UCAS, Personal Statements and all that: advice for those advising applicants

On Saturday 28th September The Brilliant Club and Teach First’s Higher Education Access Programme for Schools (HEAPS) co-organised and ran a small conference for pupils that we work with who are applying for Oxbridge and competitive courses such as Law, Veterinary Sciences and Medicine.

It served as a reminder for me about both how difficult and how simple the process of guiding Sixth Formers through the application process can truly be.

Here I have first outlined what I see as the two main challenges when proofing statements, then identified a couple of reminders about what needs to be kept simple. Finally, I have put down some top tips for Sixth Form tutors and anyone helping out with the whole process.

What’s so difficult? 

Embarras de richesses. Most Sixth Forms will teach a couple of dozen A-level courses. There are over 50,000 degree courses in the UK alone. Now clearly A-level choices made by the individual student have already narrowed this vast choice down somewhat, but there is still a huge choice to wade through. This requires time and painstaking attention to detail. The chief method used by students to filter down this choice is to read through the course titles on university websites and on the UCAS website. However this has its own problems, since the course titles alone are not sufficiently detailed to make an informed decision. Choosing a course then breaks down to the following difficulties, laid out in the style of that great rhetorician, Donald Rumsfeld:

    • Known knowns. Students know they want to study Biology, but when each university biology course is structured differently, with a variety of content, facilities, curricula and assessments, even the students that know they want to study this subject have to inform themselves of the detail in each course before they can make a decision. The main challenge when you are helping these students is to ensure they have grasped the detailed differences between the way these courses are taught at different institutions.
    • Known unknowns. Students want to pick a course that is a new subject: a language ab initio, medicine, law (if they haven’t done the A-level previously), PPE or Theology, say. They know what the subject is – they are familiar with the name and have some idea of what it might entail – but they have not studied it as a discrete area of knowledge before. When you are advising these students, the main challenge is to check that they have actually taken the time to find out what content is studied in the degree they seem to be interested in.
    • Unknown unknowns. Courses are called things that students have never heard of before. Many will simply scroll past a course title because it rings no bells – Classics, Criminology and Sociology, Hispanic Studies, Material Sciences, Anthropology, Human Embryology, the list goes on, and yet for many pupils this could be the ideal course. The main challenge here for those helping Sixth Formers make the choice is to know about these courses themselves.

Too damn humble. Bragging in the playground is very different to selling yourself in a personal statement. Without a clear idea of how to write about their strengths many students write poorly. Some suffer from the following ailments:

    • Melodrama. Personal tragedies and life-changing experiences do cause students to choose certain courses – especially law and medicine. However a matter-of-fact and precise example from personal experience packs more punch than a convoluted tear-jerker. Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing (via the wonderful @brainpicker) are a good referencing point – especially “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it” together with rules 2, 5, 9 and 10 on the list.
    • Thesaurusitis. Pupils who don’t read much tend to assume that longer and more complicated words make for a more impressive statement. Their voice is lost and malapropisms run riot. If you are advising someone suffering from this malaise, highlight all the dodgy word choices and ask the student to give you a definition of each one. Tell them if they can’t, it gets cut!
    • Nodding dog syndrome. And then this happened, and then this happened and then this happened and then I did this and then I did that and then I learned this and then… Once a personal statement becomes a list, it’s no longer a statement. If you’re helping someone out who has written this, then a good first step might be to remind them that elsewhere in the UCAS application form is space for their lists of academic achievements. Then ask them to rank their achievements in two lists, one headed “I am most proud of…“, the other “Most impressive for an admissions tutor and what tops both lists should be included.
    • Marginalia. The ‘gold’ is hidden in a sub-clause or an afterthought. More space is spent explaining their work experience in a shop, rather than talking about their responsibilities as a head boy or girl. The students don’t consider what might be most impressive in their experience and don’t ‘weight’ their personal statement accordingly; help them redress the balance by highlighting in different colours each example that they have given. The largest areas of colour should belong to the parts of the statement that are most impressive.

What should be kept simple? 

Analyse, don’t narrate. Each example should be used to illustrate why they’re the best student for that subject.

Talk about something you’ve read recently. If you don’t – why bother applying for a degree where you’ll have to read a lot?

There’s no formula for success. So don’t impose tick-box style prescriptions. Among the bad personal statement advice that I have heard given out by schools has been:

    • It should be 3 paragraphs long
    • You should have a work experience paragraph
    • Don’t use the word enjoy
    • Don’t use quotations

It has to be clear, analytic and synoptic. Details are better than generalisations, strengths should be confidently and clearly articulated, and it should be sincere without being preachy. Apart from these principles, there are no real catch-all top tips that apply to every statement.

