UK

University staff read applicants’ personal statements for two minutes – study

A study has found that university application personal statements are only read for two minutes on average (Chris Radburn/PA)
A study has found that university application personal statements are only read for two minutes on average (Chris Radburn/PA) A study has found that university application personal statements are only read for two minutes on average (Chris Radburn/PA)

University applicants’ personal statements are read for just two minutes on average, a report has suggested.

The majority of higher education admissions professionals said decisions about which applicants should be offered a university or college place are primarily made on the basis of grades, a survey found.

Nearly two in five (39%) said the personal statements written by university applicants were read for just one minute or less, according to the report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank.

It comes as Ucas plans to reframe the personal statement into a series of questions covering six themes.

The themes are motivation for the course, preparedness for course, preparation through other experiences, extenuating circumstances, preparedness for study and preferred learning styles.

Currently, applicants have to write a personal statement – which can be a maximum of 4,000 characters – setting out their skills and experiences, and why they would like to study at a university or a college.

In November last year, Hepi argued the current long-form, free-response nature of the personal statement creates unnecessary pressure for applicants, hinders transparency and exacerbates inequalities.

The survey, of 113 higher education admissions professionals from more than 30 higher education providers, found 51% said the Ucas personal statement impacts significantly on admissions decisions.

The Ucas personal statement is more likely to be considered important for admissions decisions in vocational or highly selective courses, the report suggested.

It said Ucas should remove the ‘preparedness for study’ and ‘preferred learning styles’ themes from its proposed reforms to the personal statement as admissions officers are unlikely to consider these areas.

Tom Fryer, the report’s lead author, said: “The fact that four in 10 Ucas personal statements are read for one minute or less underlines the importance of reform in this area.

“The Ucas personal statement is a stressful, ambiguous and lengthy process for many applicants, and this simply cannot be justified if the majority of statements are skimmed quickly by admissions staff.”

Steven Jones, co-author of the report, said: “We have long known that the Ucas personal statement provides an opportunity for some applicants to gain an advantage over their less privileged peers.

“While Ucas’s reform is welcome, this survey highlights that the proposals should focus on a limited number of short-response questions, to avoid imposing an unnecessary burden on applicants.”

Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said: “This report shows personal statements are sometimes not read at all and, when they are, they are typically digested very quickly. Moreover, they are used more for some courses than others.

“Shining a spotlight on the use of personal statements was always going to be useful to applicants and those who advise them, but doing it now helps inform the important reforms that Ucas are currently planning.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said personal statements in their current form are “flawed” as they favour advantaged students.

He said: “Breaking down the personal statement into specific questions, as Ucas has committed to doing, feels like a step in the right direction. Careful consideration must be given to the number and type of questions to ensure they are fair to all students.

“It’s also important that these questions are of more use and interest to admissions tutors than current personal statements, which this survey suggests are often barely read.”

Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, said: “The personal statement is an important component of the application process; students tell us it helps their decision-making while admissions teams say it supports comparability for them when making offers.

“Our reform work will ensure personal statements add more value, retaining the space for students to advocate for their achievements in their own words while helping universities and colleges to differentiate between applications amid growing demand for places, with up to one million applicants forecast by the end of the decade.

“We continue to consult extensively with all stakeholders to help us refine the theme for the new personal statement questions and we will announce our proposals later this year.”