The love letter from a university applicant to their chosen subject has for decades been an uncontested element of the university admissions process. The opportunity to sell yourself in under 500 words (officially, under 4,000 characters) is seen as a chance for applicants to express their passion for their chosen study. Otherwise, admissions officers only have A-level grade predictions, teacher references and a few other criteria to go on. Most don’t have time to interview thousands of hopeful candidates.
My own book, The Good Parent Educator, has added to a vast industry offering tips on how best to write the statement. This covers everything from how to stand out from the crowd, to showing off your academic credentials, to avoiding writing that poor opening sentence.
Shifts in higher education admissions policy usually proceed at a snail’s pace. But last week the rapid reform of personal statements took another purposeful step. Ucas confirmed that it was exploring options to replace the current free text version of the statement with a set of structured questions. The hope is to provide all candidates, particularly those less familiar with the unwritten rules of university admissions, with clear guidance on what is expected from them. It may also reduce widespread cheating which has plagued this aspect of admissions.
Sadly, statements have become little more than barometers of middle-class privilege and are no longer fit for purpose. As I argued in the Times newspaper, so many are now written/polished/co-created by advisers, teachers and parents. Well-intended advice from teachers can make personal statements less convincing for those making university admissions decisions. There are varying levels of scepticism towards them across the university sector.
The inequities at the heart of the process were exposed by Steven Jones who produced a memorable analysis for the Sutton Trust. Telling examples exposed the chasm in quality and style between applicants. One privileged 18-year-old shared how they had been 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 five-star country hotel; in the marketing team of a leading City law firm… and most recently managing a small gastro pub”. This was contrasted with statements from less privileged pupils who could only cite shelf stacking in local supermarkets for suitable work and life experience.
This sense of unfairness was probably the reason my Times article sparked a national debate, striking a chord with many former disgruntled university applicants. I was grilled by BBC’s Adrian Chiles who had been shocked by how many statements were written by middle class parents, after seeing this first hand when his own daughter had applied to university.
Other researchers have long held suspicions that otherwise unexplained differences in the chances of securing university places could be due to the `quality’ of the personal statements accompanying the applications.
A few weeks after my Times article the Universities Minister Michele Donelan announced that the Government backed my campaign for reform. But igniting a public debate on an issue is the easy bit. The much harder job is grappling with the practical details of reform, ensuring that the changes do indeed create a fairer playing field for all applicants.
Ucas is carrying out extensive research with students and admissions professionals to seek views on how best to reform the statement. As with any higher education topic, views vary. Ucas chief executive, Clare Marchant has said the aim will be to strike the right balance between a more structured approach to deter fabrication, while not limiting opportunity for applicants to personalise their statement.
Sections might for example ask applicants about their motivations for applying, or any circumstances that may have hindered their academic study. I hope that universities meanwhile will publish clearer and more consistent criteria of what they are looking for from candidates.
I believe it is one small step in making the university admissions system a little bit fairer for all applicants. We need to create a system that doesn’t alienate first generation or poorer students who don’t have the tacit knowledge needed to navigate a complex admissions process. If that means saying goodbye to the university love letter, then so be it.
Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter