Are you one of the 23% of teachers that includes the top piece of advice from admissions tutors when marking a personal statement?

 
Helen Drummond, our  Director of Partnerships , discusses what makes a competitive personal statement.

Helen Drummond, our Director of Partnerships, discusses what makes a competitive personal statement.

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What is it about personal statement writing that makes students suddenly start to express themselves in such a strange yet entirely predictable way? The fiery language comes out; ‘passion’, ‘sparked’, and ‘ignited’ combined with connectives like ‘furthermore’, ‘moreover’ and ‘thus’ while the whole piece overflows with unbridled enthusiasm expressed with the help of Microsoft Word’s synonym finder. Anyone who regularly reviews personal statements will already be nodding. Here at Causeway we have been supporting students in state schools to write better personal statements for seven years, but now much of our focus is on supporting schools to truly understand what makes a good application. 

Does the personal statement even matter anymore? 

Even with the same grades, a state-educated student is a third less likely to get a Russell Group offer (Boliver, 2013).  Our own research with the Sutton Trust very clearly shows that a good personal statement can make a difference, and despite the mixed messages that come from universities about what they want to see or whether they even read the statement at all, it is still a worthwhile exercise to pull together a good personal statement. The process of researching and writing it can help a student explore whether they are applying for the right subject and a high-quality personal statement is one of the factors that could sway an admissions tutor to select a student when they are faced with a competitive pool of applicants.  

Teachers need to be up-to-date 

Originally, we started working one-to-one with young people from under-represented groups over the summer to improve the quality of their applications before they applied in the Autumn Term. However, despite using admissions tutors’ and subject experts’ input, students would often contact us once back at school to say that they had been asked by their teachers to significantly alter their drafts.  In fact, in our own research with the Sutton Trust, we found that teachers and admissions tutors asked to grade the quality of a set of personal statements only agreed in 23% of cases. The single most important element for admissions tutors was a paragraph of in-depth research around their subject, which was the part teachers were mostly likely to suggest leaving out. 

So, whilst we still work with young people, a lot of our focus has shifted to making sure that teachers have the most up-to-date knowledge when supporting students in planning, and then marking, a personal statement.

Prudent advice 

The advice given here will be right for the majority of students. I don’t want to stifle creativity and the odd outlier makes for a good story, you know, the wacky student who wants to stand out by writing their application in the style of a Churchill speech. However our personal statement guidance works, and we have the results to prove it: in our first year evaluation 100% of students in the study group got a Russell Group offer compared to 73% of students in a comparison group. 

So, here it is, your checklist for marking a personal statement. Print it out and stick it on your wall! Then tweet us at @Causeway_edu if it helps!

Supporting the supporters: how can we help teachers to provide high-quality information, advice and guidance to young people?

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Fionna McLauchlan, our Monitoring, Evaluation and Research Manager, has been looking at data showing how important it is to support teachers so they can make sure young people get the guidance they need when looking at their options for post-18 choices.

We know from our work with schools that young people often turn to their teachers for information, advice and guidance (IAG) on post-18 pathways, and a recent Office for Students (2018) poll found that 68 per cent of prospective students had consulted or would consult their teachers for advice on what, and where, to study. This result was ahead of friends and peers (67 per cent) and websites (60 per cent).

But, as discussed in our roundtable with our friends at the Fair Education Alliance (FEA) on post-16 choices, teachers don’t always feel equipped to provide appropriate and up-to-date IAG to their students.

We wanted to dig a bit deeper into this issue, so we carried out some research with Teacher Tapp into how teachers feel about providing IAG to young people. The responses highlighted the imperative need to ensure that teachers feel adequately supported and trained on how to advise young people to make informed choices about post-18 pathways.

Provision of training in Higher Education (HE) information, advice and guidance

Out of the teachers surveyed, 89% had not received any training in providing Higher Education (HE) information, advice and guidance for students in the past year. This breaks down to 83% of senior leaders and 90% of classroom teachers when we look at levels of seniority. These are remarkably high figures considering the responsibility that teachers and schools have in supporting young people into post-18 pathways.

