University personal statements 'further disadvantage' poor

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

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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.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    You're right, but it boils down to money. Money to get better teachers, facilities, which leads to a better work ethic, more oppurtunities in and out of school and help writing a flash personal statement etc
    It's not about dumbing down, it's about fairness. Does someone who happens to have wealthy parents deserve more oppurtunities?

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    People from poor backgrounds can't afford university. Education is now packaged for the highest bidder and that bidder is usually foreign.

    Then employers will complain that British kids aren't as good as foreigners and they need to hire more foreigners.

    Our education made us a 1st world nation. We should not be selling it to rivals who will use it to crush us in business later. Its so stupid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    No offence to university students but the sooner the reality that more kids should be taught vocationally from 14, with real life skills added, the better for all of us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Change nothing. If kids have any ability they'll soon work it out. Dumb it down and they learn nothing - hardly great for someone wanting academic greatness. I can't believe money is wasted on these pointless left-wing inspired waste-of-space "studies". Posh kids have connections, others have guile, life-experience and commitment. Those with nous will be fine!

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    @5 Vampire

    Weighting of offers varies massively depending on the course. In physics, perhaps the PS is far less important than the grades; however, for arts subjects (and medicine, for example), the personal statements are much more important than academic performance when it comes to the initial conditional offers (obviously they still have to meet the entry requirements, which will be high).

  • Comment number 59.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    When I was teaching, most of my 6th form students were working in shops +restaurants because they needed the money, as they were from working class backgrounds.How dare another teacher describe this as "banal". They didn't have the time or financial resources to work for free in exciting places in order to gain "good CV material". They got help with the statements but knew they were up against it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Comment number 10 is an Editors' Pick
    All three of my kids went to a state school and they all got excellent help with their statements.
    May I gently point out that that had your children been educated to university entrance standards they would not have needed help with their statements.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Applications are the first step in the decision making process.

    The weighting applied to personal statements will no doubt vary between institutions and between interviewers.

    But all evidence that differentiates candidates will be reviewed. The personal interview is the most important way of getting close to the character, motivation and aspiration of the applicant and thus success or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    The article gives a state school example ( visiting a factory ) and a public school example ( city trader, model, pub manager ), both from 18 year olds.

    The state school example looks very plausible to me; but the public school one is written by either someone with an overinflated opinion of themselves, or a lair.

    I know which one I'd pick if I were making a choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Rich daddies are more likely to make donations to the educational establishment that takes their kids, that is why rich kids are given more places.Likewise foreign students pay more. If they and others think it is anything to do with them having a 'superior' education time to rethink. The rich are exploited as are the poor..

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    17 Speedthrills.

    You boast of your superior education, yet manage to make six errors of spelling, punctuation and grammar in one short paragraph.

    Is it a long time since you left school?

    43. bitofrealism Are you sure you don't mean: '...I and most people I know were blessed with the skills to write...'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    So rich kids have more opportunities to ski, skydive and do interesting stuff outside of School than poor kids? Would never have guessed that!

    my role as pretty much a recruitment agent who comes from a working class background, i can assure you these youngsters get no favour from me when applying for positions, in fact its probably the opposite.

  • Comment number 51.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Now if only they could be texted in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Time and time again, we see that kids from private schools go on to a brighter, better future. Nepotism and social contacts can't explain all of the figures. Clearly, these kids are being taught something that our state kids aren't. So why isn't the state system following the curriculum of the private schools? Anyone would think they actually want to produce an elite group to govern us.. oh, wait.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    "independent school applicants were more likely to have well-written statements, with fewer grammatical errors"

    if students cant write a well written statement without any grammatical errors how can they complain about not getting into uni? the point of the PS is to find who is best for the course, if students cant write a statement how are they to write essays, exams and a dissertation?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    University applications should just be based on academic results. 17/18 year olds cannot be expected to have a great deal of life experience or even a clear vision of where they expect to be in 5 years. The same could be said for the competency questions on job applications. All they prove is someone is good at BS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    The fairest thing would surely be to do away with personal statements and any other qualitative things that could influence the univerisities decision. The highest scoring people get in, irrespective of their class. A few criminals might slip through the net, but I'm sure they would have just lied on their personal statement anyway...

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    This report suggests that grammatical and spelling mistakes are less likely from personal statements from independent school....

    The teaching quality from an 'average' state school will never be able to compete against an 'average' independent school. Regardless, there should be no excuse for grammar/spelling, if the statement is typed on a PC in school or public library using Word or similar


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