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.
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.
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.