School students applying to university may be disadvantaged because their teachers’ views on what to write in a Ucas personal statement can be “a world apart” from what admission tutors want, according to the Sutton Trust.
Research, conducted by the trust, found that the views of Russell Group admissions tutors on what makes a good personal statement differed from what teachers believed would impress them. The trust places the blame for this on universities, warning they must provide more information about what they are looking for from students.
Dr Steven Jones, author of the research, says: “The advice and guidance that some young people receive at school when composing their personal statement may not reflect the content and style expected by admissions tutors at the UK’s most selective universities. Applicants need to be given a structured programme of advice that emphasises academic suitability.”
When asked to mark the same 44 personal statements, the teachers, who worked in state schools, gave just 10 of the statements the same grade as admissions tutors. While 20 statements were marked as one grade different, 13 were given marks two grades apart and one statement was marked differently by three grades.
Commenting on the same extract from one student’s personal statement, a teacher thought it “showed clear enthusiasm for law”, while an admissions tutor felt it was “empty” and that the “weak attempt to definite law wasted space and provided no useful information about the applicant”.
In another example, which included lots of medical information, the teacher thought that it was “too much” and “too long and impersonal”. In contrast, the admissions tutor felt that it was an “excellent analysis”.
Truthful university applications: our favourites so far
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, says: “Today’s research shows how important it is that students get good advice about their personal statements, which are a key part of the application process to universities. The views of teachers and admissions tutors can be a world apart, so it is vital we ensure that teachers, students and parents are all well informed about what universities want in the statements.”
The Sutton Trust recommends that universities be more transparent about the way they evaluate personal statements, to ensure that students of all backgrounds have access to the advice they need.
Dr Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, says: “Our universities make it clear on their websites and in other materials that personal statements are primarily an opportunity for applicants to show their academic interests and reasons for wanting to study a particular subject.
“We agree with the Sutton Trust that it’s very important students receive high-quality information, advice and guidance, including on writing personal statements. Our universities give lots of help and advice to teachers, especially those working in deprived areas.”
The research follows statistics released by the Department for Education (DfE), which showed that the gap between the proportion of rich and poor teenagers going to a top university is widening. It also showed that those from a black ethnic background were less likely to go to a leading university than other ethnic groups.
Keep up with the latest on Guardian Students: follow us on Twitter at @GdnStudents – and become a member to receive exclusive benefits and our weekly newsletter.
#1 Don’t do any research
The last thing you want is to spend the next three years in a place where you are unhappy. This is why researching your subject and the courses you are going to apply for is so important.
Think about what you have decided to study at university and whether it’s definitely the right subject for you. Do you know why you want to apply for it? Can you think of good examples to show the tutors you are a superb candidate?
Once you’re sure you have picked the right subject, look at each individual course you are applying for in detail. What does each one cover? Do they include everything you want to learn more about? How are they taught? Can you choose any of the modules or is it all set in stone?
Knowing this is definitely the right option for you will result in a much more positive statement, which will reflect your genuine enthusiasm for your chosen course.
#2 Sound unenthusiastic
Tutors want students on their course who are passionate about the subject. This is what will carry you through the next three or four years of your life, so enthusiasm to learn more is a must.
Try to convey this in your personal statement by talking about one or two aspects of your subject you find particularly fascinating, and why. You could also mention ways in which you have tried to widen your knowledge of the subject, and how you explore topics you’re keen to learn more about.
#3 Tell lies
Being dishonest about your skills, experience or anything else on your personal statement is a recipe for disaster, especially if you are applying for a subject where you are likely to be invited to interview.
Admissions tutors could easily catch you out if they choose to bring up something in your personal statement that you’ve lied about. This will lead to an awkward conversation! And as soon as they realise you aren’t being truthful, you can be certain they won’t be offering you a place on their course.
