How to get students to university
28 Jan 2016
First, a quick look at the AS level position: UCAS report that the situation is largely unchanged since last year, ie most schools are continuing to offer them, but will continue to revisit this decision, especially once the first exams have been sat for the reformed subjects. So, as far as universities are concerned, AS levels are still likely to be useful in considering applicants. But, they can't be sure that all candidates will have taken them so they need something else to differentiate, too.
What else is there? Well, the personal statement will be even more important from now on. Unfortunately, those wonderful people over at the Sutton Trust tell us that this is far from ideal as a means of distinguishing between candidates. Reasons being:
1. Universities may give advice on how to write personal statements (see examples below), but they rarely specify the actual criteria used to evaluate them. Here's a typical example from a university chemistry department's admissions policy:
"We will look for evidence of a strong motivation and enthusiasm to study Chemistry. This may be demonstrated in many ways. We are interested to find out which areas of science interest the applicant most and why. We would also like to find out more about other, non-academic interests and activities."
Tip for students: search for admissions policies or at each of your chosen universities' websites and try to identify the actual criteria they'll use in your subject.
2. "Schools should support applicants in providing opportunities to undertake and reflect upon academic enrichment activities" says the report. This appears to be a cagey way of saying that schools should provide more academic enrichment activities. "Sections of detailed analysis and reflection in personal statements are highly valued by academics," says the report: so schools need to make sure that students have something to write about. This is what private schools are good at, and that's largely why they provide such a high proportion of students at top unis. (That, and the sense of entitlement they engender.)
Tip for students: do extra stuff related to your chosen subject and in your statement, reflect on it: what has it done for your interest in the subject etc.
3. "Schools and colleges need to improve the quality of staff training to ensure that key messages are consistent and based on up to date guidelines" - the Sutton Trust are clear on this: the research found that less than a quarter of (44) students’ personal statements were awarded the same grade when read by the teacher and the admissions tutor.
Tip for teachers: if you're advising on UCAS applications, check admissions policies for Russell Group unis (at least). Hopefully, if unis respond to the Sutton Trust research, they'll start to make these clearer.
4. The format of the personal statement could be improved to support all of the above. Fingers crossed on this.
Tip for students: check the UCAS tool, but remember that this is just to structure content, you'll also need to be careful what you write. Tip 1 is the key.
Here are some good pages from universities about writing personal statements, but do the tip 1 thing first! - that's subject specific, these are more general:
- How to write an effective personal statement
- What Admissions Tutors look for: The Personal Statement
- The personal statement (video)
- How to write an excellent personal statement (video)
- Personal Statements – an Insider's View
- Personal statements: Universities tell you what they want
- What admissions tutors have to say about personal statements
Final word of warning: these are all tips about how to write statements: you need to worry much more about what you can put in them!