Our work with schools has shown how important it is to empower teachers to provide up-to-date and comprehensive information, advice and guidance as part of school careers and progression provision. Case studies from our Access Champions programme, where we train a lead teacher to make sustainable changes to their systems for progression to HE, demonstrate the positive impact training and support can have for teachers and schools. Access Champions was described as a “revelation” by one of our lead teachers in Bristol, and a lead teacher in Suffolk shared with us how the programme will “transform young people’s lives”.

Provision of high-quality information, advice and guidance in schools is particularly important for young people from groups historically under-represented in access to HE, as we know they are more likely to seek support from “hot” sources of information, like their teachers or their parents, rather than “cold” sources, such as information provided by websites and search engines.

Knowledge of post-18 pathways

The policy landscape for post-18 pathways can be tricky to navigate. There’s an overwhelmingly large amount of information available, with few resources on offer to collate it or understand it in the context of a young person.

We wanted to know how confident teachers felt in the provision of IAG on two key policy areas that are becoming increasingly more important for young people: contextual offers to specific Higher Education institutions and advanced and degree apprenticeships. 

Out of the teachers surveyed, 70% felt that they did not know how to support students applying for advanced and degree apprenticeships, and 50% felt that they did not know how to inform students about contextual offers to specific universities.

This highlights the current gap in knowledge that teachers have in post-18 pathways, and the inequalities that some young people may be experiencing in the quality of IAG that they receive.

It’s the quality, not quantity, of IAG, that needs to be prioritised in schools, as research suggests that disparities in school practices around progression could lead to unequal outcomes for young people. The answer too much choice is not more information, but high-quality information that’s tailored to young people’s needs.

How can we support teachers and schools to provide high-quality IAG?

We know that for many hardworking teachers, they lack the time and resources to provide the kind of IAG that they would want for their students. But, as key influencers for young people, it’s vital that we provide a way for schools to improve their provision of IAG without placing an excessive burden on teachers.

Our Access Champions programme supports senior leaders to make sustainable changes to their existing school systems for progression. With a set of indicators to diagnose problem areas and a development plan to drive changes, a lead teacher can adapt and improve current provision in a way that saves time and prioritises the changes that need to happen to achieve impact for their students.

We see CPD of this kind as a key intervention for social mobility in the UK. We need to look beyond providing interventions that only target young people by incorporating “support for the supporters”, i.e. helping the key people that influence and guide young people in the choices they make.

If we want all young people to have equal access and participation in Higher Education, then we need to ensure that all young people receive appropriate and relevant information, advice and guidance at school, and this starts with empowering teachers.


Research was carried out in December 2018 by Teacher Tapp, who surveyed 771 teachers from teachers in secondary schools with sixth forms. Results are and weighted to be respresentative of teachers in schools in England (including private schools) using population characteristics drawn from the School Workforce Census.

How great student ambassadors can make a real difference

Many universities offer students the chance to act as ambassadors alongside their studies. It’s a winning idea all-round: students can build their skills and share their experiences of university life, and universities can really connect with potential new students in a genuine, authentic way.

But it’s vital to make sure that the any ambassador programme is of high quality. Ambassadors need to understand their role, and how to interact effectively with young people and to ensure the best outcomes for the young people they’re working with.

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While there’s no standard for student ambassador training, we’ve developed a programme of workshops for undergraduates that makes sure ambassadors are equipped to work to their best across a wide variety of widening participation contexts.

For the past few years we’ve trained ambassadors for UNIQ, Oxford University’s flagship summer school programme.

I found it really motivating and inspiring to think about what UNIQ’s purpose is and how we can go the extra mile to support students as much as possible
— Katie Truslove, UNIQ Ambassador

Our training helped ambassadors to frame their contribution, understanding why their role is vital to the intervention’s success, from logistical support to leading sessions

It helped them develop confidence in interactions, so ambassadors become comfortable with the dynamics of individual, small group and large-scale interactions, and their responsibilities in these situations

Discussing the scenarios in pastoral care … brought up issues I know I would have struggled to respond to on my own
— Emma Hogg, UNIQ Ambassador

And it helps them implement effective techniques so they can integrate effective teaching techniques into their practice

We get great feedback from the sessions: every single one of the participants told us they left the workshop with clear strategies they could use during the Summer School.

Reminded me how much I was capable of and made low points into lessons
— Kyra Leyland, UNIQ Ambassador

How do we join up support for young people making choices at post-16?

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The landscape for post-16 education and training is more complex than ever, and many students lack the information to make good decisions about their next steps – whether that be further education, an apprenticeship, or university.

Last Friday we hosted a roundtable discussion between more than 20 of our friends and co-members of the Fair Education Alliance that looked at the issues in provision of careers and progression advice to students at all stages of the education system, and started to think about ways of joining up support for post-16 routes.

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The afternoon’s discussion centred on the gaps in provision of advice and support at different levels – from post-16 right through to careers and employment – why they exist and what the key barriers to overcome them are. It also looked how partnerships might help to overcome those barriers, and at existing programmes and how effective have they been.

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With a varied set of perspectives around the table, including charities and campaigning organisations, schools, employers and young people, there was much to talk about and an encouraging amount of common ground about how to really make a difference.

The discussion covered progression from post-16 right through to careers and employment, and included some incredibly useful perspective from those at the sharp end.

As our work currently focuses on the choices young people have to make about post-18 education, some of the main themes related to that which stood out to us are ones we have been thinking about and working on for some time:

There isn’t a clear way to navigate all the information that currently exists, leading to choice overload.

This is something that we’ve been aware of for some time, and something we blogged about when the House of Commons Education Committee published its Value for money in higher education report late last year.

It’s certainly a complicated issue, especially when you consider, as the Careers and Enterprise Company's "Moments of Choice" paper (2016) pointed out, that "young people are presented with a choice environment in which attempting to act rationally looks like an irrational choice.

We feel that the answer to “too much choice” should not be “too much information”, though it’s clear that making all the information easier to find and clearer to understand so it’s easier to draw comparisons between different options, can only make things easier for young people when faced with a daunting array of options.

Young people’s main influencers – teachers, parents and carers – are not always equipped to provide reliable information, advice and guidance on post-16 and post-18 pathways.

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When we work in schools and colleges, especially in areas where progression to higher education is less likely, this is something we see an awful lot. We blogged about this earlier this year – and it’s something that the Office for Students is also keeping an eye on, as it consulted on it earlier this year.

Young people are often seen as singular decision makers, doing their research and occasionally turning to parents or teachers for advice. But anyone who works with students will tell you that the reality is quite different: their choices are social as well as individual; partly emotional and partly rational, rarely linear and often highly changeable.

Importantly, these decisions are powerfully shaped by key influencers: parents, friends and teachers. And young people from disadvantaged backgrounds rely particularly on these "hot" networks of support rather than the "cold" information provided by websites and search engines.

So for Information, Advice and Guidance to really be effective we need to start by ‘supporting the supporters’ – helping teachers, parents and carers give informed, reliable advice, rather than thinking about them as being peripheral or secondary to the decision-making process.

It’s important to integrate high-quality, joined-up advice and guidance into existing systems for schools and colleges.

We’ve been working on this for a couple of years now – our Access Champions programme is intended to do just that by providing a sustained programme of training and support to schools and colleges.

Over time, we work with a nominated member of staff within the school or college, helping them to become the ‘Access Champion’, responsible for excellence in advice and guidance within the school. We help them with a clear diagnosis of the quality of support for young people and a development plan to make improvements.

We’re still evaluating the programme and will share the results once they’re ready, but there’s really good evidence that this is making real change to young people’s lives and we hear really great feedback from those we work with – it’s been described as “a revelation” by Brimsham Green school in Bristol, and “has encouraged students to take progression seriously” according to St Edmund Campion school in Birmingham. Mildenhall College Academy in Suffolk told us that Access Champions “will transform young people’s lives”. You can read these case studies, and more, on our case studies page.

