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UCAS personal statements create inequality and should be replaced by short-response questions

  • 24 November 2022

The UCAS personal statement is a 4,000 character / 47-line essay that applicants submit when applying for UK undergraduate programmes. There is growing recognition that the UCAS personal statement needs reform, including from UCAS itself and from the former Minister for Higher Education, Michelle Donelan.

However, we have a limited understanding of the challenges applicants face and what reforms may be most effective.  

A new paper from the Higher Education Policy Institute, Reforming the UCAS personal statement: Making the case for a series of short questions (HEPI Debate Paper 31), by Tom Fryer, Steve Westlake and Professor Steven Jones provides new evidence and analysis to address these gaps.  

The paper provides evidence of the challenges faced by applicants – analysing 164 personal statement drafts from 83 applicants from underrepresented backgrounds. It finds:

  • 83% of drafts fail to supply an evidence-based opinion about a relevant academic topic;
  • many applicants struggle to organise their statement effectively, with 35% failing to write with cohesive paragraphs in at least one of their drafts; and
  • there is a huge toll arising from the personal statement, with some applicants spending 30-to-40 hours crafting their essay. 

These challenges stem from the long-form free-response nature of the personal statement. It is this format that creates inequalities, as more advantaged applicants are better supported to meet the challenge. The long-form free-response nature also places an unnecessary burden on applicants, and does little to aid decision-making.

In its current form, the UCAS personal statement is incompatible with Universities UK and GuildHE’s own Fair admissions code of practice, which over 100 higher education providers have signed. 

The paper proposes that the personal statement should be reformed to a series of short-response questions. This would address inequalities, remove any unnecessary burden and increase transparency. Two short-response questions are proposed which focus on:

  1. an applicant’s interest in their course(s); and
  2. relevant skills.

These questions would assess whether applicants meet certain baseline competencies needed to complete a particular course, and they are compatible with the sector’s own Fair admissions code of practice

The lead author of the report, Tom Fryer, said:

We know the UCAS personal statement is unfair. Our paper provides new evidence on the huge challenges applicants from under-represented backgrounds face. We place the blame on the format of the personal statement.

Is it any wonder that an essay without a question, a ‘personal statement’ that’s more ‘academic’ than ‘personal’, generates an ambiguity which allows those with more support to thrive?

‘Universities are currently operating an admissions system that contradicts their own code of practice. The personal statement should be replaced by short-response questions.

Steven Jones, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Manchester and a co-author of the report, said:

Debates about the UCAS personal statement have been rumbling on for too long. The solution proposed here represents a compromise position and offers the first practical way forward for the sector.

Baseline competencies would be assessed transparently, but no longer would more advantaged applicants be given free rein to catalogue prestigious work experience and extra-curricular opportunities, or to flex their other cultural and social capitals.

Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, who has called for reforms to statements, said: 

Personal statements have become little more than barometers of middle-class privilege and are no longer fair or fit for purpose in university admissions.

This review adds to mounting evidence that reforms are now needed to ensure statements are an effective way of capturing a student’s passion for their subject and their academic potential.

Notes for Editors

  1. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity. HEPI Debate Papers are designed to stimulate informed conversations about topical issues but do not represent a fixed HEPI position.
  2. Tom Fryer is a postgraduate researcher at Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester, focussing on inequalities in graduate outcomes from higher education in the UK, and he is also the founder of Write on Point, which provides students from under-represented backgrounds with UCAS personal statement support. Steve Westlake is a postgraduate researcher and Careers Support Officer at the University of Bristol, working within the Department of History and Careers Service respectively, and he also worked as an educational consultant with Write on Point. Professor Steven Jones is Head of Manchester Institute of Education and is particularly interested in how the marketisation of English higher education impacts on staff and students. Professor Steven Jones’ is a leading expert on personal statements. His previous research on personal statements, commissioned by the Sutton Trust, can be found here and here.
  3. The paper assesses draft personal statements from applicants that used Write on Point in 2021/22. This was a project that supported applicants from under-represented backgrounds with their UCAS personal statements by providing tailored feedback through an online platform. The project ran from 2015 to 2022, working with over 1,400 applicants.

2 comments

  1. Co-author of HEPI’s paper Tom Fryer and Prof Lee Elliot Major (quoted above) are among those who will be taking part in a debate (which I’ll be chairing) about whether personal statements should be scrapped at the forthcoming Engineering Professors’ Council Recruitment and Admissions Forum on 7th Dec hosted by Arden University in Leeds. Further details at https://epc.ac.uk/event/engineering-academics-network-recruitment-admissions-forum-2022/

    The arguments put forward in their paper by Tom and his colleagues are compelling (and in the debate we will also hear from one university that often doesn’t even read the personal statements). There is good evidence that personal statements entrench inequalities.

    On the other hand, many feel that the personal statement in its current form is a unique way of getting students to reflect on their motivations and their commitment that, even if it’s never read, it can be important to their development and preparation for study.

    It is also true that the statement is a realistic analogue for writing covering letters for job applications and so may be a good preparation not only for the next few years of study, but for whole careers.

    Perhaps, most importantly, personal statements allow HEIs to assess the whole individual and their potential rather than merely their qualifications. Would the compromise solution proposed in the paper do as as well or better? Perhaps more short-form questions are needed about challenges the applicant has faced in order to add context?

    There are no simple solutions to keeping the best of personal statements while making them fairer, and also giving consideration about how they might improve admissions and access. I thoroughly welcome this paper driving forward this important discussion and embracing an issue which I know UCAS is already considering carefully. (I’m pleased to say UCAS’s Kim Ecclestone will also be participating in our debate.)

  2. Chris Waterman says:

    I wonder how many parents pay consultants to help write a ‘unique’ statement?
    Is there any evidence of how common this is?

    https://personal-statement-services.co.uk/?msclkid=86e41dbb9ff416481be67e3a6e64ce47

    et al

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