Lies, damned lies and personal statements

9th January 2009 at 00:00

Don't look now, but this year's deadline for university applications is almost upon us again. Although Ucas's doors have been open since September, there is always a big rush to meet their closing date of January 15th.

In FE in particular, where many students only began their level 3 courses in the autumn, there are good reasons for delaying making choices until the whole thing has been thought through.

Sadly for some students though, this means doing practically no work for the whole of December, while they agonise over every detail of their application. Nothing gets more attention than their personal statement - the section where they get the chance to sell themselves to prospective universities - which for many means 600 words of pure angst.

I was chatting to my brother, who is a head of department in a Midlands university, about this recently. As someone on the receiving end, what did he think about all this effort aimed in his direction?

Without hesitation he said, "A total waste of time."

"Really?" I said in a shocked voice. I was thinking as much about the effort I had put into giving advice as the wasted labours of my students.

"Really," he confirmed. "By the way, we are speaking off the record aren't we?" Suddenly he remembered that his little brother was a journalist as well as a teacher.

"Of course," I said. "It's not as if I'm going to put it in my column is it?"

So what did he think about the statements he read? "I don't read them. At least most of the time I don't. No one does. They're all full of drivel and lies anyway. The admissions department look at their GCSEs, and if they think there's a chance they'll meet our standard offer, they give a conditional acceptance. If not they turn them down."

I hardly dared ask my next question. "Er, what about the academic reference?" Many tutors put almost as much TLC into these as the students put into their personal statements.


"You mean they're full of drivel and lies too?"

"Yes . but in their case there's something more: exaggeration. We all know that teachers `big up' their students when predicting their grades. Wouldn't be doing their job otherwise, would they?"

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