Poor personal statement advice ‘harms university chances’

Sutton Trust study finds teachers’ perceptions of what makes a good Ucas application are very different to views of admissions tutors

January 28, 2016
Woman taking notes

Poor advice from teachers on how to write a personal statement is harming disadvantaged students’ hopes of winning a place at a highly selective university, a study suggests.

Research conducted for the Sutton Trust found that teachers’ perception of what made a good personal statement for a Ucas application was often very different to what admissions tutors at Russell Group institutions were looking for.

The study, conducted by Steven Jones, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester, examined the personal statements of 44 school pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Twenty-seven received support encouraging them to engage in wider reading beyond their A-level syllabus, and advising them on how to write their statement.

All of these students received offers from a Russell Group university, and 60 per cent went on to enrol at an institution in the mission group, whereas the results were 73 per cent and 40 per cent respectively for the 17 students who did not receive additional support.

Read more: How not to write a personal statement

For the study, each personal statement was read by a teacher and by a Russell Group admissions tutor, and both were asked to say whether they thought the statement would increase or decrease the applicant’s chance of winning a place.

The admissions tutors felt that 70 per cent of statements written by students who had received additional support would help the students’ chances, compared to 24 per cent of statements from the control group.

However, teachers gave the same grade as the admissions tutor in only 10 out of 44 cases, and on average they rated statements written by the control group more highly than those written by the “academic apprentices”.

Dr Jones says that the study demonstrates how sections of detailed analysis and reflection in personal statements are highly valued by academics.

He recommends that universities should be more transparent about what they expect from personal statements, and schools and colleges should improve staff training.

“The advice and guidance that some young people receive at school when composing their personal statement may not reflect the content and style expected by admissions tutors at the UK’s most selective universities,” Dr Jones said. “Interventions such as the Academic Apprenticeship suggest that it is possible to level the playing field for personal statements but that applicants need to be given a structured programme of advice that emphasises academic suitability.”


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