For students in year 12 it is probably the hardest thing they’ve had to sell: themselves. Blood, sweat, toil and – in many cases – school, parental and financial help goes into writing the Ucas personal statement. But with the cap on student numbers lifted and universities desperate to fill places, will anyone actually read them?
In the past, it was largely admissions tutors working in departments reviewing personal statements. But as applications have increased – some universities get over 45,000 applicants per year – many institutions now employ external “professional selectors” to do the job for them. As a result, although some universities do scrutinise them carefully, many statements won’t even make it through an initial paper sift, according to Paul Teulon, director of admissions at King’s College London. Others are simply looked at for an “overall sense check”.
“My instinct is that they’re probably not being read by teaching staff and I suspect they are being read less and less,” says Steven Jones, researcher in higher education at Manchester Institute of Education. As participation has gone up and many universities have become less selective, he says, the attention paid to personal statements has lessened even further. “Even the more elite universities need to fill places and beneath that level there’s a whole raft that don’t even look at them at all.”
Perhaps a reduced focus on statements would be fairer on students anyway. The 2004 Schwartz Report suggested that personal statements often were not the applicant’s own work, which might tell you more about a candidate’s socio-economic background than their ability. Ucas didn’t accept the report’s recommendation to change the process, even though figures show that the most advantaged applicants are six times more likely to enter a high-tariff institution compared to the most disadvantaged.
Lee Elliot Major, CEO of the Sutton Trust, questions the usefulness of the personal statement. There’s a whole industry built around them, he says, because there’s so much at stake. “Private tutors and former graduates prepare and write them for these young people. You have to look at the system and ask the question: is it fair? I don’t think it is. Ucas should review it.”
Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, said a survey of 118 universities by Ucas in 2016 found that 89% of them used personal statements in their initial decision making.
“Writing a personal statement gives students the opportunity to use their own words to create their own stories about their ambitions and to advocate for what they want,” Marchant said.
Some departments have already changed their admissions policies. “We now use them for 50% of ratings of candidates and I anticipate that will fall in years to come,” explains Simon Atkinson, who interviews medicine, veterinary and dentistry students at the University of Bristol, and thinks that personal statements will eventually not be used in medicine at all. “They’re too unreliable, too easy to get a lot of help with writing, and too easy to write things that aren’t terribly true,” he says.
Independent schools tend to like personal statements because they advantage their own students – and these schools are powerful lobbyists in the higher education sector. But are there any reasons to keep them? The statement arguably helps to inform the overall picture of an applicant. Some students may meanwhile have extenuating reasons for under-performance, and a statement can let universities know about it.
What do universities look for in a personal statement?
In cases where a decision is not clear cut, academics say a strong personal statement can tip the balance in the applicant’s favour. Students might get lower grade offers based on how good their personal statement is. But how often does this actually happen? There is little transparency or consistency in the way they are read. Even within universities, it differs between departments.
As for students submitting applications next week (15 January), best not worry about who’s reading it – just make sure you send it off on time and follow our dos and don’ts.
(Image: Polka Dot/Thinkstock)
Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate school or trying to get into graduate programs, many applications require a letter of intent or personal statement. Personal statements are one of the most important parts of the application and sometimes the deciding factor for admission.
Personal statements give a better understanding of who you are, beyond the rigid constraints of the “fill-in-the-blank” application.
Like many around this time of the year, I am finishing my graduate school applications. Looking for advice and guidance, I decided to compare different schools’ personal statement requirements and ask admissions offices for advice. Here’s what I found:
1. Be yourself
The Columbia Graduate School for Journalism encourages students to write about family, education, talents or passions. They want to hear about significant places or events in your life; about books you have read, people you have met or work you’ve done that has shaped the person you have become.
Schools want to know about you so don’t portray someone else in the essay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You want to display your best qualities but be yourself at the same time. You want the other person to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be.
2. Show diversity
Rayna Reid, a personal statement guru, received her undergraduate degree at Cornell, Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a Law degree at Columbia. Reid says a personal statement is really just a way to make the college fall in love with you.
“The essay is where you really get a chance to differentiate yourself from the other applicants,” she said. “Explain why they should accept you. What will you contribute?”
Sean Carpenter, University of Southern California Student Services Associate and undergraduate student, reiterates the importance of differentiating yourself from other applicants.
He works in the Annenberg School for Communication admissions office and deals with prospective students daily. Carpenter says USC or any major school want to see diversity.
“They want to see how you’re different from all other applicants, especially through diversity. What makes you unique out of all the other applicants?” Carpenter said, “Tell things that has helped you grow as a person and built your character.”
3. Do research and tailor each essay accordingly
Every college is different, so each personal statement should be different. Many students try to get away with having a universal essay but admissions departments will notice.
“Do research to give concrete reasons why you’re interested in particular program,” Carpenter said. “Speak with a faculty member that you’re interested in working with or doing research for and mention that in your statement. It would also be beneficial to say what classes you’ve taken that were relevant to the field of study.”
4. Be concise and follow directions
Make sure you read the directions carefully. One of the biggest red flags for an admissions office are students who don’t adhere to word limitations. Don’t give them a reason to throw out your application.
Believe it or not, there is a way to say everything you want in a page or less. If you need some help, ask several faculty members to read over your essay and give you feedback.
5. Go beyond your resume, GPA and test scores
Many students worry about how their GPA and test scores will affect the admissions process. The personal statement is an opportunity to explain any strengths or weaknesses in your application — such as changes in major, low GPA or lack of experience.
For instance, Reid was worried about not having a 4.0 GPA. Since Reid didn’t have the perfect GPA, she explained what she did with her time to make up for that fact. Being on the Varsity rowing team and a Teach for America Corp member are great examples of how devoting her time to other things made an impact on her GPA.
6. Tell a story
“Nothing makes someone fall in love like a good story. It does not have to be the next Pulitzer winner,” Reid said. “For college, one essay I wrote was about how I have often felt like my life was a movie and how Dirty Dancing (yes, the movie) changed my life. My sister who currently goes to Princeton even wrote about killing a fly!”
One of the worst things you can do is bore the admission officer. Make yourself memorable by telling a story about something distinctive from a creative or different angle.
With this advice, your personal statement will be the highlight of your application. Good luck!
Alexis Morgan is currently a senior at Penn State University. She has extensive experience in public relations, broadcast journalism, print journalism and production. Alexis truly believes if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Follow Alexis’s career on her website.
Alexis Morgan, Columbia University, Cornell University, grad school, Penn State University, the application, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, COLLEGE CHOICE, VOICES FROM CAMPUS