Personal statements should be banned from university admissions papers because they give an unfair advantage to private school applicants, a thinktank has argued.
Pupils from successful schools, particularly from the independent sector, have better information, advice and guidance when preparing personal statements, strengthening their university applications, according to a study by the Pearson Think Tank, an independent policy unit funded by the FTSE-100-listed education publisher.
With private applicants also able to access more help from their parents, the “unequal levels of information, support and advice available…in the completion of personal statements” are a concern for almost all the admissions officers interviewed for the report.
Some say they ignore the statements or approach them with caution given the input from teachers.
“Reading personal statements from certain schools you can see the same language coming out, the same sort of form, and you can tell it’s been worked over,” says one officer quoted in the report, (Un)informed Choices? University admissions practices and social mobility, published on 30 September.
Another says that headteachers have told him that private schools are heavily involved in writing pupils’ personal statements.
“They said: ‘Well, they’re paying £7,000 a term, of course we give them a lot of help, that’s what they’re paying for,’” the officer says.
Admissions officers are divided on the usefulness of personal statements, the study found. Some say they give an indication of students’ commitment to a subject and their writing skills, while others feel they are “worthless” because they are too formulaic.
The report adds that admissions tutors approach the statements in different ways depending on the university, faculty or department, and recommends their abolition.
It argues that a centralised admissions system should be implemented to increase the transparency of decision-making processes and improve the fairness of selection.
“This would remove differential subjective assessments and value judgments by academic staff across faculties and departments,” it adds.
The Russell Group should develop and encourage its members to adopt standardised criteria to “ensure that potential applicants understand how their application is assessed and on what basis”.
“This would reduce the varying practice in selection processes and so militate against the disparities that currently exist,” the report says.