There is a lot of news coverage today on how the well off, and particularly independent school pupils, get an unfair advantage in University Entrance because they are more likely to have done interesting things which then go on their personal statements, and that they generally get more help in writing them.
I think the authors of this report aren’t properly informed of on how we actually use these statements as part of the admissions process. Now, what I say here is based only on my own experience as an admissions interviewer for one department in one university, but what I do is entirely consistent with what my colleagues do. More broadly, university admissions teams are fully aware of the issues the Sutton Trust has raised, so we know the standard and content of personal statements is correlated with the student’s background, and will take that into account.
So what do I actually use the personal statement for?
Largely, I just use it as a starting point for the conversation part of the interview. If the applicant has listed some interesting things on the form I might talk about them. If they haven’t, I’ll talk about something else. What I’m trying to establish in these conversations is interest, motivation and ability. The statement is just a starting point, and once we’ve started, it is essentially ignored. There are slips that can be made – put down an activity and be unable to discuss it and that won’t help you. Say that you read something regularly and be unable to discuss any recent articles, and that won’t help either. I’ve had applicants from both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools mess up on these points.
But to suggest that the content of the personal statement is given significant weight is, in my experience and practice at least, wrong.