The Sutton Trust has published some research on personal statements in UCAS applications being used as a qualitative indicator of the likely aptitudes of a student. They warn against inherent problems with such statements, which may account in part for the dramatic over-representation of Independent school children in elite Universities. I quote their executive summary in full.
The UCAS personal statement is an important non-academic indicator that many UK universities use as an integral part of their admissions processes. Up to half a million personal statements are written every year.
This report is the first to consider how they are shaped by applicants’ educational background. 309 personal statements were analysed, all of which were submitted to the same department of the same Russell Group university by students with the same A-level results.
Academic indicators, such as A-level grades, correlate closely with students’ school type and socio-economic status. However, non-academic indicators, such as the personal statement, are often assumed to bring greater fairness to university admissions processes. This research challenges that assumption, finding that independent school applicants are more likely to submit statements that are carefully crafted, written in an academically appropriate way, and filled with high status, relevant activities. By contrast, state school applicants appear to receive less help composing their statement, often struggling to draw on suitable work and life experience.
There are big differences in presentation. Clear writing errors are three times more common in the personal statements of applicants from sixth form colleges as those from independent schools.
Independent school applicants not only list the highest number of work-related activities, they also draw on the most prestigious experiences, often involving high-level placements and professionalised work-shadowing. One 18-year-old applicant’s experience includes 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 5 star country hotel … in the marketing team of a leading City law firm … and most recently managing a small gastro pub.”
For state school applicants, work-related activity is more likely to be a Saturday job or a school visit to a business. School type is therefore an accurate predictor of key features that may affect admission tutors’ decisions. In the sample, these advantages translate into improved outcomes: 70% of applicants from independent schools ended up at one of the highest ranked universities in the UK but only 50% of those from comprehensives and colleges reached a similar destination.
This could be a factor in explaining the under-representation of some school types at highly selective universities. “Ensure you stand out from the crowd” is UCAS’s advice to applicants when they compose their personal statement.
This research suggests that even among applicants with identical A-level results, some are much better equipped to do so than others.
I am left wondering if these concerns should have some resonance with Law Firms who are faced with the unenviable task of distinguishing between a sea of students with 2:1s. I’ve got some sympathy with the thrust of the Sutton Trust research when one hears of law firms distinguishing students because, they like students with Grade 8 Oboe, because they know how to butter and eat a bread roll at dinner, or because they like students who can self-fund voluntary work abroad (all real examples). I shudder at these examples partly because my experience up until very late into University involved doing a mean Peter Hook impression on New Order covers (cf Oboe); being dextrous with excuses for eating kebabs whilst a vegetarian; and a solitary claim to fame that an actress on the kids programme Playschool once told my father I was the best at something (a state secret). None of these I’d have dreamed of putting on a CV. The real reason for shuddering though is that learning the Oboe or self-funding voluntary work are more or less impressive depending on the context of the particular student. The key question is: which crowd is this applicant standing out from.
Of course, many firms increasingly work very hard to look at real aptitudes and skills in their selection of trainees. It is to be hoped that a more meritocratic recruitment system can be evolved. Work from the US is interesting in this regard. It suggests successful lawyers are predicted not by the usual signifiers of status but by performance at law school. Perhaps it is time for law schools to facilitate this process by looking at a more refined gradation of students than the 2:2, 2:1, 1 distinctions currently in operation. Firms increasingly ask for class ranking, for instance, but I suspect the accuracy of the data they get back via references is of extremely variable quality.