Second-hand cultural capital: the role of schools in substantiating personal statements

“From a young age, I have always been interested in [insert subject]”.

A go-to opening sentence for many students writing the first draft of their personal statement, and trying to shoehorn in a lifelong passion for their subject. And yet, according to UCAS, this is one of the top ten most common opening lines – certainly not as “personal” as it seems. But how do students prove they love their desired subject of study? What is it that has sparked their interest in an academic field, making them want to dedicate the next three-or-more years of their life to knowing more about it (whilst also balancing an over-stretched budget between own-brand baked beans and a bedsheet for the inevitable toga-themed party)? Today is a good day to ask these questions as advisers such as myself will get their login for UCAS 2018/19.

In the beginning

For want of a better phrase, and going against all advice to avoid fire-based metaphors, what truly ignites academic passion is experience. It is getting involved in a subject beyond the boundaries of an A-level curriculum, and, reminiscent of the much-loved Dead Poets Society, having the freedom to think creatively. However, a student’s background can limit such opportunities.

The case study I’ll use here is Dyke House College located in Hartlepool, lovingly labelled as “10th in the most deprived 10% of boroughs” and a “Social Mobility Coldspot. Many students lack personal networks to draw upon for additional experiences, and yet in 2017 90% of students at the sixth form college had places confirmed at a university. There could be many reasons behind this, from more students achieving the required A-level results to an increase in the available spaces at higher education institutions. One potential explanation, however, lies in the depths of the personal statement, a veritable treasure trove of occasional literary genius, but most importantly, evidence of the roots of cultural capital.

Writer’s block

In terms of exploring a subject, A-levels are a good start, but this certainly would not fill the 4,000 characters required for a personal statement. Qualifications require no more than a cursory mention in the application form, and a quick prayer for optimistic predicted grades in the reference. Indeed, UCAS itself suggests that extracurricular pursuits are a “great way to prepare for higher education”. In its “What to write about” guidance, activities include:

  • Clubs or societies
  • Employment or volunteering
  • Science, technology, engineering or math skills
  • A higher education taster course at a summer school
  • Free online courses

Similarly, the Social Mobility Foundation provides support to check personal statements, suggesting that evidence of “super-curricular” activities which “go beyond the school/college curriculum” are important. However, going beyond the curriculum does not mean that the school’s influence and support stops, but in fact is often the place where additional school support is most needed. Simply being keen isn’t quite enough to get enrolled on to courses like the Villiers Park “Inspiring Excellence” programme. Firstly, students must have actually heard about the opportunity. Then the application requires a school’s verification, along with a conversation about who might fund the opportunity.

Personal statements, although frequently under scrutiny regarding whether they are a source of advantage or disadvantage, are a useful tool in determining the roots of cultural capital. The ability to be articulate and persuasive is one aspect of a successful application, but most importantly students need something to write about. Forward-planning plays an integral role in this, allowing students to build up their repertoire of academic and other experiences over time.

Student A – “Before year 12 I couldn’t have written anything… When I wrote it I realised I could have probably written three times what I actually wrote.”

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but not something which provides university offers. Therefore, schools must provide foresight to help avoid those ”what ifs” on results day.

Student B – “At the time I thought that’s an hour or two I could spend sleeping. Now I wish I could have taken more opportunities… it would have helped to put more things in my personal statement.”

Not your ordinary hand-me-downs

From 263 experiences mentioned across all personal statements at Dyke House in the 2016/17 application cycle, 84% were arranged by the college. ‘Secondhand’ cultural capital is clearly important, not in the sense of cheap knock-offs bought at a Sunday-morning car boot sale, but passing on the knowledge that opportunities exist, and sharing an already-established network of contacts. According to the Sutton Trust, students at non-selective state schools have approximately 2.97 experiences in each personal statement, compared to 3.63 from selective (independent and grammar) school applicants. This ranges from “valuable” experiences in a high skill, high prestige but unpaid activity, in comparison with “jobs” which are low skill, low prestige but usually (lowly) paid.

At Dyke House, students averaged six examples per application, which were defined as follows:

  • 32% of examples were “high status”; externally-run experiences, where students worked alongside “important” individuals such as academics and employers. Examples of this are work experience with Hitachi, a summer school at the University of Cambridge and a placement shadowing a local GP.
  • 43% were “medium status”; school-run academic activities, including a trip to the Houses of Parliament, a Science Journal Club, and completing an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ).
  • 16% were “low status”; extra-curricular activities such as NCS and the Duke of Edinburgh Award, which hold less weight in an academic personal statement.
  • Finally, only 7% were classed as “not a relevant experience”; a job or low-level hobby, with examples including part-time work, or watching live sport and music.

