When Lord Browne’s 2010 Review of Higher Education acknowledged that for some students, “exam grades alone are not the best predictor of potential to succeed at university”, it drew on growing evidence that state-schooled university entrants perform better in their degree than identically qualified independent school students.
One response was to increase the focus on non-academic indicators of aptitude, including the UCAS personal statement. But do such indicators help university admissions tutors to cut through more rigid measures of attainment to sort high-potential applicants from similarly qualified peers? Or do they actually present more opportunities for already-advantaged applicants to advertise their class-determined credentials further?
Speaking in April 2011, universities minister David Willetts argued that: “What universities have to be able to do is to look beyond the headline A level grades to what that individual’s potential might be.”
Previously, he had given examples of the kind of indicators that might be used: “Things such as applicants’ CVs, personal statements and their potential to benefit from a particular course.”
However, closer inspection reveals that these three indicators soon collapse into one. Applicants don’t submit a CV (they simply complete a series of character-limited fields with factual information), nor do they comment on their suitability for individual courses. Only the personal statement – a 4,000-character “free response” – can be used to assess potential.
Unfortunately, academic research on this topic is scarce. Those studies that have looked at the personal statement, mostly conducted by university medical schools, find little correlation between the quality of the application and the subsequent achievement of the student.
More alarming is that no study has examined the connection between applicants’ schooling background and the nature of the personal statement they submit. This despite the 2004 Schwartz Report speculating that “some staff and parents advise to the extent that the personal statement cannot be seen as the applicant’s own work”.
To address this gap in knowledge, I began collecting some data of my own. I took one large department at one of the UK’s top universities (home to courses in social science subjects such as sociology and economics) and obtained the personal statements submitted by all 5,276 applicants for 2010 entry.
To keep comparisons fair, I needed to control for academic achievement. Meaningful conclusions could not be drawn by comparing very strong students with much weaker ones. My data was therefore restricted to applicants who subsequently achieved grades of BBB at A level. All overseas applicants were eliminated, as were all applications from mature students.
The remaining statements were tagged according to the type of school the applicant attended. Comprehensive school, 6th-form college and independent school applicants each comprised a similar share of the database; grammar school applicants a slightly smaller proportion. The final database was made up of 309 personal statements, comprising about 200,000 words of text.
The UCAS website offers several pages of advice about how to compose a personal statement, including a list of dos and don’ts, a how-to video and a mindmap PDF. Snippets of advice are provided from a series of admissions tutors, often underlining the importance of “English language and grammar at a standard suitable for entry to higher education”. Several unaffiliated student websites provide sample statements for applicants to consider and in recent years a number of “how to” books have appeared on the market.
However, writing a personal statement can prove difficult for many young people. UCAS urges candidates to “stand out from the crowd”, but, by definition, this is not something that every candidate can do. Indeed, even when it comes to superficial features of the statement, major differences arose between the quality of the statements.
In order to examine applicants’ standard of written English, the database was searched for clear examples of spelling and punctuation errors. Prescriptive rules of English, such as that involving the split infinitive, were ignored. Only unambiguous mistakes such as “I am re-sitting two modular’s” and “the skills I have already aquired” were counted.
Even though all applicants would later prove themselves to be of similar academic ability,
a clear distinction emerged between, on one hand, those from independent schools and grammar schools, and, on the other hand, those from 6th-form colleges and comprehensive schools.
For every one error found in the personal statements of the former, no fewer than four were found in the latter (see graphic 1, right).
Even more interesting was the distribution of non-quantifiable linguistic errors. These blunders were not so much about misplaced apostrophes or poor punctuation, but rather
involved more subtle forms of inappropriateness. For example, one 6th-form college applicant, clearly reaching for an academic register beyond their scope, wrote: “Hence in light of the aforementioned points all advocate my academic and enthusiasm for this course.”
