Adviser to the stars

Maybe I've become a bit out of touch. "Oh, surely not", I hear you cry. But yes, I have to admit that I'm just not as plugged in to the whole business - some would say racket - of advising students with their university applications as I once was.

And at this time of year, of course, the process in full swing, with tens of thousands of applicants poring over their Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) profiles and trying to get that extra ounce out of those earnest homilies known as "personal statements".

In the advice I hand out on this subject, I tend to assume that many of the old verities are still relevant. Thus for the student who proudly showed me a draft of his carefully crafted rant - typed in capitals - about wanting to become a criminologist because of an unsolved murder in his family past, it was surely wise to ask him to think again.

But in other areas I'm not so certain any more. Maybe things really have changed. Maybe today's university admissions officers are part of the X Factor generation, rather than the hard-nosed academics I am forever reminding my students they must try to impress.

Maybe instead of wanting to know about breadth of reading, intellectual curiosity or in-depth knowledge of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, they would prefer to hear that applicants are so excited at the prospect of studying in the University of Bognor's Earth Sciences Department that they're practically wetting themselves.

Perhaps the current crop of academics are more interested in stardust than stem cells, wanting nothing more than to hear about their prospective students' overwhelming passion for parasites of the gut, double-entry bookkeeping or practical colonoscopy. Perhaps.

Elsewhere, I'm on safer ground. For instance, with that now familiar standby: "If successful, I will become the first person in my family to go to university." Everyone would no doubt agree that this sentiment is safe, if a little pass. It also has the advantage of being almost impossible to disprove.

When I was applying to become an undergrad myself, this was more of a risky strategy. By letting on - as in my case - that you came from a family of navvies and farm labourers, there was always the worry that the statement "I am the first in my family." would be read simply as: "I am a guttersnipe."

It was certainly novel, in the Jones family of the early 1970s, to have a university type in their midst. Dubbed "the professor", I found myself being treated as something of an oddity.

Were they proud of me, too? Probably, but it didn't always show. When I chose to become a mature student in my mid-twenties, my poor grandfather - a pick-and-shovel man if ever there was one - never got over how I had given up a good job to, in his words, "go back to school".

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London

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