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What Do The Changes To The UCAS Personal Statement Mean For University Applicants?

In January 2023, UCAS announced some significant reforms to personal statements for university applications. SLT has reviewed the changes and can provide guidance on what they will mean for applicants.

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What are the changes to the UCAS Personal Statement? 

Following a consultation with 1,200 students, 170 teachers, and more than 100 universities and colleges, UCAS has announced a range of reforms to its application process. These include restructuring the way schools write academic references and improving the transparency of entry requirements, but it is the changes to the personal statement that have received the most attention from parents and the media.

The current form of the personal statement is a single 4,000-character essay written by applicants, but under the new system, this will be replaced with a series of short-response questions. The exact wording of the questions is not yet known but UCAS have announced the six key areas the questions will cover:

  1. Motivation for Course – why do you want to study these courses?
  2. Preparedness for Course – how has your learning so far helped you to be ready to succeed on these courses?
  3. Preparation through other experiences – what else have you done to help you prepare, and why are these experiences useful?
  4. Extenuating circumstances – is there anything that the universities and colleges need to know about, to help them put your achievements and experiences so far into context?
  5. Preparedness for study – what have you done to prepare yourself for student life?
  6. Preferred Learning Styles – which learning and assessment styles best suit you, and how do your courses choices match that?

The new system will be introduced no earlier than 2024, for students applying to university in 2025. UCAS are still consulting on whether to allow applicants to submit a different personal statement for each course they apply for. Beyond 2024, they are considering whether to replace written responses with a multimedia application (including, for instance, a video personal statement), but no formal proposals or plans for this are currently in place.

UCAS personal statement image

Why are UCAS changing the Personal Statement?

The personal statement in its current form has long divided opinion. On the one hand, most students like them, with 72% of applicants surveyed by UCAS saying they felt positive about the personal statement.

Furthermore, educators and admissions staff value the fact that the personal statement encourages applicants to articulate their motives for enrolling in higher education, obliging them to engage in self-reflection and self-expression.

As Chris Seal, Head of Senior School at the Tanglin Trust School in Singapore, puts it:

“The value of reviewing and editing the personal statement is that it becomes a dialogue: a dialogue with students about aspiration and self-awareness. It can lead to growing confidence in the transition from secondary education to tertiary education and is, in itself, an exercise of intrinsic value.”

However, the personal statement has increasingly been seen as a barrier to widening access to higher education. A 2022 paper from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) found that applicants from underrepresented backgrounds struggled more with their personal statements. 83% of these applicants failed to supply an evidence-based opinion about a relevant academic topic in their personal statement, and 35% did not include a cohesive paragraph structure.

This corroborated previous research on the greater challenge facing less privileged applicants with their personal statements. A 2013 study found that personal statements from state-educated applicants contained more than three times as many SPAG errors as those from private school applicants.

The fear was that applicants without access to help and advice (either in school or from private tutors or education consultants) faced greater challenges in planning, structuring and writing their personal statement. This left more privileged students with an unfair advantage in their applications. Indeed, in UCAS’s survey, 79% of respondents agreed that writing the statement is difficult to complete without support.

UCAS hope that the move to short-response questions will help level the playing field, while also ensuring that universities have access to all the information they need from applicants.

UCAS personal statement image

What impact will the UCAS Personal Statement changes have?

We agree that the reform is likely to help those who have little or no access to assistance. It will demystify the personal statement, clarifying what it should cover and providing some in-built structure. However, it will still be possible to answer those short-response questions more or less favourably, and expert guidance from a parent, private tutor or university applications specialist will still be valuable.

Dr Harriet Dunbar-Morris, Dean of Learning and Teaching at the University of Portsmouth, noted this effect: “Some students are able to get more help to better answer the structured questions in the same way as some students were able to get more help to write the original personal statement.”

As UCAS allows universities to see which school applicants currently attend, many universities factor in the school’s overall performance to contextualise a student’s application. This already makes it likely that an applicant from a high-performing or independent school will have to write a more impressive personal statement to have an equal chance of being successful.

In fact, if the standard of responses from applicants from underrepresented backgrounds improves, the university application process is only likely to become more competitive. In this situation, we predict that extra help will become more valuable than ever to help your child stand out and present the best version of themselves in their application. 

How can SLT help?

At Simply Learning Tuition, we are experts on helping with university applications. We have worked with hundreds of students who have successfully secured places at some of the top universities in the world, including Oxford, Cambridge and many other Russell Group universities.

  • Our team of university admissions consultants are specialists in university applications. They can help you strategise every aspect of your application: from choosing the right course, to selecting the best subjects to study at A level or IB, to writing the perfect personal statement, no matter what form it takes.
  • The private tutors we work with can prepare you for the specific courses and universities you are aiming for. They can help you improve your academic performance and provide expert application support, with a proven track record of success in securing places at some of the most competitive universities.
  • If your child is applying for university before the UCAS reforms come into force in 2024, our blog by university applications specialist Sarah Charters on how to write the best personal statement remains an invaluable resource.

Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would like any advice or support with a university application.

  • "Anna's input into my son's university application was absolutely superb. She made him do all the work, but gave him an excellent framework and fantastic feedback. Anna also spent several sessions working on his essay technique prior to taking up his university course. She is passionate about her subject and is able to convey that extremely well and to really stretch her students. Would highly recommend her".

    Mrs. P, University Application and Course Preparation

  • "I am grateful for their help - Miles improved my Masters personal statement and made the whole applications process straightforward. When it came to applying for a job at PWC, SLT were really useful - in the end I decided to go down the university route, I was successful in getting onto a masters. "

    Paulo, Masters Application