that they may put candidates under unnecessary stress.
Looking first at whether personal statements favour more advantaged students, research examining large samples of personal statements (Jones, 2012, 2013, 2015) revealed clear differences between the statements of independent/selective school applicants and those from non-selective state schools. Independent/selective school pupils had access to many more work experience opportunities to discuss, which were also broader and more diverse. The extreme differences in the extra-curricular activities that those from higher SES backgrounds have has been recently documented by Park et al (2023) whose study of US college applicants found that White, Asian American, higher SES, and private school students listed more extra-curricular activities, reported more top-level leadership roles, and reported more activities reflecting accomplishments and distinctions. Importantly, among those who listed undertaking an activity, Black and low SES students were just as likely to list having played a leadership role in the activity, suggesting that disadvantaged students are just as likely to have leadership qualities, but simply have less resources available to try different activities.
As well as having a wider range of experiences to draw from, the statements of independent school pupils were also longer, and contained fewer spelling errors and punctuation errors. One reason this may be the case is that independent school pupils may receive more guidance and assistance in writing their statements. There is some evidence for this. A study on 16- to 19-year-olds’ efficacy at ‘selling themselves’ in personal statements suggested that this was directly related to differences in resources and training provided by their educational institutions. It is also likely that those from richer backgrounds would be more able to take advantage of private consultancies to help them craft their statements, as they do with personal tutoring, for example. A 2009 Guardian article reported evidence of independent school pupils receiving more help with personal statements, with a teacher admitting “of course we help our students with their personal statements, their parents are paying £7,000 a term!”
Turning to the usefulness of personal statements as a way to assess candidates, there are a small number of papers examining this issue. For example a small meta-analysis showed that ratings of personal statements were poor predictors of academic achievement, over and above standardised test scores and prior attainment. Arguments have also been made that rather than functioning as a holistic assessment of university suitability or preparedness, they function solely as assessments of writing skills, again casting doubt on their usefulness in identifying good candidates. There is also evidence that a more structured approach to rating personal statements yielded negligible predictive validity for first year grades and dropout rates.
Any doubts about the validity of personal statements are likely to translate into inconsistencies in their use. There is little research examining how personal statements are used by university admissions teams – so we have no real understanding of the extent to which they are trusted by admissions departments and used seriously for decision-making. A greater concern for UCAS than what applicants are writing should be how university admissions staff are assessing their writing, as well as the biases that these staff implicitly or explicitly have regarding low socioeconomic and ethnic minority groups.
Finally, examining the issue of stress, a recent report analysed a large number of personal statements from students from underrepresented backgrounds, as well as conducting surveys and interviews of these students. Applicants from under-represented backgrounds were found to experience a number of challenges when writing their essays, with some spending 30-to-40 hours on their essays, with obvious knock-on effects to their studies and free time. Particular challenges arose from the free-form nature of the essay – such as writing the opening paragraph, developing an effective flow / structure arise, and uncertainty from the lack of an explicit question.
What is UCAS’ Proposed Solution?
UCAS current proposals are to replace this free text personal statement with a structured format consisting of 6 open questions:
- Motivation for Course – Why do you want to study these courses?
- Preparedness for Course – How has your learning so far helped you to be ready to succeed on these courses?
- Preparation through other experiences – What else have you done to help you prepare, and why are these experiences useful?
- Extenuating circumstances – Is there anything that the universities and colleges need to know about, to help them put your achievements and experiences so far into context?
- Preparedness for study – What have you done to prepare yourself for student life?
- Preferred Learning Styles – Which learning and assessment styles best suit you – how do your courses choices match that?
This structured format does have some improvements over the existing personal statement. For example, Jones, Fryer and Westlake (2023) argue that shorter, more guided questions are likely to reduce the stress burden on applicants, and are more transparent, making the essay easier to write. However, there is still likely to be a significant effort involved in writing the statement, given the number of questions.
Simply breaking the personal statement down in this way is unlikely to overcome the many other issues discussed above.
First, the issue of unfairness will remain. Pupils from better-off backgrounds will still have more experiences and activities to draw on in answering the questions. In fact, reducing the remit of short-answer questions to more specific topics could further highlight the lack of extra-curricular opportunities some students have to draw upon, especially since students will then be forced to provide an answer for each topic regardless of whether they have anything they feel important to say. Given a lack of ways of verifying applicants’ information, survey research suggests that there is already an established culture of lying or embellishing on personal statements, which could be exacerbated if applicants feel forced to list opportunities. Issues with spelling and grammar and greater sophistication of language will remain, even in this environment. And independent school pupils can still avail themselves of extra help in answering the questions – in fact a structured format could even make it easier for independent schools to assist their pupils in completing the form. A further issue concerns the rise of ChatGPT software, which seems particularly suited to this new style of short question, now potentially posing an existential threat to the personal statement.
Second, the issue of whether shorter questions are likely to alleviate stress is also questionable. There is not an existing literature on the differences in stress between writing long-form personal statements compared to shorter questions; i.e., there is not a hypothetical study where participants experienced two conditions and levels of stress were compared. Assumptions that shorter questions are less stressful are based on inferences from qualitative data about the current UCAS application. Until such a study is conducted – or the results of the natural experiment that UCAS propose by changing the questions are analysed – this remains an assumption. There is a possibility that issues of opening sentences, structure and word limits will apply to each of the 6 proposed short responses, ultimately multiplying the stress compared to one response.
Finally, as has already been criticised elsewhere, any reference to the concept of ‘learning styles’ (the idea that students have inherent differences that require them to be taught the same concepts in different ways for the instruction to be effective) should be omitted. The concept of learning styles has been debunked but persists as a ‘neuromyth’ which is at best pointless and at worst harmful.
Removing the personal statement altogether
In order to move towards a fairer, more equal applications process, we believe the personal statement should be removed from the university application process altogether. This would not be an unusual situation. Many countries, such as the Republic of Ireland, operate a completely blind process where grades are the only admission criteria.
A potential criticism (as pointed out by Jones, Fryer and Westlake) is that admissions would then be purely based on academic grades (plus an academic reference), meaning inequality could still arise if students’ grades (and teachers’ perception of them) do not accurately reflect their true ability. This is especially likely among more disadvantaged students, who have typically received far less investment in their education than their more advantaged peers. However, retaining the personal statement is unlikely to help with this problem, and may even compound it, if both grades and personal statements favour more advantaged students. A further potential problem is that the personal statement can be used as a means for students to highlight their extenuating circumstances – but this option could be retained without the personal statement.
The removal of the personal statement should be paired with a continuing push towards more contextual admissions. For example, in cases where there are several applicants with similar grades, places should be filled based on a contextual admission strategy (e.g., applicants on Free School Meals, from schools that traditionally send few applicants to university, etc., should be favoured). And beyond simply dealing with ties, students from low SES backgrounds should be given grade discounts. As we outline in a recent blog post, there is a clear economic rationale for the use of contextual admissions, to “level the playing field” at this crucial life stage. Any remaining ties in grades could be filled based on random assignment, which has also been shown to be a fair system of assignment when allocating individuals with the same levels of achievement.
The UK’s university applications system has remained unchanged for many years, and this reform is a unique opportunity to improve the fairness of the system. However, UCAS proposals do not appear to go far enough to achieve this goal.