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UCAS reforms to the personal statement: One step forward, more to go? – HEPI’s WEEKEND READING

  • 14 January 2023
  • By Tom Fryer, Steve Westlake and Professor Steven Jones

This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Tom Fryer, Steve Westlake and Professor Steven Jones. 

On 12 January, UCAS released Future of Undergraduate Admissions, a report that contained details of five upcoming reforms

In the report, UCAS proposes to reform the free-text personal statement into a series of questions. This is welcome. As we noted in our recent HEPI Debate Paper on UCAS personal statements, an essay without a question is always going to breed uncertainty.

So the change does represent progress towards a fairer admissions system. However, the number of steps we take towards this fairer system will depend on how the questions are designed. 

The UCAS report makes an initial proposal of six questions across the following topics: 

  1. Motivation for Course – Why do you want to study these courses? 
  2. Preparedness for Course – How has your learning so far helped you to be ready to succeed on these courses? 
  3. Preparation through other experiences – What else have you done to help you prepare, and why are these experiences useful? 
  4. 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? 
  5. Preparedness for study – What have you done to prepare yourself for student life?
  6. Preferred Learning Styles – Which learning and assessment styles best suit you – how do your courses choices match that?

Our first point concerns inequality. To create admissions processes that address inequalities we should use questions that place explicit limits on the number of examples that can be used. If we leave questions open-ended, this risks creating a structure that allows some applicants to gain an advantage over their peers, a key problem with the original format. Also, where possible, questions should stress the acceptability of drawing upon activities, such as caring or part-time work, that may not be deemed ‘high-prestige’. This could minimise the impact of inequalities in access to these ‘high-prestige’ activities. The relatively small number of courses that require formal work experience could gain this information through an optional question.  

Secondly, admissions processes should prioritise applicants’ interests and avoid imposing an unnecessary burden. The current proposals contain several questions that appear similar, which does appear to impose an unnecessary workload on applicants and their advisers. We recommend combining the second (course preparedness), third (preparedness through other experiences) and fifth (study preparedness) questions into one, in order to protect applicants’ interests. 

Thirdly, other commentators have drawn attention to the association of ‘learning styles’ in question 6 with the widely debunked model that classifies people into four different learning modes: visual; aural; read/write; and kinesthetic. This does not seem to have been UCAS’s intention. Instead through informal conversations we understand the question intended to focus on applicants’ preferences for independent study versus contact time, or frequent short assessments versus substantive end-of-year approaches. Regardless, should applicants’ attitudes to learning and assessment influence admissions decisions? There could be a range of reasons why an applicant has chosen a certain provider, including geographical location for those with caring responsibilities, and many of these will trump concerns about learning styles. We recommend removing this question. 

Fourthly, while the report gives evidence that many applicants see the personal statement as an opportunity to advocate for themselves, this alone does not justify the creation of a large number of questions (or indeed, nor does it justify the status quo). Unfortunately, a lack of transparency prevents applicants from understanding how their statement will be read (if it is read at all), and many will be unaware of the research on inequalities in this area. These caveats are important when considering how applicants’ views should feed into discussions about creating an admissions system that protects all applicants. 

Our final point relates to validity. Admissions processes should use valid measures of applicants’ ability to complete their chosen courses. Although there is limited research in this area, we think there are opportunities to improve the proposed questions. 

To take one example, the first question asks ‘Why do you want to study these courses?’. We contend that an abstract question is unlikely to be the most valid way to assess applicants’ motivations. This question is likely to prompt similarly abstract or cliched answers, including in the form ‘Ever since a child…’. As an alternative, in our HEPI paper, we proposed the following: 

Please describe one topic that is related to your course. Please discuss what you have learnt about this topic, through exploring this outside of the classroom. This could include books, articles, blogs, seminars, lectures, documentaries, or any other format. 

This question measures both whether an applicant demonstrates a basic level of motivation and whether they understand what is covered on the course. By asking for a concrete example of a topic they have explored, we believe this question is likely to be a more valid way to assess whether applicants meet a basic level of motivation and preparedness, and it is less likely to result in overly abstract or clichéd responses that reveal little about applicants. 

UCAS’s proposed reforms to personal statements recognise that fair admissions require greater transparency, a more supportive structure, and the prevention of some applicants being placed at a disadvantage. Moving to a series of questions represents one step forward. However, to achieve these goals, the questions must be designed to address inequality and remove unnecessary burdens in a transparent and valid manner.  

There is currently no published research on how personal statements are used in admissions decisions. That’s why we are launching a survey to gather some initial data, which you can access here

We are particularly seeking input from people involved with the day-to-day work of undergraduate admissions. We would appreciate it if you could share this with any of your colleagues. We plan to use this data to feed into the public conversation about UCAS’s reforms. 

