Personal statements: ‘Being passionate about’ isn’t enough

As I write, and as you read, sixth formers across the country are agonising over their personal statements. Now they learn (The Times, October 5th 2013) that some universities will not even read them.

Well, we have all read plenty of them if we work in schools. The awful ones, which begin ‘I have always been passionate about ...’ or the trying-to-be-wacky ones (‘So where do I start? I’m a one-off..’). And all Heads have of course also read thousands of letters of application. And, if we’re honest, written quite a few too. They are inherently difficult and inherently generic. So I sympathise with Admissions Tutors who find it hard to feel that they tell them much about a candidate that results and school references don’t.

Well, rejecting the personal statement, as some commentators do, is simply not good enough. Last year the Sutton Trust were the latest in a long line of commentators to propose this (  ) and now Becky Francis, Professor of Education and Social Justice (whatever that is) at KCL joins in the call.

But the problem is that UCAS candidates are stuck with a one-size-fits-all model. Imagine a job application enclosed in a letter which had had to be written for four other employers, each subtly (or intrinsically) different. It would be bland, cautious, probably pretty unhelpful. We look, in a letter of application (or section in a form which asks for a personal statement from a would-be employee) for signs they know us as a specific institution, that they have done their homework, that they actually want to come here.

And so it is (or should be) for UCAS personal statements. How does an aspiring medic show that they want the problem-based learning buzz of Liverpool if they are also applying to Cambridge? They can’t. How does someone applying to Birmingham (which says 75% of the statement should be subject-based) make their PS serve also for Bristol, which says it wants lots about other interests? Does it not occur to anyone that students might be applying to both?

The answer is obvious: one statement per university for which you apply. And that of course should not at all mean five times the work (and consequent stress): much of the statement can be the same for all five. Indeed, for applications to similar courses, most will be. But students who have spent time researching institutions could then actually use the information they have found, and tailor just some of their precious characters to an individual pitch.

It would actually mean all personal statements were not only worth reading, but required reading, showing Admissions Tutors who has actually done the research and found out what they will be doing at THEIR university. It would ensure their PS advice, helpfully but uselessly given at the moment, could actually mean something. It’s easy (in this digital age), free and gives no unfair advantage to anyone.

The only argument against might come from Admissions Offices whose reading would have to be closer and more careful. But they are already reading carefully, aren’t they?

By Chris Ramsey, Headmaster, King’s School, Chester and Co-Chair, GSA/HMC Universities Sub-Committee