Ucas reforms to personal statements: One step forward?

Ucas reforms to personal statements: One step forward?
Date13th Mar 2023AuthorGuest AuthorCategoriesPolicy and News

This blog was initially published on the HEPI website here.

On 12 January, UCAS released Future of Undergraduate Admissions, a report that contained details of five upcoming reforms

In the report, UCAS proposes to reform the free-text personal statement into a series of questions. This is welcome. As we noted in our recent HEPI Debate Paper on UCAS personal statements, an essay without a question is always going to breed uncertainty.

So the change does represent progress towards a fairer admissions system. However, the number of steps we take towards this fairer system will depend on how the questions are designed. 

The UCAS report makes an initial proposal of six questions across the following topics: 

  1. Motivation for Course – Why do you want to study these courses? 
  2. Preparedness for Course – How has your learning so far helped you to be ready to succeed on these courses? 
  3. Preparation through other experiences – What else have you done to help you prepare, and why are these experiences useful? 
  4. Extenuating circumstances – Is there anything that the universities and colleges need to know about, to help them put your achievements and experiences so far into context? 
  5. Preparedness for study – What have you done to prepare yourself for student life?
  6. Preferred Learning Styles – Which learning and assessment styles best suit you – how do your courses choices match that?

Our first point concerns inequality. To create admissions processes that address inequalities we should use questions that place explicit limits on the number of examples that can be used. If we leave questions open-ended, this risks creating a structure that allows some applicants to gain an advantage over their peers, a key problem with the original format. Also, where possible, questions should stress the acceptability of drawing upon activities, such as caring or part-time work, that may not be deemed ‘high-prestige’. This could minimise the impact of inequalities in access to these ‘high-prestige’ activities. The relatively small number of courses that require formal work experience could gain this information through an optional question.  

Secondly, admissions processes should prioritise applicants’ interests and avoid imposing an unnecessary burden. The current proposals contain several questions that appear similar, which does appear to impose an unnecessary workload on applicants and their advisers. We recommend combining the second (course preparedness), third (preparedness through other experiences) and fifth (study preparedness) questions into one, in order to protect applicants’ interests. 

Thirdly, other commentators have drawn attention to the association of ‘learning styles’ in question 6 with the widely debunked model that classifies people into four different learning modes: visual; aural; read/write; and kinesthetic. This does not seem to have been UCAS’s intention. Instead through informal conversations we understand the question intended to focus on applicants’ preferences for independent study versus contact time, or frequent short assessments versus substantive end-of-year approaches. Regardless, should applicants’ attitudes to learning and assessment influence admissions decisions? There could be a range of reasons why an applicant has chosen a certain provider, including geographical location for those with caring responsibilities, and many of these will trump concerns about learning styles. We recommend removing this question. 

Fourthly, while the report gives evidence that many applicants see the personal statement as an opportunity to advocate for themselves, this alone does not justify the creation of a large number of questions (or indeed, nor does it justify the status quo). Unfortunately, a lack of transparency prevents applicants from understanding how their statement will be read (if it is read at all), and many will be unaware of the research on inequalities in this area. These caveats are important when considering how applicants’ views should feed into discussions about creating an admissions system that protects all applicants. 

Our final point relates to validity. Admissions processes should use valid measures of applicants’ ability to complete their chosen courses. Although there is limited research in this area, we think there are opportunities to improve the proposed questions. 

To take one example, the first question asks ‘Why do you want to study these courses?’. We contend that an abstract question is unlikely to be the most valid way to assess applicants’ motivations. This question is likely to prompt similarly abstract or cliched answers, including in the form ‘Ever since a child…’. As an alternative, in our HEPI paper, we proposed the following: 

Please describe one topic that is related to your course. Please discuss what you have learnt about this topic, through exploring this outside of the classroom. This could include books, articles, blogs, seminars, lectures, documentaries, or any other format. 

This question measures both whether an applicant demonstrates a basic level of motivation and whether they understand what is covered on the course. By asking for a concrete example of a topic they have explored, we believe this question is likely to be a more valid way to assess whether applicants meet a basic level of motivation and preparedness, and it is less likely to result in overly abstract or clichéd responses that reveal little about applicants. 

UCAS’s proposed reforms to personal statements recognise that fair admissions require greater transparency, a more supportive structure, and the prevention of some applicants being placed at a disadvantage. Moving to a series of questions represents one step forward. However, to achieve these goals, the questions must be designed to address inequality and remove unnecessary burdens in a transparent and valid manner.  

There is currently no published research on how personal statements are used in admissions decisions. That’s why we are launching a survey to gather some initial data, which you can access here

We are particularly seeking input from people involved with the day-to-day work of undergraduate admissions. We would appreciate it if you could share this with any of your colleagues. We plan to use this data to feed into the public conversation about UCAS’s reforms. 

Tom Fryer is a PhD student working on higher education at Manchester, and the founder of Write on Point, a charity which offers support with personal statements to state school students, where he worked with Dr Steve Westlake, a historian and employability officer at Cardiff Metropolitan. Prof Steven Jones researches higher education at Manchester.


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