THE university application system is unfair to state school students because privately educated pupils get more help making themselves stand out from the crowd in their personal statements, new research has warned.
State-educated students get less help with university applications, struggle to find experiences to write about and are more likely to make mistakes, according to the study done for the social mobility charity, the Sutton Trust.
It suggests that the current system favours private school pupils, who receive help to submit “carefully crafted” applications that contain details of top work placements and after-school activities.
Academic Dr Steven Jones looked at the personal statements of just over 300 would-be students, all with the same grades, from a mixture of private, comprehensive and grammar schools, and sixth form colleges.
Students applying to a UK university complete a personal statement giving details of their work experience, extra-curricular activities and any other information they believe would be relevant to their application.
Ucas has said that the statement is a way for a potential student to “stand out from the crowd”.
But Dr Jones’s study claims that the statement in its current form may be unfair to those from lower or middle income homes.
The findings suggest that private school students are more likely to list a higher number of work-related experiences, and these could include stints working in places such as banks, law firms or leading businesses.
State school pupils listed a slightly fewer number of work placements, and these were more likely to include Saturday jobs and visits to businesses arranged by the school.
The report also said that writing errors were three times more common in personal statements written by applicants at sixth form colleges than those from independent schools.
Sutton Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl said: “This research suggests that the personal statement further disadvantages from low and middle income backgrounds.
“Good state schools and colleges already help their most able students apply for places in leading universities. This should become the norm, and groups of state schools and colleges should do more to arrange support for the admissions process locally. But admissions processes also need to change. Personal statements should be more than an excuse to highlight past advantages. Applicants should outline how they might contribute to campus life, and universities should make it clear that applicants are not penalised for lacking opportunities in the past due to family circumstances.”
Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook, said: “The Sutton Trust is right to highlight the importance of support and advice about how to construct a personal statement which will enhance an application to higher education. However, I have every confidence in the professionalism of admissions officers – they are highly experienced in recognising social factors in the content of personal statements.
The report comes amid claims that up to 30,000 fewer students may have started university courses this year following the tuition fee hike.
Professor Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), said fear of higher fees “appears to be an obstacle” for some – particularly for mature students.
He said applications are being watched “anxiously” to see if the move to triple fees to a maximum of £9,000 will continue to be felt.
Ucas is next week expected to publish figures on the numbers of students starting degree courses this autumn. Figures published last week showed that the number of students in England applying to university for 2013 has slumped by almost 10 per cent.