4 comments

  1. Mr John Robinson says:

    Alright I already wrote a reply, but it got deleted, so let me try again,

    1, motivation for the course. For the MRes at Derby sept 23 to build on the great success which was my BA 2016 honours in Sociology major, with theatre studies minor. This degree took me five plus three or four years, given the multiple restarts I had to do because of my mental health fraility. Plus the drugs I was on acted as a hindrance as a help, I can now confirm. Anyway.
    2,
    My BA Hons took nearly forever. Here’s a list of the modules I took;
    4SL008 introduction to social inequalities prog code l300 grade c+ level 4 credit 15.0 result confirmed 1112
    ;
    4sl020 deviance and difference: exploring cultural identity l300 b- 4 15.0 1112
    4sl028 introduction to social theory l300 c- 4 15.0 1112
    4sl500 popular culture l300 52 (%) lvl 4 credit 20.0 result confirmed 1213
    4sl503 researching the social world l300 82 4 20.0 1213
    4wc001 Reflective Learning Skills l300 A- 4 20.0 1415
    4TH501 Performance Analysis/PDP Y002 47 4 20.0 1415
    4TH506 Modern Drama (With professor Sam Kasulé) Y002 41 4 20.0 1415
    4TH507 Script Analysis for Production Y002 41 4 20.0 1415 (I actually got below 40% for my first essay, but was able to bring it back to a pass, after going all out/blitzing the second essay. I’d like to point out that I didn’t fail a single unit with no resits over the whole of my degree (even though there were some close calls)
    Total number of Credits achieved at level 4 160.0

    5ED512 the sociology of education (this one was with a Canadian lecturer. I really liked him, from the education department.although the other girls in my class didn’t, well I think they had a problem with him, and collectively wrote negative feedback for the student satisfaction surveys at the post unit feedback, which resulted in the unit ceasing after this year. At least I think that’s what the lecturer told me, when I met him to discuss my grade, after it was marked. We did a poster (using PowerPoint), and had to present it to the class. I don’t know why the others didn’t like it? Maybe they got bad grades. Oh yes there was also an online element to it 40% I think, which needed two forum/message board posts per topic, with each topic lasting two weeks. Maybe the girls/ladies did badly at this element, and that was why they flamed him afterwards. Sorry mostly ladies, I seem to remember one or two other boys/gentlemen on the unit. Anyway… Y002 72 (get in) 5 20.0 1415
    5ES506 Theatricality and Madness Y002 49 5 20.0 1314 another one with Sam Kasulé. I remember properly working my socks off for this one, providing a (what I thought) was a well argued and balanced counter-argumrent to the prevailing orthodoxy hegemony of the psychiatric model. With various plays as the evidence. The markers didn’t agree, as the grade shows. (40-49% is a D, and represents a satisfactory grade. I got a lot of these). Anyway.

    5SL507 Capitalism, Culture and Class: Social Theory in Classical Modernity This one was with the classic Socialist nick cimini, who born in Italy, but raised in Scotland, spent two or three years here teaching us, then returned to Scotland because they offered all returnee Scottish lecturers an upfront payment of £20k which was an offer too good to refuse. He’s had a couple of kids since then. I got on well with Nick. He was a good guy. It was Derby’s loss. Y002 42 5 20.0 1314 I thought I did better at it
    5SL508 ‘Race’ and Ethnicity in Modern Britain Y002 45 5 20.0 1415 this was one of my more difficult units. Not that the unit was particularly difficult, it was actually a presentation based grade, but the lecturer didn’t like me, and so gave me a ‘d’ either that , or I was just so worn out by the whole five plus years degree process, I was running out of steam. Hopefully these past four years I have had to rest and recuperate in my flat, will give my batteries a good boost and recharge, for another two masters, and maybe even a doctorate afterwards, depending on how I get on?)
    ;
    5SL513 Sociological Research Methods1: Qualitative and Quantitative Techniques y002 62 5 20.0 1314. I think this was the unit I took with the dreaded SPSS computer statistics program based exam. Exams are always scary, and SPSS is a bit of a killer, but luckily the lecturer Raul gave us good notes, and extra revision cheat-sheet videos for each section, which I crammed, watched twice each, and ended up with a good final grade. Compare that to the other girls in my class, who I guess we’re less mathematically geared, and so didn’t do so well on the exams. Or maybe they got the same as me, which would be disappointing for an A student (70th percentile)
    God I’ve been yabbering on
    Let me just try and get these finished
    And the rest of the questions
    Anyway
    5th503 research methodologies y002. 56. 5 20.0 1314 this one was with Dr Becky Barnes. She left to Sheffield in the end. This was another big blow for Derby imho
    So the total number of credits at level 5, and 6 for that matter, were 120.0 ..
    6ES501 Shakespeare Today Y002 55 level 6 20.0 1516. This one was with Dr Mary McNalty another super-star. I should mention all of my lecturers were Drs, in case already mentioned.
    6ES508 Riots and Rebels: Studies in Intercultural Drama Y002 57 lvl 6 20. Credit 1516
    Another one with Sam. We watched Sarafina with Whoopie Goldberg, a seminal pre end of Apartheid south-african freedom musical film, from 1980 I think. This was a beautiful movie. Also watched woke soyinka I think, and some other African dramas. We also has to research these texts from some journals and other chosen readings, which were hard work, but this was a final year English unit, so you don’t expect it to be easy. I remember being estatic with the grade. I was able to hit my 60% 2.1 bang on the head, thanks to the generous awards given me by Sam and Mary for example. And not so much thanks to some of the others. But never mind. I am a mature student, 30 something when I did it, and on heavy depot injections at the time, so it wasn’t easy for me neither

