Reuse Reference Ucas Personal Statement

It's the ultimate challenge: write to your prospective university proving that you're 100% committed to your chosen subject, capable of studying it at degree level – and that you should be chosen above other candidates.

Oh, and by the way, you only have 4,000 characters to play with.

My predicament, as I muddled through my Ucas application two Septembers ago, was that I was interested in too many subject areas – and some of them were completely unrelated.

How do you prove to a university that you're the most suitable candidate to study computer science, but also art, accounting and architecture?

I'm not the only one who has found the personal statement requirements limiting, and thankfully it looks like things are about to change.

A recent review of the university admissions process suggests that Ucas should cater to students with varying interests.

It proposes "allowing an optional section of the personal statement to be tailored to each choice and allowing additional personal statements in defined circumstances."

Providing an optional section with the application form seems like a good idea. The alternative – simply allowing students to submit several, entirely distinct personal statements – could lead many to waste time in the run up to exams.

Students invest a lot of effort to ensure their personal statements are engaging and, most importantly, that they relate their skills and extra-curricular achievements to the chosen subject area.

Unfortunately, this year's sixth formers won't benefit from the changes since they are unlikely to be implemented for another four years. So what should students do in the meantime?

The Ucas website recommends students speak to a careers adviser if they are thinking about applying for courses that share no common themes.

It's also a good idea to speak to current students and visit campuses to get a feel for each course.

In the end, I decided to dedicate my personal statement to one subject area, knowing that eventually I'd need to make up my mind anyway. I picked five computer related degrees and with some trepidation, hit the submit button.

The Ucas process is a distant memory now and, having just finished my first year of study, I'm convinced that I made the right choice.

But I wonder about the students who will begin the process in September – will they restrict themselves to one subject area, and then live to regret it?

Jane, 17, spent two days crafting her personal statement on her university application form this year.

She was applying for a place at Cambridge University to study history. It took four drafts for her to be happy enough to send it off.

She might as well have spared herself the bother.

Cambridge's director of admissions, Geoff Parks, has admitted that tutors at his university do not assign any marks to the personal statement – an essay students write on why they chose the subject they are applying for and why they are suited to it.

Parks said students now receive so much help – from their teachers or from websites that offer to write the statements – that universities cannot tell whether a student has written any of it.

He said: "With the profusion of companies and websites offering to help applicants' personal statements for a fee, no admissions tutor believes [personal statements] to be the sole work of the applicant any more.

"We certainly don't assign any marks to personal statements. I have been told by students after they have been admitted that their schools write the personal statements. References from teachers do not count for much either, Parks added. Teachers have stopped writing anything interesting or controversial now that students can demand to see what they have written.

Cambridge judges students on their grades and predicted grades instead, Parks said.

Jane, who does not want to give her full name, said: "If tutors are worried that the statements have been written by other people, they can grill students hard at the interview. They should be able to differentiate between those who wrote their personal statements with genuine passion, and those who simply got someone else to do it for them."

A spokesman for Cambridge University said: "Cambridge admissions tutors and subject interviewers do indeed give careful consideration to the personal statements of applicants for undergraduate admission.

"While the potential for coaching or third party involvement makes it difficult to attribute a 'score' to a personal statement, we do regard it as providing valuable background information.

"Cambridge probably interviews more applicants than any other UK university, and we necessarily use personal statements to inform the interview process because a purely academic record tells us nothing about the personality we are engaging with and how well they will adapt to college life."

Roderick Smith, director of admissions at Birmingham University, said his university had refused to consider "several dozen" students last year after it found out they had paid an essay mill to write their personal statements for them.

And Smith said a teacher at an independent school had told him: "Of course we help our students with their personal statements, their parents are paying £7,000 a term!"

Admissions tutors may ignore the personal statements of students applying for engineering and science subjects, Smith said.

"Where there are more places than applicants, students are likely to get an offer whatever their personal statement may or may not say," he said.

"We look at whether someone has the requisite academic achievements; then, if there are too many students for the number of places, we look at their personal statements."

Tim Westlake, director of admissions at Manchester University, said its tutors took personal statements seriously. "But we wonder whether we should choose students to interview on their qualifications, and then discuss their personal statement with them at interviews."

Oxford University's head of admissions, Mike Nicholson, said the personal statement was "a good way to distinguish the truly gifted, original and inspired". He said: "We find it a very helpful way to identify what they are doing above and beyond their A-level studies."

Ucas, the university admissions service, is considering whether students should write a separate personal statement for each of the five university courses they apply for, rather than write a generic personal statement for all of them, as they do at present.

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