Nobody likes a smart-arse

24th June 2005 at 01:00
"Hello. I am an organised and motivated person, as evidenced by my captaincy of the school debating, judo and hockey teams, my vacation work running a youth TV station and the fact that I am head of school, head chorister and senior anti-bullying counsellor as well as leading the Sea Cadets.

"During my GCSE year I passed crumhorn and viol-da-Gamba at grade 6, and headed a neighbourhood campaign against new housing which successfully preserved a habitat for the silverweed moth.

"In my capacity as MD of our Young Enterprise company I have made a Pounds 250,000 profit for charity and been awarded the Alan Michael Sugar medal for crunchy management.

"I run, row, ballroom-dance and cycle for my county and have gained a Royal Geographical Society grant to head an expedition to the Falklands during my gap year researching penguin-droppings and soil fertility, although I hope this will also leave me time to spend six months teaching Su Doku techniques to autistic children in a leper colony in Uttar Pradesh. I would like to study at your university because...."

No point reading on, is there? You hate the candidate already, smug little bleeder. It's two in the morning, the applications are lying in a drift under the desk, and you are an exhausted, underpaid, overstretched university tutor. You basically try to keep loving your subject and your students, but find it uphill work as ever more get shoe-horned into your tattered lecture theatres. You want to teach bright, focused, energetic, and if possible entertainingly quirky young people, who will bring a new generation's intelligence to your field. You don't want whey-faced little swots who never go outdoors, or illiterate oafs with multiple Asbos, or idle lumps who watch Big Brother Live. You know why Ucas personal statements are necessary. Yet there is something about them which makes you want to rip and stamp and fling and howl. If you have to read about one more multi-skilled head girl with 18 starred GCSEs you will sink an axe in the vice-chancellor's door.

Imagining this scenario, I was dismayed to read - in a book about parents and the university years - that it is "never too early" to get your GCSE child fettling up his or her CV to look better on the Ucas statement - get them off up the Himalayas, sharpish, was this author's advice. Anything to make them "stand out". She also claimed that most parents write their children's statements. I think she's wrong: ultra-pushy parents and teachers may do just that, but in my experience the only advice kids accepted was "don't start out by saying you're a prefect, universities are full of clever difficult people who hated prefects".

But by and large, a sensible adult just advises them to remember that university is a course of study and not a gold medal for general fabulousness, and lets them be themselves. Only rarely is a caveat necessary: one innocent kid from a militaristic institution was found to have written in the first line that he held the Parade Ground Cup for smartness and bearing. Since it was a leftish Midlands ex-poly he was going for, it was gently suggested that he might move that a bit lower down, beneath his burning enthusiasm for geography.

The whole idea of children that age having to lay out a boastful, artificially padded version of their lives is strangely depressing. Just as it is depressing when a school says "he ought to play an instrument, it's very good on the CV", without first saying that it might bring joy, open up new pathways of sensitivity and confer skill. The same goes for other activities: if you are good at games, adventurous, musical, or enjoy taking responsibility, great. Do it for its own sake, and mention it on your UCAS form in a brief, modest line at the end. Obviously if your hobby is relevant, like scuba or beachcombing for a marine biology degree, you could put that in. A politics don will be glad that you lobbied the council; an English tutor might be pleased to note that you won a short story competition. On the other hand, if you list too many starring parts in school plays, he or she might start to suspect that your hidden intention is to join drama soc and be permanently unavailable for seminars owing to your rehearsal schedule. Think on.

And eschew this braggadocio piling-up of ski-grades, day skipper certificates , expensive expedition-holidays funded by your parents, and the fact that you have so many enamel lapel-badges on your blazer that you walk with a permanent list to starboard. Pushy parents, butt out.

University officials are, ex officio, not stupid. They know which ones you write. It doesn't make them warm to your offspring.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today