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 104.

    Having mentored Oxbridge applicants for a decade, I know that personal statements matter. When state school students were advised on contents and style, most got interviews, even if no-one at the school did before. Place offers for the best-read (and least nervous) followed. Dons now also use tests but, as I stressed in my guide, OXBRIDGE ENTRANCE, schools must also provide academic enrichment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Cash or Cheque?

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Yes! Let's copy what private schools get right!
    1. Small classes
    2. No naughty or 'stupid' children
    3. Sit kids down & direct teach all day (because OFSTED won't 'fail' them for not having 'engaging' activities every 20 mins through lectures!)
    4. Plenty of money for extra-curricular & sports facilities.
    The govt should do this for everyone - can you spot the flaws?????

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Personal statements are utterly useless. Only rich students have the opportunity to talk about impressive trips and jobs. Then those doing humanities subjects never get interviews so genuine hard-working students lose out on places while others lie about their interest in the subject by listing books they've never read. Truthful hard-working state school students lose out on all level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Daddy can afford it, I can't afford it, should sum up most applications.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    The selfish bigoted 'work hard = deserving' argument emerges again! I have MSc level quals & work 60+hrs pw but choose to work helping others rather than earn loads of money just for me, me, me!

    And the smug, rich bigots benefit while they fill their own pockets, justify their greed and give nothing back!
    Mary Beard note: rich kids with EQUAL GRADES are MORE successful - utterly disgraceful!

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Here's the deal on what to say: just say what you like about your subject and why. And say you like reading.

    University lecturers are intelligent: it's our job to read between the lines. We know what we're doing. Whatever you do, don't get (far less pay) anyone to write your statement for you- it sticks out a mile. We want people who are still learning and growing- not people who have stopped.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Is it just me or is the state-educated student's statement better than that of the privately-educated one? The privately-educated one name-drops a lot but it's all rather vague: working for a designer or at a stockbroker could mean she just made the tea for them, for all we know. As for being a model: how is that relevant?! At least the state-educated one tells you what happened on the trip!

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Any idiot can 'state what they intend to do' at Uni. It means nothing, what IS important is what evidence they have for things they HAVE done. My daughter went to private school and went with a charity to Romania to build a house. her friends from state school went to Borneo on similar work. It can be done by both sectors. Those who get off their backside and DO something, deserve the rewards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    The college I teach at puts enormous pressure on students to make university applications. There are significant financial incentives for the college to do this. Full time tutors are employed to "help" students with their applications. Often these tutors lack the experience to do this properly so teaching staff have the task foisted on them. The whole process is an exercise in deceit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    As a tutor in a (state-funded) sixth form college, I developed considerable expertise in coaching students in writing effective personal statements. It's not rocket science, you just get them to explain why they are enthused about whatever they have chosen to study. Everyone got offers! Now made redundant, but if the BBC would like my resources to share with sixth-form students nationwide, do ask.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    I really wish people would ask Universities what they do with personal statements, instead of assuming they know. Personal statements are often not read, and when they are, they usually make no difference to the person's entry prospects. We are not that interested in what people have done before University (unless they're mature students), as we assume their interests will change anyway.

  • Comment number 92.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    "Personal statements should be more than an excuse to highlight past advantages."
    Either these advantages are genuinely advantages in that the demonstrate that the writer will be a better student as a result, or are not genuine advantages, in which case they will be ignored.
    It is the job of universities to recruit students best suited to their course, not to overcome all inequality in the world

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    More work experience should be offered to state school students, or have free volunteering opportunities shown to them. For example there are plenty of fundraising opportunities such as bike rides for the BHF and joining St. Johns ambulance is also free.However everyone has the capacity to google and have some initaitive.
    More help should be offered but lowering the standard doesnt help anyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    So instead of trying to improve the provision of state schools, we should undermine achievement in private schools. Surely we should be trying to improve the quality of education in ALL schools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Please, take it from the me and others who teach at Universities up and down the country- personal statements make either no difference at all, or very little. They are often not even read. Tutoring people to write better ones will not advantage them. It would be a simple waste of time. Spend the time reading more books instead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    @70.James Daly
    Overseas students pay approx. three times as much as UK students. They keep the universities solvent"

    Depends which Uni's you refer to. Cambridge & Oxford own an awful lot of land (& assets) up & down the UK. Trinity College, Cambridge for example own Felixstowe docks and receive huge income from it. Many colleges have stocks/shares as well and receive donations in wills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Re: 20. Happiness is destroying the world for an Ipad

    Could this rant have been submitted as a satire? It argues that those who submit personal statements including spelling mistakes will not be taken seriously - yet there are no fewer than three spelling errors in that short posting!

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Like so many have said, instead of just dumbing down why isn't the state sector looking at what the private sector gets right & copying it. If the government is serious about increasing social mobility why not increase the careers advice in schools & open up the public sector so more state pupils can get work experience there.


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