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 84.

    Shock news: Having enough money to afford to send your kids to private education gives them and advantage in life. Better grades to apply to university with, better personal statements, better experiences to put on the personal statements. I'm shocked, how about you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    The Sutton Trust are made to look idiots and lose all credibility by peddling this as 'research' . Anyone will know that private and grammar school pupils will genrally produce better personal statements. Sensibly used, surely personal statements are a useful tool for Universities trying to decide between two candidates with equal grades .Simply another left-wing attempt to dumb down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I am so fed up with people talking down state schools. My children attended an excellent state comprehensive and are now a state 6th form college where they are being given great support with their UCAS applications. I honestly believe that universities are bright enough to see through inflated personal statements and identify the important stuff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    For nearly all university applications, nobody reads the personal statement. It only matters for exceptionally oversubscribed courses (e.g. medicine) or in very non-standard cases (e.g. death of a parent, closure of a school). Otherwise it is of no importance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    The best thing that charities like the Sutton Trust can do would be to invest in assistance with personal statements for children from state schools whom may otherwise not get the same amount of assistance as those at independent schools. The system itself is fair. (Also, it usually doesn't matter what work experience you've done; what's more important is that you can draw from what you have done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    #5 Vampire: 'It was grades, references and interview perfomance that mattered. This is how most universities do things.'

    Most students on most courses, even at Russell Group universities, are not invited to interview. AS grades may be the result of multiple retakes - not a great predictor of potential. So the PS can carry quite a lot of weight in deciding whether to offer a place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    could be interesting if universities did not know which school the applicants were coming from.
    not saying it should be like this but the outcome could be interesting"

    I belive you also somehow need to disguise the students name/address at certain stages of the selection process - the "old boy network" is rife in Cambridge & Oxford.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    There will always be people, children or adults, who because of their basic intelligence, personality, looks, parents, money, fitness and so on who have an advantage over those that lack attributes. This is not unfair, it is reality. The way to deal with this is to support people to make the best of what they have and encourage them to see obstacles as challenge to be overcome, not a brick wall

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    I was state educated & 1st to go to uni in family, kids are in private school & while other family members in state sector so can compare both. Main reasons why private do well - better discipline (bad pupils are moved), being a swot is viewed positively, curriculum allows extras (music, etc.) & parents interested in kids education so they ensure relevant work experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Personal statements just reward showing off rather than actual academic achievement which is all that should matter. Furthermore, from my experience, there is only a weak positive correlation between A-level results and success at university, A lot of the people I know who have got or are doing PhD's didn't do particularly well at A-level. Private schools largely have better teaching.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    could be interesting if universities did not know which school the applicants were coming from.
    not saying it should be like this but the outcome could be interesting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I know plenty of people from poor backgrounds who went to state schools who ended up in good universities, got good degrees and now have good jobs.

    Their secret: They worked hard!

  • Comment number 72.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    The answer, as always, is to improve the state schools. If they were as good then no one would need to go to fee paying schools. It is also worth noting that those parents who pay for their childrens' education are, in effect, paying twice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.


    Overseas students pay approx. three times as much as UK students. They keep the universities solvent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

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

    Then the state schools need to get their act together don't they? It's not the independent schools' problem that so many state schools are crap, is it?

  • Comment number 68.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    53.James Daly
    17 Speedthrills.
    You boast of your superior education, yet manage to make six errors of spelling, punctuation and grammar in one short paragraph.
    One relaxes the rules when writing creatively within the constraints of the HYS window to make one's point. A point you obviously missed. In reply to your question, the '60s were a long time ago. Hello ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    So the money the Universities charge students is effectively an even baseline and it's just the personal statements that count?
    Does this apply across the board for all applicants?
    Even for those non-UK student applications without English as their first language?
    I think not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.


    You do realise that wasn't actually my personal statement?

    If I do need somebody to glance over my CV at some point for mistakes I'll make sure to let you know.


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