Sutton Trust launches research showing that guidance for writing UCAS personal statements is dependent on education background

Sutton Trust launches research showing that guidance for writing UCAS personal statements is dependent on education background

Anyone who wants to study higher education in the UK needs to apply through the University College Application Service (UCAS) and there are over half a million applications made through the UCAS system every year.

CAF started working with UCAS in 2014 to explore how we could implement the following recommendation from the Growing Giving Parliamentary Inquiry:

UCAS forms should include provision for young people to demonstrate their commitment to social action. Information about this should be provided to young people in order to encourage greater involvement and raise awareness of the benefits from participation in social action.’

Social Action is defined here as ‘taking practical action in the service of others to create positive change’.

What is the personal statement?

 The 4000 character personal statement section of a UCAS application is an applicants’ opportunity to provide a ‘more holistic’ overview of themselves beyond simply their grades. We agreed with UCAS that one way we could encourage more young people to get involved in social action, and be able to articulate the skills and experience they gained from it was to produce guidance on the issue.

What did CAF do?

With the support of UCAS, the Association of Colleges (AoC), the Higher Education Liaison Officers Association (HELOA), the National Union of Students (NUS), the #iwill Campaign and the National Citizen Service among many others, we convened a roundtable discussion in January 2015 to shape the guidance. As a result of this roundtable we structured the guidance to explain what social action is, how people can get involved in social action whatever their interests and how students can develop valuable life skills and personal qualities whilst helping others by getting involved in social action before they apply to universities and colleges.

We launched the guidance in April 2015 and you can see an example of the press coverage here. The guidance is linked directly from the UCAS website and can be found at www.cafonline.org/ucas. UCAS includes information about the guidance in their communications with UCAS school advisors.  

Sutton Trust Research

There has been new research released by the Sutton Trust which highlights that school type is a key predictor of the quality of personal statements and that those from more advantaged educational backgrounds are more likely to receive better guidance on how to write a personal statement. The research also found that the advice that some young people are given at school on how to write a personal statement might not reflect what admissions tutors expect in Russell Group Universities.

The report recommends that universities should be more transparent about the expectations that they, and specific departments have, and how they use personal statements in the application process.

The role of accessible information

In light of this research, it is important not to understate the value of ensuring that information and guidance is widely and easily accessible in order to ensure that personal statements can become more of a fair reflection of what a candidate has to offer, rather than a process that further advantages applicants who already benefit from privileged education.

It is worth pointing out that written guidance is only one part of the process of a student crafting an effective personal statement. The process involves research, planning, drafting, editing and proofing and school staff/parents/carers are likely to be involved in multiple stages dependant on the level of support the student has access to.  However, we are confident that the guidance we have created on social action has a positive role to play in giving more applicants the tools to both do something good for others and be able to reflect on and articulate the transferable skills they developed in the process.

Transparency and accessibility

Our guidance is publically accessible online and is linked directly from the UCAS website. We agree with the Sutton Trust’s recommendation that universities and individual departments should become more transparent about what they are looking for from applicants so that students can make more informed choices about how to structure their personal statement. We believe that enabling applicants to be more informed about what is expected of them is a first step to levelling the playing field on UCAS personal statements, but it certainly isn’t the last.

Next Steps

The next steps for us here at CAF is to ensure that as many UCAS applicants as possible have the opportunity to benefit from social action in their UCAS application if that is what is right for them. In order to do this, we are going to promote the guidance through distributing the content in alternative formats and producing resources for teachers and UCAS advisors in schools. We are keen to work with teachers’ unions and other bodies representing those involved in the admissions process to ensure the opportunities social action can offer reach university applicants regardless of their educational background.

Kelley Temple

Posted 1 February 2016