The new look UCAS personal statement could help some students, but it might not level the playing field entirely, writes Alex Hutchinson

“Ever since I accidentally burnt a hole in my pyjamas after experimenting with a chemistry set on my eighth birthday, I have always had a passion for science.”

An incredible 234 applicants to universities for science degrees wrote this phrase in their personal statements back in 2007, research showed.

The technology for detecting cut and pasted UCAS statements may have come even further since then, but the question of what to put in the statement is still a tricky one, requiring support.

For many years now, as prospective undergraduates pore over every last comma, the purpose and parity of the UCAS personal statement has been questioned. So, the recent news of proposed changes to the system brings back the debate over whether this will provide greater focus to applicants, help to level the playing field and  prove more beneficial to the universities deciding who should receive offers.

“The purpose and parity of the UCAS personal statement has been questioned.”

In a nutshell, the proposal suggests replacing the 4,000-character free prose personal statement with a series of structured questions to guide students through the process. It will ensure that applicants are including information that is helpful for those making admissions decisions for their undergraduate courses.

By asking about applicants’ motivation and preparedness for the course, their other experiences, any extenuating circumstances, how prepared they are to study and their preferred “learning style”, it is hoped that universities will receive a standard set of information which will make it easier for them to directly compare students.

“If they can’t find anything to write about the subject they want to study, then perhaps this isn’t the right course for them?”

Whilst turning a blank piece of paper into 4,000 characters of free prose can feel daunting, there is no doubt it is a useful exercise to help students understand the choices they are making. If they really can’t find anything to write about the subject they want to study, then perhaps this is a good indication it isn’t the right course for them.

That said, any sixth former will tell you it can be intensely time-consuming, when focusing on their A-level studies will actually help them to achieve the grades they will require. It is also a system that allows differing levels of support; applicants from schools like mine will be advised by the sixth form team, but absolutely with the proviso that this is each individual’s own personal statement, not ours.

“Any sixth former will tell you it can be intensely time-consuming.”

But this position is midway in a spectrum from those applying through UCAS from schools or colleges with little experience of guiding students to university entrance, to the extremes of the professional external tutors who will charge those who can afford it for the creation of the ideal personal statement.

So, will the new proposal help add transparency to the process? It may well make it easier for those who receive little or no guidance by breaking down the suitability statements into smaller sections. Schools and colleges will, however, continue to provide support, the level of which will continue to vary from school to school.

A quicker, less daunting process should certainly improve the wellbeing of the young people making the applications. But, if the information received by universities is curtailed, will these changes result in more competitive institutions? Will we have courses requiring further information to help them differentiate between candidates, such as supplementary application forms or an increased number of pre-interview admissions tests?

“Schools and colleges will continue to provide differing levels of support.”

Cue an even greater differential between those students who attend schools or colleges where support and guidance are provided, and those who don’t.

Whatever the outcome, we will continue to offer personalised guidance to all our sixth formers that focuses on each individual feeling supported to make the decision about life beyond school that is right for them.

[Whilst also ensuring any science applicants are fully versed in health and safety to avoid any unfortunate incidents with chemistry sets]


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