Reforming the UCAS personal statement

Think tank: HEPI

Author(s): Tom Fryer; Steve Westlake; Steven Jones

November 24, 2022

This report from UK think tank HEPI looks at making the case for a series of short questions on university application forms.

The UCAS personal statement is a 4,000 character / 47-line essay that applicants submit when applying for UK undergraduate programmes. There is growing recognition that the UCAS personal statement needs reform, including from UCAS itself and from the former Minister for Higher Education, Michelle Donelan. However, we have a limited understanding of the challenges applicants face and what reforms may be most effective. A new paper from the Higher Education Policy Institute, Reforming the UCAS personal statement: Making the case for a series of short questions (HEPI Debate Paper 31), by Tom Fryer, Steve Westlake and Professor Steven Jones provides new evidence and analysis to address these gaps. The paper provides evidence of the challenges faced by applicants – analysing 164 personal statement drafts from 83 applicants from underrepresented backgrounds.

It finds: 83% of drafts fail to supply an evidence-based opinion about a relevant academic topic; many applicants struggle to organise their statement effectively, with 35% failing to write with cohesive paragraphs in at least one of their drafts; and there is a huge toll arising from the personal statement, with some applicants spending 30-to-40 hours crafting their essay. These challenges stem from the long-form free-response nature of the personal statement. It is this format that creates inequalities, as more advantaged applicants are better supported to meet the challenge. The long-form free-response nature also places an unnecessary burden on applicants, and does little to aid decision-making. In its current form, the UCAS personal statement is incompatible with Universities UK and GuildHE’s own Fair admissions code of practice, which over 100 higher education providers have signed. The paper proposes that the personal statement should be reformed to a series of short-response questions. This would address inequalities, remove any unnecessary burden and increase transparency. Two short-response questions are proposed which focus on: an applicant’s interest in their course(s); and relevant skills. These questions would assess whether applicants meet certain baseline competencies needed to complete a particular course, and they are compatible with the sector’s own Fair admissions code of practice.