Reforming the UCAS personal statement: Making the case for a series of short questions

Tom Fryer, Steve Westlake, Steven Jones

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned reportpeer-review


There are increasing calls for the UCAS personal statement to be reformed. These calls are based on the claim that the current personal statement gives unfair advantages to more privileged applicants within higher education admissions.

While this topic has attracted political attention, there is much about the personal statement that remains unknown. Of the evidence that does exist, it suggests that applicants from under-represented backgrounds face larger challenges with their personal statements, and that this results in fewer offers from more selective higher education providers. However, there has been less attention on understanding applicants’ perspectives and the specific challenges they face in writing their UCAS personal statement.

This report offers two new pieces of evidence to address this gap:

i. By analysing 164 personal statement drafts from 83 applicants from under-represented backgrounds, this report outlines the challenges applicants face when writing a UCAS personal statement. Particular challenges were found on including an appropriate academic discussion, with 83 per cent of drafts failing to supply an evidence based opinion about a topic in their subject area. Similarly, applicants struggled to organise their statement in an effective way, with 35 per cent of applicants struggling in at least one draft to write with cohesive paragraphs.

ii. Surveys and interviews with under-represented applicants. The applicants describe three main challenges in writing 6 Reforming the UCAS personal statement: Making the case for a series of short questions their statements: a) the opening paragraph; b) meeting the character limit; and c) knowing what would impress the admissions tutors. Applicants tell of the large toll of the personal statement, with some spending 30 to 40 hours on it, which requires sacrifices in both their studies and their
wider lives.

Combining this new evidence and the existing literature, the report then assesses the case for reforming the UCAS personal statement by considering its compatibility with Universities UK and GuildHE’s Fair admissions code of practice. It is argued that the personal statement should be reformed because its long-form free-response nature creates many of the challenges applicants face, imposing an unnecessary burden and contributing to inequalities in higher education access.

Four options for reform are considered, and it is argued that a series of short-response questions is most compatible with the Fair admissions code of practice. To be compatible, these short-response questions should assess ‘baseline’ suitability for a course rather than being used to distinguish between applicants that demonstrate competencies above this.

The report concludes with three example short-response questions, arguing that these have considerable potential to increase fairness in higher education admissions
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherHigher Education Policy Institute
Number of pages60
ISBN (Print)9781915744005
Publication statusPublished - 24 Nov 2022


  • higher education
  • widening participation
  • ucas personal statement
  • admissions
  • inequality


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