The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service describes the 600-word statements as a chance for students to “stand out from the crowd” in the chase for university places.
But the Times Educational Supplement, sister paper of Times Higher Education, reports that last year nearly 30,000 applicants failed to take that advice on board and sent in personal statements that Ucas’ plagiarism detection system flagged up as copied.
The software showed that at least 10 per cent of each flagged statement was identical to other applicants’ statements or to online examples.
In each case, the universities and colleges applied to were immediately informed of the plagiarism so that they could take appropriate action.
Hundreds of statements even shared identical opening lines, with a quote from Coco Chanel about the importance of fashion among the most popular choices.
“The personal statement is one of the most important parts of the online application process,” a Ucas spokesman said. “It gives applicants the chance to stand out from the crowd, which is why it should be an individual, and personal, piece of work.”
Ucas first trialled its Copycatch software in 2007 on the personal statements of more than 50,000 applications to study medicine, dentistry and veterinary science at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
It identified plagiarism in 5 per cent of the statements and, according to Ucas, many applicants borrowed phrases from the same free website.
In 234 applications to study medicine, candidates wrote that it was “burning a hole in my pyjamas at age eight” that sparked their passion for the subject.
The resulting publicity combined with warning letters to all UK schools may have had an effect.
The following year, when the software was used on all Ucas applications, the proportion of copied statements dropped to 3 per cent.
It fell further to 2.8 per cent in 2009 when 20,086 statements contained plagiarism, but rose to 29,228, or 3.85 per cent of applications, in 2010.
Alan Vincent, joint general secretary of the Association for Careers Education and Guidance, said it was possible that a “large proportion” of the careers teachers he represented were not aware of Ucas’ plagiarism crackdown.
“It is one thing to look at good practice on the internet – that is understandable. But it is another thing to then lift the material,” Mr Vincent said.