    6SL506 Religious and Ethnic Minorities Y002 47 6 20.0 1415 another third
    Honesty is the best policy. Sometimes it is the only policy. I find it helps to be honest. Plus the number of words I’ve written in my lifetime mean I’m quite comfortable with this means medium.
    6DL508 Sociology of Health and Illness Y002 78. 6 20.0
    6SL999 Sociology Independent Study Y002 68:6 40.0 1516
    With my final two units supervised by yet another super-star Dr Phil Burton-Carteledge. Like Nick Dr Phil is a radical communist. Oops I said it. Damn, I hope word doesn’t get out! (Seriously he’s yet another great guy, who did well to put up with me. He is also the Bachelor’s Sociology program leader now.)

    That’s it.
    And as a caveat I seriously think you should consider giving All of the lecturers I have named in this essay, pay rises. Just give them what they want. They put up with us, after-all. Plus they are providing for the next generation, of leaders, workers, thinkers speakers and parents. It’s called investing In our future.

    Ok look I’m actually tired out from that essay.

    So I’ll skip to the end; preferred learning style, I think I am more a visual/auditory learning style. Kind of I have quite a good memory, like photographic, but I do sometimes struggle with my emotions (diagnosis paranoid schizophrenia. Oh yes and I think they are trying to poison me. So that is why I am hoping to come off my tablets. Please don’t put compliance with my medicines as a requisite to me doing the masters, cos that isn’t fair. Is blackmail. I’ve got until September to get my head sorted, one way or the other

    Thanks John

  2. Mr John Robinson says:

    Sorry one last thing my degree was Overall Classification: SECOND CLASS HONOURS (1st Division) Date of Award 10 Jun 2016 Qualification Obtained: Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Sociology with Theatre Studies
    UNIVERSITY OF DERBY
    student code: 100052398
    HESS Number: 0710571013537
    Mode of study: Part Time
    Level of Study: Undergraduate
    Study Site: Derby Campus
    Location of Study/Partner Oganisation: University of Derby, Kedleston Road, DERBY , United Kingdom, DE22 1GB
    Student Name:
    JOHN ROBINSON
    Date of Issue: 22 Jul 2016
    Date of Birth: 03 Mar 1981
    Registration/Study Period: September 2011 to June 2016
    Programme: Y002. Joint Honours Scheme
    Level of Study: Undergraduate

    And I did not use any form of AI to complete this form. Thankyou

  3. Conor King says:

    The discussion seems framed by the assumption that applicants need to show their best look and hope to be let in.

    A modern education system surely wants each person to get the education and training they desire and need. Allowing that not all desires can be met there should be a focus on people getting a place – as long as they are capable of the course.

    I dont see how those questions add much to that basic issue of can the person do the course. If they can – surely there needs to be a good reason to not offer them a place.

    I do not know the UK reality but the Australian reality is that most courses do indeed want the interested student who has the necessary base capability.

  4. Gavin Moodie says:

    I suggest that studies are much better designed and much more worth conducting by the subjects and by the researchers if they are informed by what is already known about the subject.

    This statement is wrong, even for England: ‘There is currently no published research on how personal statements are used in admissions decisions.’

    Here is a little of the published work on the use of personal statements in admissions decisions, but there are hundreds if not thousands more:

    Albanese, M. A., Snow, M. H., Skochelak, S. E., Huggett, K. N., & Farrell, P. M. (2003). Assessing personal qualities in medical school admissions. Academic Medicine, 78(3), 313-321.

    Murphy, S. C., Klieger, D. M., Borneman, M. J., & Kuncel, N. R. (2009). The predictive power of personal statements in admissions: A meta-analysis and cautionary tale. College and University, 84(4), 83.

    Parry, J., Mathers, J., Stevens, A., Parsons, A., Lilford, R., Spurgeon, P., & Thomas, H. (2006). Admissions processes for five year medical courses at English schools. Bmj, 332(7548), 1005-1009.

    Siu, E., & Reiter, H. I. (2009). Overview: what’s worked and what hasn’t as a guide towards predictive admissions tool development. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 14(5), 759-775.

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