A RECENT STUDY has challenged the role played by personal statements during the university application process.
The research, commissioned by the Sutton Trust, and carried out by Dr Steven Jones of Manchester University, compared the success of 309 university applicants with equivalent grades from independent and state schools. It concluded that rather than helping equalise opportunity, applicants from lower- or middle-income families were at a disadvantage when it came to their personal statement.
The study found that independent school students were more likely to submit statements that were carefully worded and written in an academically appropriate way. They were also more likely to include references to unusual or expensive activities or work experience. Dr Jones said that by contrast, “State school applicants appear to receive less help composing their statement, often struggling to draw on suitable work and life experience.”
The Trust calls for changes to be made to the process, stating, “Personal statements should be more than an excuse to highlight past advantages […] and universities should make it clear that applicants are not penalised for having lacked opportunities due to family circumstances.”
The Sutton Trust was founded in 1997 by Sir Peter Lampl, and has funded a wide range of access and research projects for both schools and universities. The charity aims to promote social mobility through education, and is particularly concerned with interrupting the correlation between educational opportunity and family background.
A spokeswoman for Oxford University Press Office replied to the claims, saying, “Unlike most other universities, in selecting students Oxford looks at a great deal more than just predicted grades and personal statements. The personal statement therefore carries less weight in the process than it would at other universities. Additionally, unlike many other universities, Oxford is only interested in students’ aptitude for their chosen subject.”
She continued, “It’s worth noting in regards to the Sutton Trust survey specifically that using state and independent schools as a proxy for deprivation and privilege is not terribly useful – there are students from very deprived backgrounds at private schools, just as there are very affluent students in state schools.”
Martin Conway, a former History admissions tutor at Balliol, said, “All tutors in Oxford are aware of the crafting that goes into personal statements, and they are therefore only one relatively minor aspect of how we assess applications. We look at a combination of students’ exam records, school references, aptitude tests, written work, and interview performances.”
Another tutor also claimed, “It is almost unknown for anyone to get a place because of a good personal statement.”
One second-year Maths student said, “I don’t think the research highlights anything we, and the University, didn’t already know – going on expensive work experience doesn’t mean anything if you can’t keep up in the interview.” They added, “This type of research is really important, but the charity ought to be careful not to depict the situation too negatively. We want to be encouraging students from all social backgrounds to apply. The fees have put enough people off university, the focus should be on helping students, rather than making them feel like they’ll be at a disadvantage”.
Sam Atwell, Access and Admissions Officer at Balliol, claimed, “Some of the recommendations seem a bit daft. Calling on colleges to provide more practical support for students during the admissions process seems to miss the point: these schools either don’t know how to provide help, or don’t have the resources. They may have a primary concern in devoting their resources to ensuring all students leave with an adequate level of Maths and English.”