The personal statement is a symbol of that nerve-wracking transitory period between school and university, amongst opening your student bank account, visiting open days, and the tingling anticipation of Fresher’s Week on the horizon. Written by every sixth form student as a precedent to CV writing, it urges them to express their interest in their course, the institution, and what exactly they have to offer themselves.
When it was first introduced, the personal statement was intended to be a ‘non-academic indicator of a student’s capabilities, bringing fairness to the admissions process’. With the simplicity and straightforward nature of the process you may not see any reason why this may not be the case. However, earlier this year, UCAS executives announced that they may completely overhaul the university application process, alluding to the inaccessible and potentially oppressive system that underpins university admissions. This was news to many, but to those who have experienced such inaccessibility first-hand, the reformation has been long overdue.
I spoke to Leanne: a 22 year old who, after leaving school as an apprentice at 17, has been preparing her personal statement with the intention of enrolling in university as a mature student. Coming from an area ranked amongst the lowest in terms of social mobility in the UK, I was curious as to how her experiences in school compared to now.
Charlotte: Do you feel your school supported you in the uni application process before you left?
Leanne: No, not that I can recall. Only when I told them I wanted to leave…
She continued to explain how her school hadn’t provided any information or advice for those who were questioning university, with the general consensus among peers that ‘college or apprenticeships were for stupid people’ making her reluctant to pursue her chosen path.
‘That was the mindset of young teenagers’, Leanne reasoned, ‘They weren’t taught enough about the different options, and made to think uni was the only and right option they had’.
With state schools being reported as providing less support to their students when constructing their personal statements – with some apparently not discussing the process at all – there is a clear link between a student’s standards of schooling and their chances of securing a place at their desired uni. The Sutton Trust produced a report on how the university admissions process is ‘shaped by applicants’ educational background’, with students from more established, independent schools having carefully composed statements, full of ‘high status, relevant activities’ and academic language – whereas those from state schools had significantly less experience to draw upon.
Furthermore, a study by the OECD revealed that England’s young people fall at the bottom of the global league table for basic literacy and numeracy skills – with Minister for Skills and Enterprise, Matthew Hancock stating that the report ‘shows England has some of the least literate and numerate young adults in the developed world’. Such research indicates that due to this disparity, the university system is skewed in favour of those who are already in an incredibly privileged social position. Leanne agrees and mentions her educational disadvantage as a significant factor in making her decision:
‘I didn’t apply (to uni) as I wanted to gain experience. To know if that was what I wanted to go into before jumping into a university course. As I am young I want to be sure it is the right choice for me.’
The Sutton Trust report suggests that a limit should be placed on the number of experiences students can write about in their personal statements, with more importance being placed on personal qualities over achievements. Despite this suggestion being written in back in 2012, it is only just being considered now, a decade onward.
The original intentions behind the personal statement, as stated on the UCAS website, were to direct students to ‘ensure they stand out from the crowd’. Standing out in an academic context is always a good thing right? Maybe for some, but not for those who do so for the wrong reasons. Here, the issue of accessibility extends from the limitations of one’s social class and branches out to other protected characteristics. Students with disabilities or neurological conditions may find themselves at a loss when it comes to selling a socially-acceptable version of themselves – as over 13 years in an educational setting would have shaped that students perspective accordingly, for better or for worst. They typically find themselves facing certain assumptions and stigmas that their own teachers and peers place on them, which goes on to shape their own sense of self-worth and capabilities. If your own teachers don’t believe you can do it, they must have a point right?
I also spoke to Loren, who is currently attempting to resume her education after being forced to drop out of school and college due to her untreated ADHD, exacerbated by her poverty and lack of support system. Having barely scraped through school, she recalls teachers actually dissuading her from attempting A-Levels due to her declining performance while at the same time not making the effort to address the underlying issues causing it.
‘I’m actually sad and angry looking back at that. They didn’t see me trying hard and putting my full efforts in, just treated me like I’m bad…having talks because I have so much potential, and I could do better if I just tried…’
Naturally, feeling as though her teachers had given up on her had shaped her self-esteem and deterred her from education altogether. However it is not just Loren who suffers. ADHD and other neurological conditions have been associated with poor educational outcomes, and those with said conditions have a significantly lower chance of graduation compared to neurotypical peers - and that’s only those who have been diagnosed. There’s no accounting for those like Loren who, due to a lack of support, fly under the radar and are simply written off as ‘stupid, naughty, or don’t want to learn’.
Charlotte: Is there anything your school tried to do to help you at all, especially as your struggling was so obvious?
Loren: There were things they suggested to help me focus, like music. I wanted to do piano lessons, but I couldn’t afford them because they were – what, £30 per lesson? They’re not accessible.
Loren finishes by stating how she supposes dropping out was for the better in some ways. ‘I never had money to buy proper clothes for sixth form or college. I was always worried about interviews and not being professional’. This is an optimistic take for sure, but the fact that youths such as Loren don’t have access to the most basic necessities to continue their education is alarming, and one that highlights the need to review the system that limits university applications to only those who are neurotypical and economically advantaged.
Revising the personal statement will start to reframe the expectations placed on students, particularly those who face disadvantage - rectifying the issues of accessibility and making it less exclusive, so aspiring students are less disheartened. You want to start your journey into higher education excited and overflowing with ideas and passion for your subject – not ‘meh’ because you’ve been convinced that you’re only just enough.
It isn’t just a simple revision but serves as a chance for UCAS to drastically raise the ‘fairness in the admissions process’ that they originally claimed all those years ago. Being underrepresented enough in academia as it is, the review of the UCAS personal statement process may be a step in the right direction when it comes to accessibility and breaking down the barriers that otherwise limit such demographics in their academic pursuits.
Following UCAS’ recent discussion with various officials in the higher education sector in May, it appears that if the reform goes ahead then we may see such changes as early as 2024. If it leads to higher aspirations and greater life choices for disadvantaged students like Leanne who have had limited academic or career guidance, or those like Loren who have had less opportunities due to financial or medical constraints, this may indeed be the breakthrough we need to start levelling the university playing field and ensuring true fairness and inclusivity in the admissions process.
Charlotte Ward Push Editorial and Media Assistant
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