There is no mechanism for schools to filter the opportunities being offered to them on the basis of quality or suitability.

This is a really interesting problem – and, as a charity that delivers programmes with really good evidence of effectiveness to schools and colleges, something that’s as important to us as it is to the schools and colleges that must make best use of scarce resources.

So we were pleased when the Office for Students announced the Evidence and Impact Exchange in February. By collating existing research, identifying gaps in current evidence and generating its own research to fill those gaps, the EIX will play a critical role in disseminating accessible information and advice to decision makers across the HE sector.

As we said when the announcement was made, we know that our programmes are getting thousands of young people into and through HE who would not otherwise have had this opportunity. We, and our colleagues in the sector, are really looking forward to contributing our evidence of impact to the EIX and to learn from what others in the sector are doing well.

It’s clear there’s much still to do to get to the point where all young people have fair access to their best possible future, but we left the roundtable with a sense of optimism and positivity – there is such a lot of good work going on, and a real sense that, working in partnership, there’s a good chance to make real progress.

We’re looking forward to making real progress over the coming months and years.

Putting users at the heart of what we do

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Ed Penn, who looks after the development of OSCAR, our online system that helps students write outstanding personal statements, reflects on a fascinating project that looked deeply at how users interact with technology, and how simple changes can make massive improvements.

OSCAR is one of the main ways we help students - it guides young people step-by-step through the often-difficult process of writing their personal statement. We know it’s effective: when we worked with the Sutton Trust to look at what makes a successful personal statement, we found that students who follow the approach outlined in OSCAR produce applications that are demonstrably better, and that a better application makes students more likely to get offers from top universities.

But we also know OSCAR’s personal statement tool isn’t perfect - writing the personal statement is a complicated process, and feedback from schools we work with sometimes suggested that students struggle to follow it. Rather than make changes unilaterally, we wanted the people who used it – young people – to be part of the design process.

Late last year we secured funding from Innovate UK, a public body that promotes human-centred design. We asked Innovate to help fund a design consultant to test young people’s views, learn more about what they needed, and test out ways to improve the design of OSCAR’s personal statement tool.

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So in the three months from January to March, we worked with Rachel Smith to learn about student views and what to do to make improvements to OSCAR. Rachel is a user experience expert, and has worked with a variety of young people’s organisations to improve their digital engagement, and suggested we first test the platform as it stands to find out what really mattered to students. So we visited Cambridge Regional College, Herne Bay High School in Kent, and Brimsham Green School near Bristol, where we spoke to 19 students about their experiences of using OSCAR.

From our testing we could see straight away what needed to change. Students wanted lots more information about each stage of the writing tool – they were unsure what they were meant to be aiming for. They wanted the design of some pages to be simpler to make clear where they should enter information and discuss their work. And they wanted to be able to move around the tool more easily with more flexible navigation.

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Taking that insight on board, Rachel, with our in-house team, built several prototypes that reflected what we’d heard. It wasn’t completely different – we knew that the current OSCAR structure does improve student writing. Instead, it aimed to clarify and simplify what young people were being asked to do.

Having sketched these prototypes out, we went back to see what young people made of the changes. We visited Long Road Sixth Form in Cambridge, Mildenhall College Academy in Suffolk, and Mascalls Academy in Kent, and asked students whether our changes matched their preferences.

Most of what we’d designed was better, some wasn’t – but crucially, we now know exactly what students want from OSCAR. Being able to get this level of insight is incredibly valuable, and means we’ll be able to make changes that will really benefit those we want to help most - young people.

We’ll make these changes to OSCAR in the next few months. They’ll be complete in time for the new academic year starting in September, and should help young people work their way through OSCAR with much less support.

As an organisation we’re always trying to do the thing that works, not the thing that’s easiest – which includes recognising when our own work can be better. We’re looking forward to making the personal statement tool more accessible for everyone.