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.
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!