University personal statements 'further disadvantage' poor

students at a lecture Only 10% of first-year degree students are from low-income areas

Related Stories

State school pupils are often disadvantaged by the university application process in the UK, a report by an educational charity says.

The Sutton Trust says pupils from independent schools are more likely to shine in their "personal statements".

It says their applications are generally better written and list more prestigious, relevant activities than those of state-school pupils.

Many schools, private and state, offer pupils help with their statements.

And some companies offer to write them for money.

The statement is an essay applicants write about themselves that is meant to persuade universities or colleges they are right for a course.

The Sutton Trust's research, by Steven Jones of Manchester University, was based on a study of personal statements of 300 pupils with identical grades applying to the same department at "a leading university".

The charity said independent school applicants were more likely to have well-written statements, with fewer grammatical errors, "filled with high-status and relevant activities".

Dr Steve Jones, report author: "System needs to be reformed to better serve those [poorer] students"

"State school applicants, by contrast, appear to receive less help composing their statement and often struggle to draw on suitable work and life experience," it said.

'Managing a gastro pub'

The report highlights one application from an 18-year-old, who lists their work experience as working "for a designer in London; as a model; on the trading floor of a London broker's firm; with my local BBC radio station; events planning with a corporate five-star country hotel; in the marketing team of a leading City law firm… and most recently managing a small gastro pub".

The charity said for state school applicants, "work-related activity is more likely to involve a Saturday job or a school visit to a business".

And it contrasted that personal statement with this one from a state school pupil: "In Year 11 we were taken on a school trip to Cadbury World to analyse the aspects of the business. During the day we were given a presentation by the workers at Cadbury World who explained how they advertise, produce and promote their new and existing products. I felt this was particularly valuable to my understanding of the business world."

"In the final GCSE year there was an opportunity for a group of us to manage the school lockers."


Applicants are accepted on to university courses on the basis of their A-level results as well as their personal statement.

The idea of these is that applicants write about themselves and show universities or colleges they are right for a course.

They usually list achievements, in and out of school or college, interests and hobbies as well as work experience.

The charity argues that the personal statement system "further disadvantages" teenagers from low- and middle income homes.

It says it could be made fairer if there was a limit on the number of activities people could list and if there was more of a focus on what applicants might contribute to university life.

It also recommended that more schools and colleges helped pupils with their university applications and that more professions offered work placements to young people from middle- and low-income families.

Sutton Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl said: "This research suggests that the personal statement further disadvantages [applicants] from low- and middle-income backgrounds. Good state schools and colleges already help their most able students apply for places in leading universities. This should become the norm."

"But admissions processes also need to change. Personal statements should be more than an excuse to highlight past advantages."


Universities say the personal statement is "only one factor" taken in to account when offering places.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "The report does raise the important issue of how school type, background and access to professional networks can influence the experiences of young people.

Start Quote

Does Sutton Trust report really think I'm taken in by slick expensive personal statements on Ucas forms”

End Quote Prof Mary Beard on Twitter

"However, university admissions staff are highly experienced at recognising this and taking such things into account when interpreting personal statements."

Prof Mary Beard, the Cambridge classicist and television presenter, tweeted: "Does Sutton Trust report really think I'm taken in by slick expensive personal statements on Ucas forms? We're not that easy to con."

She wrote about the statements in an article for the BBC News Website last year .

Report author Steven Jones found that although the students in the study all had the same A-level grades, 70% of those who were from independent schools went on to "a leading university" but just 50% of applicants from comprehensives and sixth-form colleges did so.

The body that manages university admissions, Ucas, gives tips on writing personal statements and warns students applications are checked for plagiarism.

One teacher from a grammar school who contacted the BBC News website said he spent some time looking at "appallingly badly written personal statements with stupefyingly banal references to jobs in fish and chip shops or restaurants".

He said at his school, sixth form teachers looked at pupils' personal statements in their "breaks and rare free periods", while he knew of private schools where senior members of staff were taken off the time table "to do nothing else" but help students polish up their forms.


