Teachers and admissions tutors agreed on the quality of less than a quarter of statements according to study by the social mobility charity, the Sutton Trust.
One teacher said that an extract from a pupil’s personal statement was “More theory than analysis… Lots of opinion and theorising”. An admissions tutor disagreed, saying that it was “excellent evidence of intellectual curiosity”, the research briefing says.
Commenting on an extract from another student’s personal statement, a teacher thought it “showed clear enthusiasm for law” while the admissions tutor found it had an “empty opening statement”.
The Sutton Trust says the findings highlight the need for universities to be far clearer about what is required in a personal statement, including publishing their criteria for evaluating them.
Teachers, it says, need to be better trained to support students and remain up to date on expectations.
Both universities and UCAS should also consider whether the current “free form” personal statement format could be improved to ensure it is a fair indicator of an applicant’s potential, the trust adds.
Sir Peter Lampl, Sutton Trust chairman said: “Today’s research shows how important it is that students get good advice about their personal statements, which are a key part of the application process to universities.
“The views of teachers and admissions tutors can be a world apart, so it is vital we ensure teachers, students and parents are well informed about what universities want in the statements.”
Dr Steven Jones, author of the research, said: “The advice and guidance that some young people receive at school when composing their personal statement may not reflect the content and style expected by admissions tutors at the UK’s most selective universities.”
The Manchester University academic said that it was possible to “level the playing field" by offering appropriate advice and support to those from poorer backgrounds.
Dr Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, said: "Our universities make it clear on their websites and in other materials that personal statements are primarily an opportunity for applicants to show their academic interests and reasons for wanting to study a particular subject.
"Our universities give lots of help and advice to teachers, especially those working in deprived areas. This includes organising free conferences for teachers to advise them on the applications process, including specific sessions on writing personal statements."
Dr Jones studied the personal statements of 44 state-educated students, 27 of whom had received support writing them through the Sutton Trust's Academic Apprentices scheme and 17 who did not.
Each of their statements was read by subject teachers and Russell Group admissions tutors who graded them according to whether they felt it would increase or decrease the likelihood that the applicant would be admitted.
Only 10 of the personal statements were awarded the same grade by both teacher and admissions tutor: 20 statements were one grade different, 13 statements were two grades different and one statement was three grades different.
The Sutton Trust has published a document for teachers to help them use the findings to advise pupils on the personal statements.
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