The report, commissioned by fair access charity the Sutton Trust, calls into question the fairness of the personal statements - a key part of Universities and Colleges Admissions Service’s process for applying to higher education institutions.
According to a release accompanying the study, independent school applicants are “more likely to submit carefully crafted statements, written in an academically appropriate way, and filled with high status, relevant activities.
“State school applicants, by contrast, appear to receive less help composing their statement, and often struggle to draw on suitable work and life experience.”
Steven Jones, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Manchester, analysed 309 personal statements, all of which were submitted to the same department of the same research-intensive university by students with the same A-level results.
He found clear writing errors were three times more common in the personal statements of applicants from state schools and sixth-form colleges as those from independent schools.
Independent school applicants also listed the highest number of work-related activities and drew on more prestigious experiences.
One 18-year-old applicant’s experience included working “for a designer in London, as a model…on the trading floor of a London broker’s firm…with my local BBC radio station…events planning with a corporate 5 star country hotel…in the marketing team of a leading City law firm…and most recently managing a small gastro pub”.
For state school applicants, work-related activity was more likely to involve a Saturday job or a school visit to a business, the study found.
The Trust says it wants Ucas to consider whether the personal statement, in its current form, is an “appropriate and fair indicator of applicants’ potential”.
It calls for a series of measures, including a limit on the number of experiences described by applicants, more help for state school pupils in preparing statements and universities to take young people’s background into account.
Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust, said: “This research suggests that the personal statement further disadvantages students from low- and middle-income backgrounds.
“Personal statements should be more than an excuse to highlight past advantages. Applicants should outline how they might contribute to campus life, and universities should make it clear that applicants are not penalised for lacking opportunities in the past due to family circumstances.”
However, some academics and sector leaders took to Twitter to question the research’s findings.
Mary Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, tweeted: “Does Sutton Trust report really think I’m taken in by slick expensive personal statements on ucas forms…we’re not that easy to con.”
While Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, asked where state schools and colleges would find the resources to provide more support to pupils.