Another applicant from the same background took the opposite route, underestimating the level of formality expected in the genre: “I am not really sure what makes me so interested in the subject; I don’t have an exact reason to be truthful. I love it as a whole. Most of all I love getting to the bottom of a puzzle.” Clearly, neither applicant understood the conventions of the genre or the importance that could be placed on their statement.
If differences were limited to presentational elements, one might argue that admissions tutors could make allowances for stylistic variation. However, statements were found to differ according to content as well as appearance.
For example, when encouraged to talk about relevant work experience, many responses were limited to school-facilitated opportunities and trips. “In year 11 we were taken on a school trip to Cadbury World to analyse the aspects of the business,” wrote one comprehensive school applicant. “In the final GCSE year there was an opportunity for a group of us to manage the school lockers,” wrote a 6th-form college applicant.
On the other hand, independent school applicants were often found to draw on a wide range of placements. One 18-year-old listed no fewer than seven: modelling for a London designer, trading for a firm of brokers, working for a BBC radio station, events planning with a corporate five star country hotel, working in the marketing team of a leading law firm, and managing a small gastro-pub.
Quantifying the array of work experience reported was not easy, but an estimate of the total number of roles, visits, placements, volunteering activities and other opportunities cited showed that independent school applicants’ statements boast about 50 per cent more than those from applicants of other backgrounds.
Furthermore, the nature of the work is very different. For comprehensive school and 6th-form college applicants, the work most likely takes the form of a “job”: paid, low-prestige, low-relevance and low-skill.
For independent school applicants, the work is likely to be an “experience”: unpaid, high-prestige, high-relevance and high-skill. Indeed, the “jobs” to “experience” ratio was found to change from 4:3 to 1:6 between the two groups (see graphic 2, right).
Findings therefore echo a recent report by the Education and Employers Taskforce, which drew on a YouGov survey of young adults relating to the quantity and quality of the work experience received by 987 young people.
For those who attended independent schools, 42 per cent reported that work experience helped them secure a place at university (and 13 per cent felt it helped them a lot). For those at grammar school, the proportion fell to 28 per cent (and 11 per cent), and for those at comprehensive school only 25 per cent felt that work experience was of benefit (and just six per cent said that it helped them a lot).
The respondents were all young people who had undertaken work experience. The difference is that some knew how to exploit it in the university admissions process while others did not.
When it came to extra-curricular activities, the pattern was similar. To borrow Bordieu’s terms, independent school applicants often drew on cultural capital (“I did a Cordon Bleu cookery course at the Tante Marie School, in London”), social capital (“visiting my uncle in America, observing his aircraft brokerage and marketing company”), and economic capital (“during my gap year I plan to do a ski season in Méribel”).
However, in the absence of such opportunities, applicants from 6th-form college and comprehensive schools drew on less genre-appropriate activity (“I attend a lot of gigs and the experience and thrill of the atmosphere puts me on a complete high”; “I regularly watch Match of the Day and I enjoy the diversity of the Champions League”; “sometimes I just go on walks and listen to my iPod”).
While one could argue that the wider range of work and life experience drawn upon by independent and grammar school applicants make them better suited to undergraduate study, one must acknowledge that these opportunities are ultimately the product of advantage.
Non-academic indicators of potential, such as the personal statement, are not a proxy for “fairness”. Indeed, if greater attention is paid to such indicators, existing inequities in the educational system will only be reinforced at the point of university entry.
There are ways in which the playing field could be levelled. For example, opportunities for state-educated young people to receive high quality work experience are clearly rarer than in the independent sector. The personal statement itself could also be restructured, perhaps asking applicants to consider the usefulness of one work experience and one extra-curricular activity only.
However, the evidence also points to huge differences in the levels of help, guidance and advice received by applicants of different backgrounds. A better solution, therefore, may be to do away with the personal statement entirely, and rely instead on appropriately-contextualised academic achievement.
• Dr Steven Jones is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Manchester University. You can email him at email@example.com