Personal Statements: which crowd are you standing out from?

The Sutton Trust has published some research on personal statements in UCAS applications being used as a qualitative indicator of the likely aptitudes of a student.  They warn against inherent problems with such statements, which may account in part for the dramatic over-representation of Independent school children in elite Universities.  I quote their executive summary in full.

The UCAS personal statement is an important non-academic indicator that many UK universities use as an integral part of their admissions processes. Up to half a million personal statements are written every year.

This report is the first to consider how they are shaped by applicants’ educational background. 309 personal statements were analysed, all of which were submitted to the same department of the same Russell Group university by students with the same A-level results.

Academic indicators, such as A-level grades, correlate closely with students’ school type and socio-economic status. However, non-academic indicators, such as the personal statement, are often assumed to bring greater fairness to university admissions processes. This research challenges that assumption, finding that independent school applicants are more likely to submit statements that are carefully crafted, written in an academically appropriate way, and filled with high status, relevant activities. By contrast, state school applicants appear to receive less help composing their statement, often struggling to draw on suitable work and life experience.

There are big differences in presentation. Clear writing errors are three times more common in the personal statements of applicants from sixth form colleges as those from independent schools.

Independent school applicants not only list the highest number of work-related activities, they also draw on the most prestigious experiences, often involving high-level placements and professionalised work-shadowing. One 18-year-old applicant’s experience includes 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 5 star country hotel … in the marketing team of a leading City law firm … and most recently managing a small gastro pub.

For state school applicants, work-related activity is more likely to be a Saturday job or a school visit to a business.  School type is therefore an accurate predictor of key features that may affect admission tutors’  decisions. In the sample, these advantages translate into improved outcomes: 70% of applicants from independent schools ended up at one of the highest ranked universities in the UK but only 50% of those from comprehensives and colleges reached a similar destination.

This could be a factor in explaining the under-representation of some school types at highly selective universities.  “Ensure you stand out from the crowd” is UCAS’s advice to applicants when they compose their personal statement.

This research suggests that even among applicants with identical A-level results, some are much better equipped to do so than others.

I am left wondering if these concerns should have some resonance with Law Firms who are faced with the unenviable task of distinguishing between a sea of students with 2:1s.  I’ve got some sympathy with the thrust of the Sutton Trust research when one hears of law firms distinguishing students because, they like students with Grade 8 Oboe, because they know how to butter and eat a bread roll at dinner, or because they like students who can self-fund voluntary work abroad (all real examples).  I shudder at these examples partly because my experience up until very late into University involved doing a mean Peter Hook impression on New Order covers (cf Oboe); being dextrous with excuses for eating kebabs whilst a vegetarian; and a solitary claim to fame  that an actress on the kids programme Playschool once told my father I was the best at something (a state secret).  None of these I’d have dreamed of putting on a CV.  The real reason for shuddering though is that learning the Oboe or self-funding voluntary work are more or less impressive depending on the context of the particular student.   The key question is: which crowd is this applicant standing out from.

Of course, many firms increasingly work very hard to look at real aptitudes and skills in their selection of trainees.  It is to be hoped that a more meritocratic recruitment system can be evolved.  Work from the US is interesting in this regard.  It suggests successful lawyers are predicted not by the usual signifiers of status but by performance at law school.  Perhaps it is time for law schools to facilitate this process by looking at a more refined gradation of students than the 2:2, 2:1, 1 distinctions currently in operation.  Firms increasingly ask for class ranking, for instance, but I suspect the accuracy of the data they get back via references is of extremely variable quality.

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About Richard MOORHEAD

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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3 Responses to Personal Statements: which crowd are you standing out from?

  1. Coventry Man says:

    The problem is that you have to pick the applicants somehow, and you can’t give them all a 3 month trial. Being a lawyer involves more than knowing law, and requires an ability to work hard and effectively, an aptitude for getting on with people, good judgment, an ability to know when you are out of your depth , honesty, reliability and many others.

    Most of these are not taught or examined at law school. You get them from life. So examples of life help. Someone who got grade 8 oboe has worked incredibly hard and effectively to get it, and has got on with orchestral and musical colleagues ever since they were 13 or so. It is a real achievement, albeit one that only indirectly reflects on their likely ability as a junior lawyer.

    Ultimately an employer ought to pick the best candidate for the job. This requires discrimination. That is not a bad thing. We are not all equal. I can’t play the oboe.

    • botzarelli says:

      It is hard to see how, short of moving to compulsory and exclusive use of anonymised psychometric, intelligence and aptitude tests (which themselves can be subject to applicants getting trained into the “right” answers to some extent), it would be possible to remove social factors from being even inadvertently considered. Even then, if law firms are permitted to interview candidates those social biases can’t really be eradicated, only mitigated by recruitment policy decisions.

      At the university level, other than perhaps for unavoidably vocational courses like Medicine, Nursing and Teaching, perhaps there is no real need for anything beyond academic indicators. Does the personal statement really add anything? At best it could be used as an account of mitigating factors (so “I am the primary carer for two disabled parents” gives real context to grades that might be not so stellar whereas “I am Captain of Pop” just says that the candidate has fitted Eton very well). I can’t remember having spent more than a few minutes on the short paragraph which was all that the UCCA form allowed in 1989 and can’t remember what I might have put in it beyond the banal DofE silver award. But, I’m not involved in admissions to University so perhaps there is value beyond mitigation in personal statements.

  2. It is a bit disturbing that the report even makes reference to “prestigious experiences” which suggests to me that these (however you define them) are treated as advantageous to an applicant. Surely it is the reponsibility of those reviewing applications not to be swayed by this sort of thing. For example, “worked nights stacking shelves as Tesco” should easily trump “spent a week at a prestigious law firm”. If those responsible for admissions can’t distinguish between these then we’re all in trouble.

    In the other hand, if you make “clear writing errors” in your application then, whether state or independently educated, you cannot reasonably expect to be successful.

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