This article is more than 1 year old

What’s actually wrong with admissions?

It may well be a good idea to rethink the personal statement, but for Katherine Lloyd Clark there are other admissions issues that are more pressing
This article is more than 1 year old

Katherine Lloyd Clark is Assistant Director (Student Access, Recruitment and Admissions) at the University of Exeter.

Personal statements may very well play to the strengths of the middle classes – but the continued debate about them just reinforces a skewed middle class view of what is really going on in university admissions.

The debate on reforming personal statements is, for the most part diversionary. Let’s focus on the real issues.

Tangible dynamics

Universities themselves and the schools they support conspire to hide the real dynamics of HE admissions from the applicant and parent community. Universities are afraid to reveal that their processes have become progressively impersonal over time. At the start of my career (only 25 years ago though, I admit, a life sentence), I wrote individual letters and emails to enquirers. I met them regularly for individual admissions consultations.

Now we dispatch beautiful branded CRM messages in bulk to inboxes, portals, and apps, praying that we don’t make a mistake affecting thousands. Our offer processes are automated, at least in part, grouping those with the same grades ready for release when the data analysts say it’s safe. Mechanistic and mechanised processes underpin the whole thing. Soon, a university will know more about its applicants (if they consent) than Tesco knows about its Clubcard holders.

On the school and college side there is also subterfuge. There’s a conspiracy of silence around who actually reviews most UCAS forms – admin staff in centralised teams rather than academic admissions tutors. There’s scant effort to rebuff parental assumptions that interviews are prevalent and the admissions process a genuine ‘chance to impress’. The independents – who are slaves to parental demand – are desperate to demonstrate that their expensive HE guidance adds value and so offer more parents’ evenings to perpetuate these myths than others. And they are most fixated on the attributes and experiences they like to think “help with UCAS”.

Add-ons and statement juice

I lose count of the sessions I’ve attended where the importance of leadership experience, Ten Tors (I’m in Devon), Young Enterprise, volunteering and sport occupy way more of the ubiquitous slides than any academic value-add an expensive education provides. It’s no wonder applicants so often miss the main purpose of the personal statement as a mini-academic essay.

Amid all this, the applicants themselves, quite rightly, just want some agency over their own future and to believe that the application process will deliver it. This is entirely reasonable (and the thing that keeps me in this game, actually). But unless you apply to Oxford or Cambridge or, arguably, a discipline that offers an interview, agency will largely escape you. Volume dictates this. UCAS is flagging that there will be a million undergraduate applicants by 2026.

Lee Elliot Major is right that uneven access to extra-curricular and extension activities is a problem. Ideally we would want our young people everywhere to be able to find their passion in life, find themselves and experience the support of enthusiastic and engaged parents and teachers to do so. But does this inequality create a barrier for HE admissions? For the most part, no. Are personal statements a key element of the problem? For the most part, no. Predicated and achieved grades still matter most, sadly.

Another number

Lack of time, resource and a consensus around how to spot and nurture academic potential are the real limitations. As a sector, and at Exeter, we work incredibly hard on this through our contextual offers and extended enrichment programmes such as Realising Opportunities or Exeter Scholars. In defined and smaller cohorts, we can see the individual and support them. But for the majority – it’s a numbers game.

The conclusion? Our admissions systems reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the HE system they support. Like the education we are now offering, they are increasingly impersonal, mechanistic and volume-driven. The key question is how long it will take for the fans to rebel.

7 responses to “What’s actually wrong with admissions?

  1. “here’s a conspiracy of silence around who actually reviews most UCAS forms – admin staff in centralised teams rather than academic admissions tutors.”

    In all my time as an admissions tutor I don’t think I ever saw an UCAS form or personal statement and this was at three different Universities.

    Even if I did I would not trust them simply because as an experienced academic when young family members apply to University I write their statements! (on the chance someone does read it).

  2. All this is aggravated by the unreliability of GCSE, AS and A level grades – especially when grades are used as a criterion to create two piles: Grade A, yes; Grade B, no. On average, across all subjects, about 1 grade in 4 is wrong, with wide variations by subject – about 4 wrong in every 100 wrong in Maths; 15 wrong in every 100 in Biology; 26 wrong in every 100 in Economics; 46 wrong in every 100 in History. The reliability also varies by mark within subject, and for every subject (including Maths), there is only a 50/50 chance of being awarded the right grade for all scripts marked at, or very close to, any grade boundary.

    To make that all real: in summer 2022, about 6 million grades were awarded, of which about 1.5 million were wrong. For every 10 students sitting 8 GCSEs (as most do), only 1 has a certificate on which all 8 grades are right, and 9 have a certificate on which at least one grade is wrong. But no one knows which grade, in which subject. And there is no right of appeal (except in the relatively infrequent case of a proven “marking error”). This all does great damage.

    1. ..oops… sorry… that should of course say “about 4 wrong in every 100 in Maths” !

  3. Although it is not mentioned explicitly, this piece seems to be – in part – a response to a paper that we at HEPI published just a few days ago.

    If anyone wants to read the case for change to the UCAS personal statement, our press release (including an endorsement from Lee Elliot Major, who is mentioned above, and a link to the full paper) is here:

    This is an important debate to be having and it is good to see Exeter’s official views set out like this as UCAS continue deciding what to do. Thanks.

    1. Great debate. Please note that this is not an ‘official’ Exeter position though informed by awareness of current practice there and across the sector. KLC

  4. I’m a school UCAS coordinator, and I think there is a lot of sense in this article, but I also think that it misses the point of some of what schools are doing. After all, Young Enterprise, DofE and so on are worthwhile things, which is why universities facilitate equivalents at their level, and while a uni might not have the capacity to read someone’s PS, the idea that something ‘looks good on UCAS’ might be the carrot that a school needs to get someone out of their bedroom and off their phone. One of the losses with these changes is that the PS is the first draft of the covering letter that graduates need to be able to write a few years hence. It is a bit stressful to write one, but then adult life generally is.

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