Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Let’s trust admissions officers on personal statements

You may have seen that personal statements have been mentioned in the news lately. To address the concerns this might have raised, UCAS’ Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook, has written about the value of this piece of writing and the important part it plays in the admissions process.

Mary Curnock Cook, Chief Executive at UCAS
I have been reading the recent press comments on the place of the UCAS personal statement with some concern.

Although it is undoubtedly true that admissions practitioners for some courses will put more emphasis on the personal statement than others, applicants who don’t bother writing a strong statement are taking a huge risk. That’s because it is highly likely that it will carry significant weight for some or all of their five choices. In some cases, it might be the decider between two or more applicants who are otherwise similarly qualified. 

Here are some other important points.

  • Admissions officers don’t need to guess – they know whether they are reading a statement from an independent school or a state school applicant, or indeed from a mature applicant. The information is also on the application so they will read the statement in that context. 
  • Admissions officers are highly experienced in using the information on the personal statement. They know perfectly well that an applicant from a more advantaged background is more likely to have access to work placements or travel opportunities. That’s why most guidance emphasises the importance of focusing on the applicant’s motivation and ambition to apply for a particular course. 
  • Personal statements are being read by professionals who know an awful lot about how people express themselves on paper – they’ve read thousands of statements and will be quick to spot one which is overly manicured by a helpful parent or teacher. Of course teachers (or parents) should give guidance and check the statement through for errors, gaps, or point out things that applicants might not have considered including. We encourage this and nobody ever said the personal statement should be written without support.
  • The UCAS Fraud and Verification Unit runs checks on all personal statements. Any statement which contains too much material which replicates phraseology on other statements, or on publicly available material, will be flagged by our system. 
  • The personal statement is an opportunity to show personality and flair. The truth is that much of the other information on the application will be very similar to that of thousands of other applicants who have similar qualifications and predicted grades. The statement is one opportunity to reveal a bit of personality.

Having had three of my own children go through the process, I am also aware of just how important the process is in making the right choice of course. If applicants have simply chosen a course that looks interesting, having to write a statement to support that choice focuses the mind on whether it really is the right course and if it makes sense for the individual given that three years of intensive study lie ahead. By the way, none of my children wanted me to help them with their statements – I wonder why?

Don’t forget, in many cases the statement is the only piece of written work a university will see before accepting an applicant – and if an interview is part of the selection process, students are certain to be asked to expand on the arguments within it.

But the best advice is from admissions professionals themselves. Last year, we asked a selection of admissions tutors to tell us what they looked for in a personal statement. The time and care they took to answer shows the value of this work as part of a rounded assessment of a candidate.

You can read what our contributors had to say in our Advisers’ Blog.


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