The UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has announced its plan to reform elements of its application process, for hopeful students applying to UK universities. These changes intend to address the imbalance of application support received by hopeful students and effort made by school advisors.
As part of efforts from UCAS to address these imbalances, an overhaul to personal statements and references will be implemented from applications in 2024 for 2025 university admissions. This will involve a more structured approach, rather than the ‘free text approach’ currently in use for both of these elements of the application process.
The current ‘personal statement’ element of the UCAS admission process for UK colleges and universities involves a 4000-character free-text opportunity for applicants to provide insight into their individual skills, traits and ambitions, ultimately promoting themselves as suitable candidates for their selected courses beyond their grade summaries.
According to the recently published UCAS Future of Undergraduate Admissions report, the problem with this approach lies in the fact that “support for the existing personal statement process is not universal”.
The report goes into further detail:
“Feedback shows fears that students who do not have access to high quality advice and guidance will not be able to use the statement to shine in the same way that their more advantaged peers can.”
From 2024 applications onwards, the personal statement element of the UCAS application process is set to be replaced by a series of structured questions, with the aim of reducing the need for support for all applicants. UCAS has also made reference to the possibility of moving from written text to “multimedia submissions”.
While the structured questions have not yet been confirmed, UCAS has published six key areas of focus from which these questions will likely be drawn:
- Motivation for course – Why do you want to study these courses?
- Preparedness for course – How has your learning so far helped you to be ready to succeed on these courses?
- Preparation through other experiences – What else have you done to help you prepare, and why are these experiences useful?
- 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?
- Preparedness for study – What have you done to prepare yourself for student life?
- Preferred learning styles – Which learning and assessment styles best suit you – how do your courses choices match that?
This change should not remove the opportunity for students to showcase their individual capabilities, experiences and interests, but rather is designed to provide more clarity on purpose and expectations for those completing the exercise.
The current UCAS application criteria includes a requirement for an academic reference, an element typically completed by a form tutor, head of sixth form or careers advisor. As with the personal statement, this is a free-text element of the application, resulting in a wide range of approaches, quality of information provided, and effort made by the referee.
UCAS has reported feedback from UK universities and colleges, stating that:
“It is becoming challenging to meaningfully compare applicants’ academic references: the content varies from referee to referee but can include subjective descriptions of applicants which compare them to others within their own school or college rather than the overall applicant pool, or long descriptions of a school/college’s achievements that offers little insight into the applicant.”
UCAS has announced that from the 2024 entry cycle, references will take on a structured format, containing three specific questions:
- Enter a general statement about your school/college (mandatory for applications sent via a registered centre)
- Enter any information about extenuating circumstances which may affect this applicant’s performance in examinations or other assessments (optional)
- Use this section to outline any other circumstances specific to the applicant that you think universities/colleges should be aware of (optional)
Impact on international students
The current application process leaves considerable room for question on the best approach and what universities may be looking for, resulting in clear advantage for those who can afford tailored guidance from experts. The new process, in intention at least, removes some of this ambiguity, putting the process back in the hands of the students themselves.
A universal impact of this change is likely to be reduced frustrations and stress for students going through this process. Students should have a clearer concept of the information they should include, rather than starting with a entirely blank slate.
This move, in principle, should level the playing field for students applying to UK universities from overseas destinations. The reality is, however, that expat students in international private schools are more likely to have previously received the sort of specialist support in their applications that UCAS aims to reduce the impact of, in comparison at least to the average UK state-school applicant. This effectively means that this ‘levelling’ is unlikely to broadly benefit international students in terms of admissions, as quite simply, it will reduce the sheen from polished applications from top schools.