Supporting College Learners with their Personal Statement

As our partner college careers advisers start to be deluged with students asking for support in writing their personal statements this term I thought it would be timely to re-visit how we can best help support learners with writing an effective personal statement.  At our first Linking London IAG Practitioner Group Meeting of this academic year, held on the 3rd October, attendees heard from Tim Dhir from Kingston University London, who delivered a very well received presentation on personal statements. If you missed the meeting and would like to have access to the presentation you can find a copy in the partner area of our website. As well as providing lots of useful tips and advice on how to support college students, Tim highlighted research on personal statements, disseminated by the Sutton Trust.

The Sutton Trust have produced several pieces of work on the subject of personal statements that are well worth reading. At the end of 2012 they published research from Dr Steven Jones at Manchester University which demonstrated that equal-attainment students submitted very different personal statements. Basic linguistic errors (such as spelling errors and apostrophe misuse) were almost three times more common in statements submitted by applicants attending sixth form schools and colleges than by those attending independent schools. The research also highlighted the disparity between independent school applicants and those from sixth form colleges in terms of access to the number of, and “quality” of, work related experiences and placements.

In 2016 the Sutton Trust published a research brief: Making a Statement by Dr Steven Jones (University of Manchester) and the HE Access Network, comparing how academics and teachers approached personal statements, as part of a pilot programme run by HEAN which supported young people from less advantaged backgrounds to write strong personal statements.  While it’s worth noting that the sample size was small, 44 personal statements were analysed as part of the pilot programme and the findings showed that the academics and teachers who reviewed them had very different views on what makes a strong personal statement.

Comments from the academics involved in analysing the 44 statements, who were from Russell Group institutions, not surprisingly emphasise that the main function of the personal statement is for a student to demonstrate their suitability and motivation for a specific course. The research suggests that the best way for students to demonstrate their suitability is to analyse a topic which goes beyond their current syllabus. In subjects such as English, this might mean giving a developed claim about a specific feature of a text, or for a more vocational course such as Nursing or Social Work, a detailed reflection on work experience. While the academics consistently put a premium on these sections of reflective and detailed analysis, the teachers who reviewed them often thought that these sections would actually lessen the chance of their students gaining an offer from a competitive university.

To quote from the research brief then in summary:  Admissions tutors tend to value focused and sustained analysis of a specific topic of interest or case study rather than broad statements about a subject, or attempts to make the statement more “personal”.

It’s well worth looking at the examples in the brief which features quote comments from teachers and admissions tutors. Only 10 of the 44 personal statements were awarded the same grade by both teacher and admissions tutor.

As Tim emphasised in his presentation on the 3rd, while academic attainment is still the most important factor overall, particularly for competitive courses and institutions, it’s important that we provide our college learners with the right guidance to help them to write an effective personal statement.  This research re-confirms in my mind that the “personal” element of the personal statement needs to treated carefully and generalised subjective statements should be avoided. Rather than appealing to the admissions tutors heart with words like desire, dream, passion or even obsession (and yes I’ve seen that word used a few times!) students should appeal to their head with concrete evidence via, for example, detailed analysis of something they have read outside of the syllabus or relevant work experience.  If our students can be encouraged to do this AND they avoid spelling and grammatical mistakes they will be well on their way to completing a strong personal statement.

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