Tom Fryer, Steve Westlake, and Steven Jones’ report for HEPI: ‘Reforming the UCAS personal statement: Making the case for a series of short questions’ raises important questions about the role of the personal statement in the UCAS and college admission process, in particular around those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
83% of personal statement drafts from applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds do not include an evidence-based opinion about a topic in their subject area. There is also evidence of applicants spending many hours on the personal statement, which may contribute negatively to the rest of their studies. Therefore, a good alternative to the personal statement would allow disadvantaged applicants to begin on a level playing field with their more advantaged peers.
While the systems discussed by the authors all have evidence supporting them, careful thought would be needed to ensure they worked for the British system in particular. We must consider that the short-form question system favoured by the report authors and used widely in America and Canada, does not provide the level of detail about a particular subject area or course that the personal statement in Britain asks for, as they recruit for general intake rather than a particular course. This does not make the use of short-form questions impossible, but does add an extra layer of complexity to writing questions that would be appropriate for different subject areas. It is also worth noting that the American and Canadian systems still require detailed support for applicants, across multiple drafts, with candidates advised to use support to structure their answers and choose appropriate topics (see one example from UCLA here).
The implementation of any new processes would need to take into account the consequences of making changes to the applicant-support infrastructure that exists in our schools. Currently schools and colleges have an established support system that exists to help students with writing personal statements. Adapting to a new system carries the risk of wiping out this support system and needing time to build a new one that works. This does not mean we should not attempt reform, but we will need to tread carefully when ensuring that a new system is worth the risk.