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.”