Do Universities read Personal Statements?

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Written By Dr Shane McKeown

University applicants across the UK spend hours penning thoughtful personal statements, but in 2023 do universities read personal statements?

The truth is ‘just about’ – they are only skimmed through by university admissions officers, a recent study reveals.

An integral part of university admissions for generations has been the personal statement, a 4,000 character-long essay (roughly 600 words) written by the applicant, often with assistance from parents, teachers, or even professional consultants.

However, the escalating volume of applications has seen administrative staff, rather than academic faculty, being thrust into the role of decision-makers, leaving them scarcely any time to peruse these statements.

A survey undertaken by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) disclosed that the average time allotted to reading a personal statement was a mere two minutes.

Shockingly, 40% of the statements were read for just 60 seconds or less.

At the prestigious Russell Group universities, the average time dedicated to each statement was also less than the average – only 90 seconds.

A respondent from the admissions team revealed: “We take a look at all, but we only skim through the majority and rarely read them fully.” The majority indicated that selection decisions were mainly predicated on exam results.

Tom Fryer, a researcher at the University of Manchester and the study’s lead author, said: “Our findings suggest that personal statements are not given the weight that students, parents, and teachers expect. They are often merely skimmed through hastily.”

He also pointed out that due to “efficiency” concerns, many universities are adopting a centralised system for admissions staff to handle applications across an array of diverse subjects, such as physics and veterinary science.

Consider the scale of this task.

For instance, University College London received over 76,000 undergraduate applications last year. Even spending two minutes per statement would necessitate more than 2,500 hours – over 63 work weeks to review them all.

As this information comes to light, UCAS, the admissions body, is contemplating a revamp of the personal statement format, which has been criticised as stressful and biased towards applicants with more support.

They have proposed replacing the single statement with a set of shorter questions covering six themes. However, the HEPI report authors argue that two of these themes, “preparedness for study” and “learning styles,” lacked evidential backing of their importance to admissions officers.

Instead, the report suggests the inclusion of a section within the Ucas form for applicants to note extenuating circumstances, as this information does seem to be considered by admissions professionals.

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, remarked: “Analysing the use of personal statements is invaluable for applicants and their advisors. It is especially relevant now, as it can guide the imminent reforms that UCAS is planning.”

From Acrosophy’s point of view, this is good and bad news.

Anything that causes some students to slack off and care less is an opportunity for others to make themselves standout.

We already knew personal statements weren’t meticulously read.

With the advent of A.I. tools, we recommend utilising them to form a model outline for your personal statement and then you work on making it stand out from the crowd using your own style and experience.

If you’re applying for a really competitive course, it could make all the difference if your grades are just at the level of minimum requirements, don’t ignore it!

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