Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A personal statement

Today's Guardian had an unhelpful article on the attitude of Cambridge admissions to an applicant's 'personal statement', a box on the UCAS form that allows the student to say something in joined-up prose about why they are applying for what they are applying for, why they are interested, what they've done in terms of preparation for the course and the like. The article offers the headline: ' Admitting defeat. So, universities don't read personal statements, A* grades aren't to be trusted and A-levels are routinely denigrated. Just what are students meant to make of it all?'

Students would do best not to take the alarming claims in the headline too seriously. Yes, there may have been a slightly clumsy statement recently on this issue, but the university's clarification (to be found here) is, well, pretty clear. We do read personal statements. Carefully. More than once.

What follows is my own view, not endorsed by any admissions tutor or the central admissions office, but since I do play a small role in the admissions process then I think it might be worth my saying how I view things.

The article begins:

Spare a thought for those poor year 12 students who, as they traipse around university open days this summer, will be wondering just what they have to do to get into the course of their choice.

Should they concentrate on beefing up their volunteering, work experience and extracurricular activities in order to have lots to put into their Ucas personal statements in the autumn? Or should they set all else aside and focus exclusively on trying to achieve the new A* grades at A-level?

The second paragraph offers a false dilemma. No, for my part I am not particularly interested in what volunteering work someone has done. But that is because I take my role to be one of assessing applicants for an academic course studying, say, philosophy. Some aspects of what the applicant has been up to - however important in other ways - are irrelevant as far as that goes. It might be interesting to hear that the applicant has been able to manage a number of different demands on his or her time, but that is still at best a minor consideration. But it is also true that I am not solely concerned with examination grades. I do want to read the personal statement because I want to know something about why the applicant is interested in coming to study this particular kind of course. They will have that commitment sorely tested when they get stuck in to the demands of the work, so I want to be assured that it is no passing interest and that they have done something to see if it is indeed a subject they will enjoy studying.

And in all of this, in the assessment of academic qualifications so far and in our reading of the personal statements, we do our best to take into account the applicant's educational background.

The article then claims:
Cambridge has said it does not use personal statements when deciding whom to interview, but it does want students who achieve at least one A*.
Again true, but only in a rather narrow sense. Worse, to put the point like this is again potentially misleading. Personal statements do not determine who is invited to interview, true, but that is because as far as possible we call all applicants to interview whom we think have a sufficiently strong background in prior qualifications to have a shot. They are not however left unused so far as the admissions process goes.

Like the interview, they are one of the ways in which we try to get as full a picture as possible of the candidate from which we can then begin to make an assessment of their suitability and aptitude for the course. It's not particularly mysterious.

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