What costs the pursuit of personal statement experiences?

Written by: Paolo Canonica | Published:
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Are young people’s teenage years being lost because of the pressure to experience a range of ‘personal-statement-worthy’ activities for their CVs? Paolo Canonica is worried

This is probably going to be the worst personal statement you read this year. I am not going to write about how brilliant and special I am, because I believe the kind of competitive self-aggrandisement this system encourages is killing childhood and adolescence.

It used to be the case that in your teenage years you could spend many an unhappy hour in your bedroom moping over nihilistic arguments and listening to bad rock music to make you feel better about the banal normality of your family life.

Now, however, if you have not used your late teens to climb a mountain, found several societies at school, secure an internship at an international firm, build a working model of an Icelandic volcano, and on the side, find the time to help disadvantaged children in the local area, you have no chance of getting to a “good” university.

The consequence, I believe, is that we are being forced to grow up far too early. Our existential angst and teenage rebellion has to be over and done with by the age of 16. This means that we are no longer free to spend the last few years of our childhood staring at girls (but not having the courage to do anything about it), or enjoying the few hours of “free” time we have once homework is finished, or simply reading a good novel.

Time has to be “productive”, and unless you plan to study literature at university (and how would you know that, aged 12?) then novels are a bit of a waste of time.

I have not climbed a mountain. Nor have I secured that internship, or volunteered at the local soup kitchen. I have gone to lessons, enjoyed them, done my homework – mostly well – and been a normal teenager. I have spent entire afternoons in my bedroom trying to get a decent tune out of my guitar.

I have spent far too many hours thinking about girls, and even written some abortive love letters which I never sent. I have read many, many novels while I waited for my parents to stop arguing downstairs so that I could finally go and make myself a sandwich without intruding. I am not God’s gift to humanity, nor do I think that studying anything at university could make me that.

Don’t get me wrong: I won’t be a bad student. I got mostly As and Bs at GCSE and will probably replicate that at A level, and I imagine that, unless something drastic happens, I’ll probably come out with a 2:1 at the end of the day. I will go to some lectures and hate them; I’ll go to others and love them. Revising will be a chore, but I’ll do it, and I’ll probably even join some clubs and societies although I doubt that I’ll have the drive or confidence to lead them.

I’ll make some drunken mistakes at university, and hopefully that will teach me not to repeat them too often once I graduate.

I like learning about this subject and I hope you give me a place, but really the reason I’m applying is that everyone in my school does so as a matter of routine. This is probably because our parents are middle class and could not fathom telling their friends that their son is doing an Apprenticeship – that, and the fact that everyone keeps telling me that university is “a life experience”. I guess what they really mean is that it is a rite of passage into adulthood, because I refuse to believe the patronising alternative: that three years spent outside formal education is so dull that no useful experience could possibly derive from it.

So there you have it: I am not the best. But I am the most: I am the estate agent who will sell you your retirement home, and the journalist who will write about it in the tabloids when scandal erupts; I am the nurse who will tend to you in your old age and I am the accountant who will do the maths for your inheritance tax. I am the engineer who will design a tiny bit of the last car you will buy, and the manager of the council department which will fine you for driving in a bus lane. I am your future.

Give me a place?

When it comes to university, today’s students have it much harder than those of 20 years ago. Beyond the fact that course fees mean many start adulthood in debt, and that student grants are a distant memory, the difficulties start much earlier.

The competition for “good” universities is fiercer than it was, to the point that even outstanding students are not guaranteed entry unless they cram their teenage years with personal-statement-worthy activities.

This, I believe, is a major contributor to the increase in mental health problems that schools have observed in pupils over the past 15 years. But why is competition so fierce?

I suggest that what is pushing so many students to compete for all the same places is a middle class parental bias that places the value of a university degree above Apprenticeships or starting a business.

And perhaps we, as teachers, have a part to play too. In our quest to increase students’ expectations, drive and ambition, we have perhaps helped to create a scale in children’s minds which places a desire for a university education as more ambitious and worthy than the alternatives.

This is not inevitable: in countries such as Switzerland or Germany many middle class parents realise that their child will probably earn more as a qualified electrician than as a graduate office clerk, and do not push their children into university so eagerly.

A societal change which dents the traditional class barriers and places blue collars and white collars on the same level will never be easy, but for the health and happiness of future generations, I believe it is worth fighting for.

  • Paolo Canonica is head of psychology at Ibstock Place School in London, a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society.


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