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:
- an applicant’s interest in their course(s); and
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.