Ucas personal statement should be reformed to make it fairer, says think tank

The Higher Education Policy Institute said short-response questions could focus on an applicant’s interest in their course and their relevant skills.

An education think tank has called for the Ucas personal statement to be reformed in the interests of fairness
An education think tank has called for the Ucas personal statement to be reformed in the interests of fairness

The lengthy personal statement students are required to write when applying to university is unfair and should be replaced by a series of short-response questions, a report has suggested.

Currently, students are required to submit a 4,000-character essay on their Ucas forms when applying for UK undergraduate programmes.

But the long-form, free-response nature of the personal statement creates unnecessary pressure for applicants, hinders transparency and exacerbates inequalities, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) said.

The education think tank suggested short-response questions could instead focus on an applicant’s interest in their course and their relevant skills.

The organisation said it analysed 164 personal statement drafts from 83 applicants from under-represented backgrounds.

It found that 83% of drafts failed to supply an evidence-based opinion about a relevant academic topic, and many applicants struggled to organise their statement effectively, with 35% struggling to write with cohesive paragraphs in at least one of their drafts.

HEPI also said there was a huge workload involved in writing a personal statement, with some applicants spending 30-to-40 hours crafting their essay.

Ucas said it will publish a report in the coming months, outlining proposals to replace “the existing approach to personal statements”.

Personal statements “have become little more than barometers of middle-class privilege and are no longer fair or fit for purpose in university admissions”, according to a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter.

Lee Elliot Major, who has called for reforms, said: “This review adds to mounting evidence that reforms are now needed to ensure statements are an effective way of capturing a student’s passion for their subject and their academic potential.”

The report’s lead author, Tom Fryer, said: “We know the Ucas personal statement is unfair. Our paper provides new evidence on the huge challenges applicants from under-represented backgrounds face. We place the blame on the format of the personal statement.

“‘Is it any wonder that an essay without a question, a “personal statement” that’s more ‘academic’ than ‘personal’, generates an ambiguity which allows those with more support to thrive?

“Universities are currently operating an admissions system that contradicts their own code of practice. The personal statement should be replaced by short-response questions.”

Steven Jones, professor of higher education at the University of Manchester and a co-author of the report, said debate on the issue has been “rumbling on for too long”.

He added: “The solution proposed here represents a compromise position and offers the first practical way forward for the sector.

“Baseline competencies would be assessed transparently, but no longer would more advantaged applicants be given free rein to catalogue prestigious work experience and extra-curricular opportunities, or to flex their other cultural and social capitals.”

Kevin Gilmartin, post-16 specialist at the Association of Schools and College Leaders (ASCL), said he welcomed the “principle of levelling the playing field in terms of university admissions”.

He said: “The research from HEPI indicates that the personal statement in its current form favours more advantaged students, as they are more likely to receive extensive support from families and other sources.

“Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be able to draw on that support, particularly where students come from families with little experience of university.

“Parents or carers of disadvantaged students are also often too busy working long hours just to make ends meet, to be able to offer any other form of support.

“Whilst teachers work hard to support students with personal statements by providing advice and guidance, they cannot solve a systemic inequity, and it is the system that needs to change.”

Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said: “We have been working on options regarding reforming the personal statement since publication of our student-centered programme of reform in May 2021.

“This has involved consulting widely with 1,200 students, over 170 teachers and advisers, and over 100 universities and colleges on our programme of reform as well as engaging with governments, regulators and the charity sector across the UK.

“We have already simplified the academic reference and will be replacing the existing approach to personal statements in the next application cycle with a more structured model to help guide students through their responses.

“A report outlining proposals will be published in the coming months and we will welcome and strongly encourage feedback to help us further shape these reforms.”

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