Speculation certainly plays a part here. Had the sixth form college not arranged these experiences, students may have taken the initiative to independently pester companies with CVs, or written heartfelt letters worthy of an X-factor audition explaining why they deserved a place on a summer school. However, channelling the wise words of Sherlock Holmes, it is also possible to make a deduction; that the students may not have had these opportunities without their school’s support.

And they lived happily ever after?

A personal statement is only one part of a multifarious HE application system; there are still grades to be achieved, interviews to impress with, and the competition against thousands of other applicants. Nevertheless, personal statements can be indicative of a happy ending, with key lessons to be learned: that inequality outside of the classroom can be lessened by a school systematically distributing its cultural capital to its students; that networks can be shared, because sometimes, it is still all about “who you know”; that students must be told about super-curricular opportunities in their chosen subjects, beyond their personal spheres.

“But then the personal statement isn’t personal!”, you might cry. Quite the contrary; the personal statement should not be written by the school, nor should the same opportunities be given to all students in a “one size fits all” manner. In an ideal scenario, each student will be informed of tailored super-curricular pursuits, building on their subject interests in order to open up their academic field and find the passion they are looking for. Whether it’s an inspirational lecture from a renowned professor on the chemistry of a chocolate teapot or shadowing a seamstress to create a caterpillar costume for an events company, something will catch their eye.

But their eyes must be guided, because if they can’t see the opportunity, how can they aspire to take part? At the end of the day, those 4,000 characters won’t write themselves…

2 responses to “Second-hand cultural capital: the role of schools in substantiating personal statements

  1. It seems incredible to me that employment should be considered ‘not a relevant experience’. Some of us were working to help our families to pay bills and debts at 14/15 years old, and whilst that shouldn’t have been the case in a just society, I dare say the skills I learnt working part-time as a teenager were much more readily transferable to the demands of university study than a “medium status” activity like going on a trip to London to see Westminster (and I find it quite bizarre that this activity is deemed equal in worth to an EPQ!).

    Maybe I’m being harsh and what you mean to do is identify how we can work within an imperfect system, but whilst you’re right to celebrate the role schools and colleges can play in leveling the playing field and offering children opportunities they wouldn’t normally have to develop themselves, your article doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact there is something inherently classist in how different extra-curricular experiences are valued.

    I’d also say that it fails to recognise the inequality in access to cultural capital that exists between schools and not just individuals, too. The example you’ve given of Dyke House College is a good one, but I don’t think you can generalise so clearly from one college to the entire country. I’m not convinced that your average failing school is in a position to be organising regular trips to the Commons or supporting an incredibly diverse work experience programme.

    I think the Sutton report you cite is closer to a solution when it questions the worth of the personal statement in its current form entirely, with an emphasis on attributes and a limit placed on the number of experiences cited. It is fair and reasonable to value volunteering with a political party for a Politics degree; I am not convinced it is fair to say working a Saturday job is less valuable as an experience for an 18 year old’s university application than (to borrow from the Sutton report’s key findings) working “for a designer in London, as a model” or “in the marketing team of a leading City law firm”.

  2. Pete, I completely agree that employment is extremely important to build up transferrable skills which will set students up for the future. We recently held a mock interview day, and students with jobs were commended for building on skills like professionalism, responsibility and time management. However, in the context of a personal statement with limited characters, a job doesn’t always help to show why a student is passionate about pursuing a subject UNLESS it is related to a course; vocational subjects such as Medicine or Primary Education are a good example of where this might be useful. Universities like Oxford and Cambridge recommend that the majority of a personal statement focuses on academia, which is why part-time jobs have received a lower rating. It is certainly a shame that different activities aren’t weighted equally, and this does indeed seem classist, but to some extent we have to work with the system that we have been given.

    There is definitely inequality in terms of accessing cultural capital between schools, and factors such as geographic location and socio-economic background can hinder a school building up contacts and a super-curricular network. Nevertheless, I hope that the case study of Dyke House, a school facing similar issues, can help to show that it is possible to build on this capital. The Sixth Form at Dyke House was opened in 2014 specifically to help raise aspirations, and over the years provision has been strengthened to provide students with opportunities. Often this begins with local universities and Widening Participation programmes, which can be easily contacted to help bridge the gap.

    Although the value of a personal statement might be limited, as suggested by the Sutton Trust, this is the application process students have to work with. Even so, universities are now taking into account contextual factors, and so the experiences students mention in their personal statement are framed in the context of their background and educational experiences. I am not saying that part-time jobs lack value, but simply that a good personal statement benefits from being substantiated with a range of other examples as well.

Leave a Reply