Date Uploaded: 26/10/2010
The last thing university hopefuls should do when composing an application statement is tell the truth.
Who am I?' It's a question I ask myself every day. But I'm only 57 and a half. I have the rest of my life to find an answer. My daughter, by contrast, at 17 and three-quarters, has to answer it definitively, now – "without using italics, bold or underlining" – in her UCAS personal statement, the one all applicants must make if they want to proceed to the promised land of higher education and deeper debt. How "personal" though, is this statement? And how useful?
According to UCAS, it is "your opportunity to tell universities and colleges about your suitability for the course you hope to study". "You" are not alone though – UCAS advises you to "ask people you trust for their feedback". In other words, for every boy named Will sweating to define his suitability for the music course at the University of East Anglia, UCAS knows there may be up to two parents sweating alongside him – not to mention the head of sixth form, who'll check his statement, and even a family friend who happens to be a journalist. (Trust me, UEA – all I did was correct Will's grammar and re-order his sentences. Accept him on his merits, not mine.) The personal statement, then, is not personal in the way that the pants I'm wearing are personal. It is more like a big tent, containing (irrelevant) adults.
As to the statement's contents, the pressure is intense: "You need to demonstrate your enthusiasm and, above all, ensure that you stand out from the crowd." Now, I'm no philosophy graduate, but how does UCAS propose that every candidate stands out from the crowd? Surely, a crowd in which everyone stands out is a conceptual nonsense. In practice, this pressure has led to so many demonstrations of outstanding enthusiasm that my daughter's school has banned its pupils from using the word "passionate" – because universities and colleges are sick of reading that candidates are "passionate" about media studies, when said candidates are not even sure what media studies are.
It's bad enough asking teenagers to write advertisements for themselves without insisting on a hard-sell approach. Yes, yes, I know all the cliches – higher education is a competitive marketplace, you have to shout to be heard. But why? Why ask a young engineer or mathematician to demonstrate their verbal pushiness? What's the relevance to their suitability for the course they hope to study? They're not applying to be on The Apprentice.
There's no Personal Statements Standards Authority to vet the truthfulness of these advertisements. And so, with touching directness, UCAS says: "Don't lie – if you exaggerate, you may get caught out at interview when asked to elaborate on an interesting achievement." In my experience, candidates don't lie so much as make out that their whole lives have been leading up to this statement, that all their actions since they learned to walk have been undertaken to further their chances of being accepted on to the geography course at Bristol. If they say they spent this summer comparing and contrasting the physical and urban geography of Dorset and Somerset, that is not exactly a lie; it's simply that they're omitting to say they were en route to the Glastonbury festival.
If they do lie, will they really be "caught out at interview"? It's unlikely. Most universities and colleges, for most courses, accept or reject candidates without an interview. The interview is essentially a thing of the past. There are too many candidates and too little time, so the personal statement has replaced the interview as a means of assessing a candidate's character. Given the limitations of the process, this is unfortunate. When the police ask you to "make a statement", you make it at the station. You feel their inquisitive but kindly eyes upon you as you speak. That's a better method of getting at the truth than inviting you to go home and write it yourself, with a little help from your mum.
Journalist: Jon Canter