Axing the personal statement depersonalises the application process.Hippopx

“Personal statement”. Two words sure to make any Cambridge undergraduate flinch. They conjure up unprocessed trauma from the admissions cycles of yesteryear – and make us cringe at flashbacks involving attempts to convince admissions tutors that being elected class bin monitor in year 6 makes you the academic equivalent of “not like other girls”.

Five years from now, however, rather than inducing a nervous twitch, saying those two terrible words on the Sidgwick Site will generate nothing more than blank stares. For UCAS is ditching the personal statement and replacing it with a more structured set of specific questions. Cambridge is cheering them on.

Kim Eccleston, UCAS’s head of reform, has said she hopes the move will “create a more supportive framework” for students, as well as “broaden participation”. Given that UCAS polling last year showed that 83% of students found submitting a personal statement stressful, and given that progressive academics have been gunning for personal statements as “barometers of middle-class privilege” for a while now, it’s easy to infer what she means: personal statements are too difficult, and too friendly to well-coached private school pupils.

I’ll start with the first objection by claiming, heartlessly, that applying to university should be difficult. I am sure that it is easier to answer a handful of generic questions than it is to justify your existence in a 47-line, 4000-character essay. But UCAS’s polling also found that 72% of students felt positive about personal statements. Students found being forced to think hard about a life-changing decision stressful. But they found it valuable too.

Are most personal statements masterpieces of self-discovery written in clean, sharp prose? No. By and large they’re ramblings about the personal growth engendered by bronze DofE. But they, at least in theory, put self-expression at the heart of an otherwise all too bureaucratic system. Take away the personal statement, and the university admissions process (Oxbridge interviews aside) would involve little more than weighing GCSE results and predicted grades. This would deny students the chance to show skills that those data points might not reflect.

“In an imperfect world, the personal statement is the best option available”

Axing the personal statement, unsurprisingly, depersonalises the application process. It stops really brilliant applicants from showing what they can do, and those in difficult circumstances from giving admissions tutors the information they need to make a fair decision. If applicants themselves think the stress of writing a personal statement is worthwhile, UCAS should acknowledge the same.

The second claim levelled against the personal statement, that it suits coddled private school pupils too nicely, is obviously correct. As a coddled private school alumnus myself, I can confirm that my English teacher and my school’s head of university admissions both looked over my personal statement many times, suggested changes, and offered feedback. I am sure that what I produced was better for their help.

The problem, however, is that private schools are always going to outperform state-funded ones, because they have access to far greater resources. I imagine my old school is rather pleased with UCAS’s proposal to make the personal statement more structured. By making the process simpler, UCAS lets private school teachers tell their students more or less exactly what to say. The current open-ended exercise, by contrast, resists coaching and rewards the kind of creativity that cannot be taught.

“The personal statement’s demise is another product of the replacement of realist policymaking with ideological purity tests”

The fact is that the personal statement is broad, tests valuable academic skills, and avoids the myriad cans of worms that would be opened if UCAS went ahead with its other suggestion: replacing the statement with a pre-recorded video. Introducing secondary factors like accent, posture, even dress sense and physical appearance, into the admissions process, as a video surely would, is never going to make things fairer. Additionally, while the personal statement does benefit private school pupils on paper, university admissions tutors are not fools. They have access to a range of contextual information, like what sort of school each applicant attended, and know that a private school statement has been practically ghostwritten by a team of teachers. They are capable of making a decision with this in mind. In an imperfect world, the personal statement is the best option available.

Ditching it, then, is a very obvious mistake on UCAS’s part. So how did it get made? The answer is that mistakes like these are the product of letting political pieties come before good policy.


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UCAS feels that because the personal statement benefits privileged private school pupils, it has to go. It doesn’t matter that privilege is deeply entrenched, and that nothing UCAS does can fully level the playing field. It doesn’t even matter that the personal statement as it stands is probably the fairest option anyway. In the world UCAS’s architects seem to be living in, there is no such thing as a compromise, or accepting something as the lesser of two evils. If a policy transgresses, such as by helping the privately educated, it must be cast out. There is no room to ask whether such a cost is outweighed by other benefits.

The personal statement’s demise is another product of the replacement of realist policymaking with ideological purity tests. As a result, young people will lose a valuable chance to be challenged academically, our university admissions system will become yet more impersonal – and inequality may well get worse. Perhaps if someone had made UCAS justify their decision in 4000 characters, they’d have realised where they were going wrong.