Ucas personal statements ‘read in two minutes’ by university staff

Hepi report says reforms already announced by Ucas must go further

June 15, 2023
Source: iStock

Planned reforms to the Ucas personal statement should be updated after a survey revealed that UK admissions professionals spend just two minutes reading them, according to a new report.

The admissions service announced earlier this year that it is to replace the controversial 4,000 character essay with a series of questions for students entering higher education from 2025 onwards.

A survey of more than 100 higher education admissions professionals – included in a policy note from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) – found they spent an average of two minutes reading the essays.

Around four in 10 (39 per cent) of those surveyed – working across dozens of providers – said they spent one minute or less reading them.

The poll also found that, when personal statements were read, they were mainly used to access applicants’ interest in a course, while decisions about which applicants should be offered a place were primarily made on the basis of grades.

After concerns were raised that it was too stressful for students and that it was contributing to inequalities in terms of access to university, Ucas said the first-person essay would be reformed into a series of questions on six key areas: motivation; preparedness for course; preparedness through other experiences; extenuating circumstances; preparedness for study; and learning styles.

But the Hepi report, published on 15 June, says there was little evidence that “preparedness for study” and “preferred learning styles” were relevant to admissions decisions, nor that “preparedness for the course” and “preparedness through other experiences” warranted two separate questions.

Instead, the policy note proposes two short questions focusing on motivation and academic experiences, and other activities and experiences.

Steven Jones, co-author of the report and professor of higher education at the University of Manchester, said it had been long known that the personal statement provided an opportunity for some applicants to gain an advantage over their less privileged peers.

“While Ucas’ reform is welcome, this survey highlights that the proposals should focus on a limited number of short-response questions to avoid imposing an unnecessary burden on applicants,” he said.

Though experts had previously welcomed the “overdue” changes, they said that much more needed to be done to truly “level the playing field” in university admissions.

The Hepi report also found considerable variation between different disciplines in how the personal statement was used, with admissions professionals in vocational or highly selective courses more likely to consider it important.

Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said the essay was one of the most poorly understood features of the country’s higher education application process.

“This report shows personal statements are sometimes not read at all and, when they are, they are typically digested very quickly. Moreover, they are used more for some courses than others.

“Shining a spotlight on the use of personal statements was always going to be useful to applicants and those who advise them, but doing it now helps to inform the important reforms that Ucas is currently planning.”

Only 51 per cent of respondents to the survey agreed that personal statements significantly affected admissions decisions.

Tom Fryer, the lead author of the report and a PhD student at Manchester, said: “The Ucas personal statement is a stressful, ambiguous and lengthy process for many applicants, and this simply cannot be justified if the majority of statements are skimmed quickly by admissions staff.”

Clare Marchant, Ucas chief executive, said the reforms came about following consultations with students, teachers, universities, governments, regulators and the charity sector – and that Ucas will continue to consult with them to refine the theme for the new personal statement questions.

“Our reform work will ensure personal statements add more value, retaining the space for students to advocate for their achievements in their own words while helping universities and colleges to differentiate between applications amid growing demand for places, with up to one million applicants forecast by the end of the decade,” she added.


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