Don’t be funny, don’t use “quotes”. Make sure you stand out, but don’t stand out too much. Don’t put down anything unusual as the admissions tutor might not understand you, you know, might not get it. Be yourself, but don’t make mistakes. Be passionate, but above all don’t exaggerate. It’s a chance to show that you are unique. Be original. Demonstrate that you are passionate about your subject.
How do you stand out from the crowd then? This is a crowd from your age-group doing the same A-level subjects as you are AND similar extra-curricular activities.
Confused? You’re not the only one.
Universities introduced the personal statement to support a candidate’s application, alongside predicted grades and references. With improvements in teaching standards, communication about exams and exam technique, the resulting grade inflation meant that it was difficult for universities to differentiate between applicants for their courses. The statement offers an opportunity for candidates to present why they are suitable for the course they are applying for. Mary Curnock Cook, UCAS’ Chief Executive talks about showing that you have “passion and purpose… highly motivated and not just following the money.”
At the time it seemed a good way for students to differentiate themselves from the pack, but advice on what constitutes the right ingredients is confusing. So confusing that even the teachers and admissions tutors have widely-diverging opinions on what the content should consist of and what constitutes a winning statement.
The Sutton Trust published research highlighting this rift (outlined in The Times article “Bad advice from teachers is harming university chances” 1st February 2016). The research concluded that teachers had little idea of what admissions tutors at leading universities looked for in personal statements. One teenager, who wanted to study medicine, wrote a detailed account about watching an operation whilst doing work experience. His teacher told him the account would ruin his chances of university acceptance because it was long and impersonal, yet the admissions tutor commented that the essay was an ‘excellent analysis of a complex case’ and enhanced the student’s chances of being accepted.
Surely, watching, analysing and writing about an operation, something that you might be expected to do regularly once qualified, would be an ideal way of illustrating whether you wanted to make a career in medicine. There are many other examples of this mismatch and, worryingly, you can read about some interesting examples cited by Josie Gurney-Read in the Telegraph on 28th January, who points out a number of divergences of opinion on what constitutes pertinent material for the personal statement.
But surely, schools and colleges should have a good idea as to what constitutes an excellent personal statement? The inequity is that there are some schools which are fine-tuned to honing and coaching their pupils to produce appropriate statements so that they look like the perfect candidate on paper.
Yet this process only benefits the wealthy, middle-class students who attend the best schools and who have helicopter parents. Samima Khan, head of admissions at Oxford University, advises schools to start to identify and prepare prospective Oxbridge candidates from the age of 11. This is coming right from the top and it therefore precludes late developers and those from less privileged background where university might not be considered an option until the sixth form. It means that parents and certain schools can coach to negotiate a specific process which becomes an uneven playing field. These attitudes filter through to all of the leading universities.
People who attend these schools are preparing for the university from the age of 11 and display a glittering array of extra-curricular activities and achievements to support their application. Would they really be doing the Duke of Edinburgh if they didn’t believe that it would give their application an edge? The trouble is, once everyone’s doing it then there is no advantage and another hoop has to be introduced to jump through. Their parents’ contacts can open doors and help them to gain those all-important internships and job experience stints. They build their personal statement into a fake C.V. of the perfect candidate. And yet the ‘personal’ bit is confusing, as it’s not that personal. 17 year olds love to watch sport, play music, go to the pub, party, socialise with their mates. Even though these are essential life skills and very, very personal, obviously, they don’t get a mention.
What’s the solution then?
The Sutton Trust argues that the personal statement is not fit for purpose. It was a good idea and helped universities find out about the applicants for their courses. They preferred students who wanted to do the subject, not just young people who had been told by their parents to go into tertiary education because it would facilitate finding a good job and earn more money. However, as more and more people have worked out how to play the system, it leaves behind swathes who are perhaps just the sort of candidates universities should be enticing.
Some commentators moot the possibility of schools and colleges employing specialist advisers to help candidates prepare their personal statements and applications. Again, the best will go to where the money is. Another possibility is for candidates to produce their personal statement under exam conditions so that it restricts the input from parents and schools.
We believe that a new and better approach would be in digital form which would be in keeping with the youth of today and not play into the hands of the advantaged. UCAS ask for you to describe “relevant skills, experience or achievements gained from education, work or other activities.” There is a way of building your profile over a number of years to show that you have the requisite skills and aptitude for university life and courses. It’s fun, it’s you and it’s personal, it’s the Kloodle Profile.