The idea of a personal statement is to talk about YOU, and should therefore only include information on what YOU have actually done. If you aren’t painting an accurate picture of yourself to try and get on this course, should you really be taking it in the first place?
#4 Copy someone else’s statement
This is a sure-fire way to get your university application rejected. For some years now, UCAS have been using plagiarism detection software to catch those who have cheated on their personal statement.
Lifting phrases, sentences or whole paragraphs and using them in your own statement is against the rules, and will be picked up by UCAS. If this happens, your application will be thrown out, and you will not be able to apply to university that year.
#5 Fail to check spelling, grammar and punctuation
A poorly edited personal statement is certain to catch the eye of the admissions tutors, although not in the best way!
While using your word processor's spell checker may be the beginning and end of this process for many students, your personal statement needs more attention than this if it is going to be a success.
Once you’ve finished the final draft, read it through at least three or four times and make any necessary corrections. When you’re happy with it, ask your friends and family members to read it, and note any amendments.
Incorporate their suggestions if you have made obvious mistakes, or think their suggestions improve the content and overall flow of the statement.
You are convincing tutors that you are a great candidate for their course, and will be an asset to their department - showing them you can’t even use the English language correctly won’t lead to a good first impression!
#6 Don’t back it up with examples
The personal statement shouldn’t read like a laundry list of facts about you.
Saying “I’m a great communicator” or “I have brilliant analytical skills” isn’t going to cut the mustard. As well as avoiding the use of generic phrases such as these to describe yourself, you need to back up your claims with evidence.
Anyone can say they have good problem-solving skills, but as an individual, how can you show the tutors this? And how can you demonstrate this better than all the other candidates? Try to come up with the best examples you can to support any claims you make.
This is what will help you make your application stand out from the crowd, but remember that any examples you use must be relevant to the point you are making.
#7 Omit hobbies and extracurricular activities
These are one of the best ways to provide evidence of your skills, knowledge and personal traits.
Although you may think being a member of your school’s chess club sounds extremely boring, and not something worthy of including in your statement, think about why you enjoy taking part in it and what you have learnt during your time there.
For example, you might mention how it has improved your problem-solving skills, or how you organised a chess tournament.
Make notes of any hobbies, interests or activities you participate in both inside and outside of school or college, and think about how you can relate your experiences in them to the requirements of your university course.
#8 Don’t include relevant work experience
This is not something that should just be limited to those undertaking degrees in Medicine, Veterinary Science, Law, Nursing, etc.
If you have completed ANY period of work experience in the past, or have placement(s) planned in the future, be sure to talk about what you have (or will have) gained from it. Again, think about any skills, knowledge or personal development that is a direct result of your placement.
#9 Try to be funny
You may think of yourself as the next Spike Milligan, but this isn’t the time to try and show the admissions tutors what a wit you are (maybe leave this until you actually start term!).
It might be tempting to work some humour into your statement, but realise that not everyone might see the funny side.
Keep everything focused on you and why you will be a great student on the course.
#10 No evidence of reading around your subject
As mentioned earlier, demonstrating how you’ve expanded your knowledge of the subject is important to conveying your interest in it. Tutors don’t want students on their course who aren’t going to listen in lectures, take part in seminars, etc.
Remember there are a number of mediums through which you can gain knowledge, and not just books, or publications such as New Scientist or The Economist.
Think about the internet, videos, DVDs, documentaries, radio programmes, and anything else you’ve seen or listened to that has helped you grasp a better understanding of your subject.
Try to include at least a couple of examples in your personal statement, and what you learned from this additional exploration.
While writing a good personal statement is a lengthy task, hopefully these points are a starter for how to avoid going wrong.
Don’t forget to also check out our other blog posts and articles related to personal statements, including:
as well as my eBook guides, available to download on Amazon Kindle:
If you have any comments, questions or feedback on my post, please leave your reply below.
Editors' note: The post was originally published in September 2013. It has been completely revamped to reflect updates in accuracy and the information provided.