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    They don't want the poor to get ahead. Full stop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I can't believe that Universities are really that naive. They must be looking at how the prospective students are demonstrating their commitment to their chosen subject and that particular course and university

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    If universities don't set much store by these statements why are they needed and who demanded them in the first place? Seems to be a waste of time all round - get rid of them and rely on hard facts and interviews as in the past.

  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    If personal statements & applications include spelling & other obvious mistakes then those applicants will not be taken seriously.

    If you cannot be bothered or are unable to competantly write out a few words, then you have already proven that your standards are below levels of acceptability.

    As a mature student, I was astounded at attrocious low levels of competance of uni applicants

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    2 Minutes ago

    Can't see there's a problem. University's need the right sort of person, clearly a better quality of person is one that is privately educated. Besides there's lots of so called university's available for these people. Do we really want royalty mixing with ordinary people? I think not.
    Why the negative ratings. Best joke I've seen on here in an age!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    What you do away from the school is more important than what you do at the school. If state run schools actually allowed their more able students to have a life outside of school, there would be more to say in these personal statements. Many is the time I have had to force my kids to stop overstudying and have some fun, like I used to have whilst of a school age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I went to a secondary modern school in the 60's; therin I was taught English grammar, comprehension & literature. We were encouraged to expand our vocabulary by reading quality material, we became proficient in clause analysis & the structure & rules of grammar. In short we were taught effective communication without which, one is unemployable. It's not "State" but standards that has failed.

  • Comment number 16.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    1.J P Gruntfuttock
    Surely, if State schools got their act together and sent youngsters out into the world able to write cinstructively and coherently and to spell conventionally and accurately, there would be less of an issue.
    The examples in the article do NOT relate to the quality of the written statement, but to the experiences the students are able to relate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Can't see there's a problem. University's need the right sort of person, clearly a better quality of person is one that is privately educated. Besides there's lots of so called university's available for these people. Do we really want royalty mixing with ordinary people? I think not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    So a teacher reading the statements thinks of "stupefyingly banal references to jobs in fish and chip shops or restaurants"

    If someone wants to better themselves and makes references to experience gained from working in a chippy then what is wrong with that? If the education system has snobs like this making decisions, then those without a silver spoon have no chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    More politically motivated drivel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    As a student in univeristy from a low income family, I'm starting to find all of these stories about disadvantaged poor people not getting into university a little bit patronising.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    All three of my kids went to a state school and they all got excellent help with their statements. Having said that, I'm sure that kids at private schools benefit from the networks and connections of their parents more, so this should be taken into account - one private school near me organises trips to India and Africa to give their students a boost on personal statements

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Yet another reason to move to fully objective US-style SAT scoring for university entry, coupled with entrance exams.

    That said, universities would do well to value harsh life experience of poorer kids over some "daddy got me an internship" experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    It isn't just education, society lets those at the bottom down on every level. From Housing, Taxes, Crime, Health and Employment. The old adage of born poor and you will die poor and vice versa rings true. Welcome to Cameron's "privilege for all society".

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Children whose parents or friends of parents are doctors, lawyers, journalists etc have an advantage in that they can arrange informal "internships" or "work experience" on the "i'll scratch your back..." principle. They then have something to put on personal statements that better or equally able students (often with A*A*A) without such advantages cannot. This makes the playing field unlevel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Not any surprise. Those whop have the money get to do all the nice things universities want to see on a CV or personal statement.
    Those without have to hold down part time jobs, do community service or pariticpayte in team sports in order to bring together a good personal statement. In many poorer families from poorer areas this is not always possible.
    Change in emphasis required?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I have been involved in some undergraduate interviews. We put minimial reliance on personal statements. They usually don't reveal much and are often full of hyperbole. It was grades, references and interview perfomance that mattered. This is how most universities do things. The want a physics student to be good at physics, not waiting tables.


Page 5 of 6


More Education & Family stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.