What changes are UCAS making to references and personal statements?

You may have seen reports in the media recently that UCAS are planning on making changes to the undergraduate application process, including changes to the reference and personal statement. In this article I provide an overview of what changes are being planned, when they will come into effect and what your school or college might need to do in preparation.


Earlier this month, UCAS released a report titled Future of Undergraduate Admissions in which they set out some ways they plan to change the undergraduate admissions process over the next few years to ensure that the process continues to best meet the needs of both applicants and universities. Four key areas covered in the report are references, personal statements, entry grades and widening participation initiatives and I will take a look at the plans for each of these areas in this blog. In recent years, you may have also noticed there has been a suggestion that there could be a move towards so-called “post qualification admissions” where students only apply to university once they already have their exam results. However, it should be stressed that there are currently no plans to implement such a system in the foreseeable future.

UCAS references 

At Advancing Access, we know just how seriously teachers and advisers take the UCAS reference since we know from our own data that our CPD session on references is comfortably the most popular of all the CPD sessions we offer. So you will, no doubt, be interested to hear that UCAS references are going to change and they will be changing quite soon. Changes to the reference will be introduced for those applying in 2023 for entry in 2024, so they will affect your current Year 12 cohort onwards (at time of writing). This means that you’ve probably already written your last reference in the ‘old’ format and next time you sit down to write a reference the process will be a little different. In future, the reference will no longer be a single block of free text. Instead, referees will provide responses to the following three questions:

  1. Enter a general statement about your school/college
  2. Enter any information about extenuating circumstances which may affect this applicant’s performance in examinations or other assessments
  3. Use this section to outline any other circumstances specific to the applicant that you think universities/colleges should be aware of

This new format could represent quite a departure from the old one. In my experience, when a typical reference is put together each an of applicant’s subject teachers contribute a comment about how the applicant is doing in their subject. An editor (such as a form tutor) then pulls all of this information together whilst also adding in further details about the school, extra activities, extenuating circumstances and so on. At present, most reference content is therefore academic information about performance in particular subjects. It’s not clear where this would fit in (if at all) within this new format.

My first impression is that, if anything, the new format may be less time-consuming for referees. Many schools and colleges (perhaps perfectly reasonably) might paste in the same statement about their school or college for every applicant. Furthermore, many (or perhaps most) applicants might not have any extenuating circumstances that need mentioning. The overall reduction in reference workload will no doubt be welcomed by schools and colleges.

Personal statements 

Unlike references, this is a topic which seems to get mentioned a lot in the news. Changes to personal statements are also coming, although they will come at least a year later than changes to references and so changes could impact those applying in 2024 for 2025 entry (and beyond). The first cohort which could be impacted are those currently in Year 11 (at the time of writing). As with references, the single free text box is likely to be removed and will be replaced with a series of questions. Whilst particular questions have not yet been identified, the latest proposal is to provide students the opportunity to comment on the following six areas:

  1. Motivation for applying for the course
  2. Preparation for the course through learning
  3. Preparation for the course through extra experiences
  4. Extenuating circumstances
  5. Preparation for student life
  6. Preferred learning styles

Many will welcome reform of the personal statement. I have blogged previously about academic research which has been completed on personal statements, some of which has suggested that there are changes that could be made to ensure students from a poorer background are not disadvantaged by the personal statement process.

UCAS are still consulting on the process for changing the statement in terms of which questions should be asked, when the change should be made and whether there should be a chance to submit different statements to different universities. If you have opinions on these, you can let UCAS know your thoughts.

Entry grades 

If you’ve recently used the UCAS Adviser Portal you may have encountered the Grades on Entry tool. This enables advisers to look up particular courses and see what grades students have tended to actually enter with. Sometimes, these grades can be a little lower than those advertised in prospectuses. From 2023, UCAS plan to make a similar tool available for your students. This may mean that they feel more confident in applying for certain courses which they may have otherwise disregarded.

Widening participation programmes 

I’ve lost count of the number of times teachers and advisers have asked me if there is one place they can go to which provides a directory of all of the widening participation outreach programmes which are offered by universities and other organisations. If such a resource is available today, then I don’t know about it.

Fortunately, UCAS have announced that during 2023 they will be launching an Outreach Connection Service which will make it easier for schools and students to identify outreach programmes available at universities and other organisations too. UCAS is describing this as a ‘single source of truth’ of all of the opportunities available for your students.

In summary

Those of you who have been supporting students with UCAS applications for some time will know that there is a long tradition of the application process evolving over time. As this evolution continues, Advancing Access will be here to support you to navigate this process. If you’re not on it already, make sure you have signed up to our mailing list so you can keep abreast of the latest developments. In particular, we hope to arrange some extra CPD opportunities this year on the subject of references to make sure that schools are ready for the next UCAS application cycle.

Follow Paul on Twitter @Paul_Ed_Martin


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