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personal statements in university applications December 7, 2012

Posted by Bradley in : truth , trackback

A report for the Sutton Trust by Steven Jones (the full paper will be published in the Comparative Education Review) shows some of the differences in personal statements by applicants from privilege and those who are not so privileged. The author makes some suggestions about de-emphasizing the personal statement, ensuring more opportunities are available to more students etc and says:

the risk with all personal statements, regardless of how sensitively they are designed and explained, is that they mirror educational and socio-economic background, with those applicants already benefiting most from the system given opportunity to edge themselves further ahead of those who benefitted least. Though some individual exceptions arise, this research has identified a clear pattern: independent school applicants make fewer writing errors than state school peers of the same academic ability, and are able to draw on work-related and extra-curricular activity that is more relevant and more prestigious. Because information, advice and guidance are not evenly distributed among applicants, the personal statement cannot be assumed to level the higher education admissions playing field. If anything, it tilts it further in the other direction.

But in thinking about university admissions (the report doesn’t specify what courses the students were applying for which could make a difference here) I frankly don’t understand why the higher status “experiences” make the applicants who have had them look stronger university applicants than the “jobs” other students have had. Steven Jones writes that:

those applicants with high-prestige, professionalised experiences are better placed to make meaningful connections with the course on which they hope to study

If the aim in university admissions is to identify those who have been brought up to rule the world, sure, but why should that be what university admissions are about? For example, I don’t see why work-shadowing a UBS stockbroker should or even would be considered to be better than having “a part time job as a drinks waitress working at the KC stadium.” Even if the school in question is a business school I’d think any sort of experience of the world of work could be useful. But it seems that my views are different from the views of those doing the admissions. Then the problem is that attempting to address any of these issues in the context of university admissions or even the sixth form is very late. The children of privilege have by that stage spent more than a decade and a half understanding their place in the world to be very special, and the proposals in the report can’t really get at that issue.

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