Bad form and good intentions

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
When helping with students' UCAS applications it pays to be economical with the truth. But, says Bill Hunter, such deception carries a price.

For many students, it is a happy coincidence that the time when they have to complete and submit their university application forms (UCAS) is around that time of the year when, like everyone else, teachers are enjoined to show plentiful goodwill to their fellows.

As if teachers' stress levels aren't high enough around Christmas, there is the added obligation to chase and chivvy students before collecting and checking sometimes dozens of these forms. And with most of them, a single check isn't enough. If you're doing the job as expected, each may need to be looked at three or four times, each time counselling the student to make changes.

These apply not so much to code names for higher education institutions, educational qualifications and personal details (though twice I have had to check with students who have mistakenly - that's what they said, anyway - crossed the "yes" box when asked "Do you have any criminal convictions?"; in the main, these are okay. The student's personal statement, though, is an altogether different affair. As its name implies, the personal statement is a student's opportunity to lend colour to a document that, apart from a teacher's reference, otherwise contains no indication of individual taste, talent or ambition.

This is where students have the opportunity to sell themselves, where they are expected to enthuse about interests, cultural preferences and reasons for choosing a particular course. Here is the chance to indicate their state of preparedness for an intellectual and social odyssey that might shape them for life.

So, with fewer students now actually being called to university interview, the significance of the personal statement cannot be underestimated. No wonder teachers press students to take time and care with their efforts.

Some, though, don't; not at the first, second or even third time of asking.

And if they do, and their efforts are still below par? Well, one can only extend seasonal charity and rejig the whole sorry mess. Indeed, not to do so is to invite censure from those managers whose main concern is to ensure as many students as possible make it to that vital next rung on the educational ladder.

Which is why, over the past few weeks, I have been busily engaged in a deception. With better and more careful students, I only needed to point out a missed word here, a comma there, elsewhere a wonky phrase.

Other personal statements, though, demanded a virtual re-write - in some cases, even after two or three attempts by the student. They may have passed GCSE English language, but their spelling, paragraphing, sentence construction and punctuation need extensive and repeated revision.

So much for form. Content is another problem. Ideas, authors, book titles, hobbies; some are invented, others inflated. In the end, it is impossible to tell where my version begins and the student's ends.

Colleagues as well as teachers in other schools and colleges tell me they have the same problem, not only with personal statements, but also UCAS references, some of which are minor masterpieces of creative evasion and touchy-feely euphemism.

Now publicity plays so great a part in recruitment and, by extension, funding, that teachers are pressured into getting students to university by whatever means. University entrance figures can help boost next year's student intake, increase funds and preserve jobs. So we're all - well, most of us - at it.

Do the universities know this? It's hard to believe not. The disparity between the exotic claims and accomplished style of the personal statements of some students and their subsequent performance at university must raise eyebrows from time to time. Or is the more likely response one of shrugged shoulders and a wry acknowledgment that bums on seats boost the kitty and pay the bills?

The near or actual rigging of many students' personal statements is symptomatic of our increasingly market-driven, compulsorily competitive education culture, just one sad by-product of which is an obligation to manufacture success where, all too often, none is deserved. Teachers deserve better than to be so compromised; education deserves better than to be so debased.

Bill Hunter teaches in the south of England, and writes here under a pseudonym.

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