Personal statements

What does academic research tell us about personal statements?

It might be argued that writing a personal statement is something of a guessing game. Students know very little about those who will read it. How can students really know what admissions tutors are looking for, and surely different admissions tutors are looking for different things anyway?

There could be a kernel of truth in all of this, however we should not make the mistake of thinking that trying to craft the optimal statement is a futile exercise. Whilst writing an effective personal statement is never going to be (nor should it be) an exact science, we still know from academic research that there is an approach which can be followed in order to maximise the chances of success.

Academic research on personal statements

The first thing to note on the subject of academic research on personal statements is that there is all too little of it. This creates a nice opportunity for any existing or aspiring researchers, but at the same time it means that the whole business of personal statements is still something of an enigma to teachers, advisers and students.

Many studies in this area have simply focussed narrowly on entry to medicine courses. Reading studies from other countries can be interesting but we can never be sure to what extent we might be able to generalise to the UK context.

Perhaps the best study so far on personal statements in the UK has been carried out by Steven Jones at the University of Manchester. Jones analysed over 300 personal statements submitted to a Russell Group university. To ensure that his sample was comprised of students of a similar level of academic ability, all statements which were analysed were written by students who went on to achieve three B grades at A level.

Presumably then if all of the students were of the same level of attainment, the quality of all of the statements would have been similar? Think again. Jones found that statements written by students from comprehensive schools, for example, contained a higher number of spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes than those written by pupils from grammar schools or independent schools. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the students from comprehensive schools were receiving less support from their teachers, it could instead be the case that those students received more support from clued-up parents and siblings, for example.

Another phenomenon Jones observed was that students from different school backgrounds spoke very differently about their work experience and extra-curricular activities. Whilst students from independent school backgrounds were able to rattle off an eclectic list of varied, prestigious work experience they had completed, the comprehensive school students sometimes had to draw on a slightly narrower range of experiences, such as school trips. There is a sociological explanation for this – those young people from a better-off background are able to draw upon larger reserves of “cultural capital” than their worse-off peers.

Teachers and advisers need to pay attention to research like this, as it reminds us that students who are from a more disadvantaged background might need slightly more support in writing their personal statements to ensure that they don’t lag behind some of their equally-qualified peers. And what if students don’t have as much to talk about in terms of work experience and extra-curricular activities? Don’t worry – as you read on and learn the thing which admissions tutors care about the most in a personal statement, you will realise that there is in fact no barrier to entry for disadvantaged students.

What is included in the most effective personal statements?

Jones’ first piece of research on personal statements illustrates a problem, but thankfully a subsequent article has helped us to think about the solution. In 2016 Jones teamed up with The Sutton Trust and ‘HEAN’ (now Causeway Education) to carry out some further research on personal statements.

The researchers created an “Academic Apprenticeship” programme and provided students with a set of structured activities to complete which involved wider reading and critical analysis relating to the course of study they were applying for. The researchers describe the programme as follows:

“Apprentices were encouraged to scrutinise academic materials and course-related activities in greater depth. Through a set of subject-specific pathways, the Academic Apprenticeship advised students to create personal statements that focused on showcasing their academic suitability for a course, particularly by offering detailed analysis of a topic that went beyond the A-level syllabus. In the case of vocational subjects such as medicine, applicants were encouraged to scrutinise a work experience placement in depth.” (Jones & HEAN, 2016).

Students therefore should not be shy when it comes to going in to detail about what may be quite a narrow and niche area of their subject which has particularly captured their imagination. Interestingly, the researchers found that there can be disagreement between teachers and admissions tutors about what constitutes a good personal statement, with teachers tending to feel quite cautious about the idea of students including lengthy sections of analysis in their personal statements. Although well-intentioned, this caution may not always be entirely justified.

Jones and HEAN tested their Academic Apprenticeship through an experiment in which a control group of students who did not receive the new advice. Ultimately 60% of students in the study group went on to be accepted by a Russell Group university, compared to just 40% of students in the control group.

The best students therefore understand that going the extra mile and completing a bit of their own extra independent research (and then critically analysing this in some depth in the personal statement) is what could really make the difference in winning over an admissions tutor. I’m not saying that it’s a complete waste of time for students to point out how diligent and conscientious they are, or state that they were captain of the school football team. However, we could be fooling ourselves if we think that this sort of thing is going to make a big difference in the end.


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