Personal statement for sale: is the current system fair?

A recent report criticised the university personal statement for unfairly advantaging privileged pupils. But the problem is nothing to do with class, says Andrew Marszal in the Telegraph, 11/12/12

It’s social engineering gone mad, isn’t it? Last week's report claiming wealthy, middle-class pupils enjoy an unfair advantage when it comes to writing the university personal statement has ruffled a few feathers.

It recommended that “young people’s educational background should be taken into account” by tutors reading the document, and called for limits to be set on the number of astonishing extra-curricular activities children of the rich and famous are allowed to cram in to these glorified boasting exercises.

Sadly, the report completely misses the point. The problem with the personal statement has nothing to do with class.

The Sutton Trust report however has opened fire on the document, warning that "Family networks were found to make a big difference" and quoting one privileged teenager bragging about the United Nations internship in New York he'd wangled over the summer.

Obviously we're supposed to join up the dots here, and in some of the examples quoted by the report it's hard to give these wealthy overachievers the benefit of the doubt. My personal favourite is a private school pupil who has recently been "managing a small gastropub" – which, frankly, is too fantastic to be made up.

But how can we belittle these (anonymous) achievements when there's no way of knowing which rode on privileged coat-tails, and which forged exceptional opportunities for themselves by sheer dint of prodigious will and ambition? Surely it's not fair to ignore or limit the achievements our brightest teenagers can take credit for if they really have been earned?

From my own experience, some students receive much more help than others even within the same school, though I have no reason to doubt private school pupils generally benefit most from this type of help.

But more specifically, the report covers the practice of students paying graduates and specialist ‘consultancies’ to actually write the thing for them. This business model apparently originated in the US – where else – and the trade is quickly spreading to the UK.

A quick Google search reveals dozens of companies with brazenly upfront names along the lines of OxbridgeOrYourMoneyBack.com offering ‘fully customised personal statements’. And at less than £100 per consult, they're hardly the preserve of the elite.

But one testimonial particularly astounded me – a user who had written in to thank the consultancy in question for its efforts signed off with “I think I need to give myself a pat on [the] shoulder too for finding and trusting you for helping Steve with his college process.”

So not only could the student in question not be bothered to write it himself, but he actually needed his mum to help him find someone who would do it for him? How on earth is he going to survive at whichever institution he ends up?

Suffice to say, he’s now studying at one of the top-ranked universities in the world. Forget the class warfare – surely, for the personal statement to have any worth at all, this can’t be allowed to continue.

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