Reform of Personal Statements is a welcome change

Reform of the Personal Statement is a welcome change and long overdue. It will hopefully be to the benefit of all students, regardless of background.

When the time comes each year for students to write their UCAS Personal Statements, I have often been reminded of Tobias Wolff’s 2003 novel, Old School. The story centres around a writing competition at prestigious East Coast public school. The protagonist, so caught up in his desire to win, ends up plagiarising another’s work to secure the winning entry. In doing so, however, he deceives not only his school (initially at least), but ultimately himself as well, becoming unable to separate what is real from what is, in this case, someone else’s fiction.

All too often Personal Statements end up falling into this very same trap. Each September, far too many students sit down and try to arrange a smorgasbord of interests and achievements into some kind of coherent narrative, built around an imagined sense of what they think a university ‘wants to see’. With their eyes on the prize of a university place, they are tempted to burnish their writing with books half read (or not all), ideas gleaned from friends and family, insights that aren’t truly theirs and arguments they don’t fully understand. All too soon, the statement isn’t personal at all, or original, or sometimes even true.

This is bad for everyone, not least the admissions tutors who have to differentiate between these applications. At a time when contextual admissions play such a large role in university places, it is unsurprising then that, in the words of Lee Elliot Major, a Professor of Social Mobility at Exeter university, the statements have come to be regarded by some as “little more than barometers of middle-class privilege”.

It is welcome, therefore, to hear that UCAS are considering reforming the Personal Statement from 2024 onwards. The new format, judging from initial indications, would involve candidates making a video submission, in which they answered a series of specific questions covering areas such as their reasons for applying, details of the work they have undertaken to prepare and the study skills and soft skills that they have developed that will be relevant to their study.

It will be much harder to hide under such a system. Candidates who have prepared thoroughly and well in advance, who can articulate the clearest motives and who have the means to demonstrate their aptitude and interest are likely to stand out. Meanwhile, those who previously could hide behind an elegant turn of phrase are likely to be exposed.

If this restores trust in the system then it is a benefit for all. It is certainly more fair for candidates from poorer backgrounds who, previously, may have approached the process with little sense of what was required and often with little support from teachers or parents. But it would also be fairer for students from more advantaged backgrounds who, irrespective of school or family, have worked diligently to prepare their university applications and whose achievements have at times, in recent years, been viewed with scepticism.

A Personal Statement, at its best, should act as a mission statement for the student. It should represent both the culmination of their school achievements and the genesis of the work they will undertake as undergraduates. Above all it should be personal, a true reflection of a student themselves and the work they have put into preparing for their applications. Any reform that brings these goals more sharply into focus is to be applauded.

It may well be the end of the road for the Personal Statement as a glorified creative writing contest. But that would be no bad thing for anyone.

by Ed Ballard, Senior University Consultant at Bonas MacFarlane