UCAS recently announced changes to the personal statement section of university applications. The current free-form 4,000-character essay is going to be replaced by structured questions. These changes aim to make the application process fairer, simpler and more transparent for everyone. Kim Eccleston, head of strategy and reform at UCAS, described them as bringing “focus and clarity for students, reducing the need for support.”
These changes are partly in response to criticisms that the previous format favours privileged students who have access to more advice and guidance with their personal statements.
Who has decided on the changes to personal statements?
On 12th January the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, UCAS, published their report, The Future of Undergraduate Admissions, based on consultations with 1200 students, 170 teachers and 100 universities and colleges, the government, regulators and the charity sector. The report suggests several changes to the process of University Admissions to improve fairness and access for disadvantaged students, including the changes to personal statements.
When will the changes to UCAS personal statements take effect?
UCAS have suggested that the changes shouldn’t take place until the 2024/5 applications for courses starting in September 2025. This means that personal statements will remain unchanged for students applying next academic year for admissions in September 2024.
What are the main changes?
Currently students have a blank space to write a 4,000-character essay to convince universities and colleges of their suitability for their chosen course. This open essay will be replaced by a series of structured questions. UCAS says that this aims “to make it simpler for applicants to express themselves as well as increasing their confidence that they have properly understood what they should include.”
The proposed questions for the new style UCAS personal statement are:
UCAS are currently collecting feedback from students, schools, universities and colleges to help them refine these questions, so there will probably be some changes.
What are the Pros and Cons of the new system?
There is a general acceptance that the current system needs to change. When questioned 79% of students agreed with the statement that it is difficult to complete the current form without support and 83% said they found the process stressful. The new format should be simpler and less stressful for students to fill in without specialist help. It should also give them the confidence that they have included everything that they need to.
This more structured form should also make it easier for universities to identify the information that they need and make comparisons between students more accurate, fair and transparent.
There have been mostly positive responses to the suggestions from universities, schools and students. Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University, who has heavily criticised personal statements, welcomed the changes, commenting that, “This is a significant breakthrough in our efforts to make university admissions fairer and fit for purpose for all students.”
There have been some criticisms of the questions themselves and it is likely that changes will be made to some of these after the consultation process. Question 6 has received the most criticism, as the concept of Preferred Learning Styles is disputed by some educationalists. However, further information from UCAS suggests that they are asking whether students work best through taught sessions, independent learning or group work rather than if they have an auditory, visual or kinaesthetic learning style.
The Sutton Trust, who campaign for greater social equality in education, have argued that question 3 could still lead to advantages for students whose schools or parents have provided them with more opportunities. Another criticism is that even with the revised structure there will still be inequalities between students who receive a lot of help and advice with their answers and those who don’t.
The proposed changes haven’t satisfied those who wanted written personal statements to be replaced by multi-media submissions, possibly video based. UCAS have said that this is something that they will be exploring in the future but that changes wouldn’t be made without extensive consultation.
Are there any other changes expected to the university admissions process?
Apprenticeships are to be showcased alongside degrees on UCAS website from autumn 2023. School and college leavers will be able to explore apprenticeship opportunities alongside undergraduate courses so they can decide between their options in the same place. The Education Secretary says the plan is to develop a “one-stop shop” where young people can compare a range of occupations, training and education opportunities available to them.
Where can parents find out more?
Full details of the proposed changes to personal statements and a copy of ‘The Future of Undergraduate Admissions’ report can be found on the UCAS website.