Top Tips: how should you advise your tutees or a student you’re helping?

Talk to them. Sit them down and have a chat. I would suggest asking them the following questions: what have you read recently? What do you hope to study in your first year of this degree? How do you think your A-level study has prepared you for this course? With these 3 questions you will be testing their passion for their subject, their understanding of how it’s taught at university and the amount of thought they have already put into their suitability as a candidate. You will also get a feel for how much research they have done into the detail of the degree courses they have chosen, which is crucial.

Play some writing games. As a form group, or with an individual, there are several good short activities that require the pupils to think about how they write and sell themselves. Here are two that I would highly recommend:

    • Amazing lists. In pairs, give the students 3 minutes to write 15 things that make their partner an amazing person. Read aloud and share. After the laughter subsides, consider how many people said pretty much exactly the same thing about their partner as someone else. “You have nice hair”, “good sense of humour”, “hard-working”. Generic phrases, while nice enough, are not that interesting. By the time the students have to think of the 13th, 14th and 15th ‘amazing thing’ about their partner, they get really creative and surprising – sometimes you will even learn new things about the students that you’re working with. Then make the students write 15 things that make their choice of a degree subject amazing. Again, the last few things on that list will be the most interesting and may be worth including in their personal statement when explaining what attracts them to the subject.
    • Start at the end. Ask the students to write their final sentence. Share and critique. Discuss what they want the purpose of their final sentence to be. Typically the purpose will be to either sum up their strengths or reiterate their passion for the course they are applying for. Once both you and they are happy with it, keep this final sentence in mind when drafting and re-drafting the rest of the statement. Use it as a litmus test – does everything that you have written, allow you to end your statement in this way, or have you failed to demonstrate your passion?

It’s a tree, not a check-list. At the risk of sounding slightly wishy-washy, it might be helpful to think of a personal statement as a fruit tree: it should explain the roots of the student’s motivation for the subject, the trunk sets the direction (the course of study), before branching out to explore how previous study, wider reading and extra-curricular experiences will bear fruit in the form of an exemplary university student. If you know what I mean.

Read it aloud. Nothing can substitute reading the statement aloud. This is the best way to test for coherence of theme, over-use of certain words, appropriate use of language and judicious weighting of academic interest vs extra-curricular experience.

Phone admissions offices. Draw up a list of questions – the more specific the better – and actually phone the universities to ask the admissions office for their answer. I am always surprised by how many students apply to a university without ever having spoken to someone at the place! Regarding talking about work experience and extra-curricular activities, for example, did you know, that while Oxford University explicitly wants the focus to fall on academic interests for most subjects, Durham University explicitly wants to hear what you will bring to the university community?

Make ’em read. The more, the better. And then get them to mention it in their personal statement saying what they’ve learned from it.

This is by no means comprehensive, but will hopefully help some of you who are in the position of advising students through the application process and helping proof and re-draft their personal statements.

Finally, do have a look at the free University Access Scheme of Work that The Brilliant Club has produced with the University of Sussex and the University of Warwick to help Sixth Form tutors and others advising students. Click here.


What stuck from #researchED2013


Some notes for those who weren’t in the sessions I attended. Or who were, but perhaps held a completely different view.

Ben Goldacre – Keynote

Ben Goldacre’s stand up skills were tested to the maximum as he proceeded to wrestle with a faulty connection from his Mac to the projector. Carefully planned, comic, visual gags were wasted on a room full of teachers willing him to do well. As soon as he stopped trying to rely on his PowerPoint, it all became much better.

What I learned:

Why bother with Macs? They just cause more problems than they’re worth. *ducks*

Qualitative research is a proper discipline. You can’t dismiss it just because it’s based on interviews, subjectivity and lack of numerical data. Learn how to do it properly and then use it – it has its place.

An RCT is probably a big thing and needs a network. Ben suggested several ways that an RCT is relatively simple to put together. However, throwaway comments such as “all you need are about 100 or 200 schools that are kind of doing okay and don’t mind either way” brought home to me the lack of infrastructure in existence (at least that I’m aware of) to set up these trials. This was corroborated by Sam Freedman’s presentation later on where he explained that the UK has practically run out of capacity to carry out more RCTs anyway.

Research is pointless if unread. Kind of an obvious one, but Ben Goldacre illustrated a similar problem that exists in the paragon of RCT virtue that is Medicine: the BMJs left stacked up in doctors’ toilets, unread in their plastic packaging.

Teachers need to be taught Research Methods 101. Important if teachers are to be able to generate questions for researchers (which is the ultimate goal of linking researchers with practitioners). If I can’t spot the flaws in a study, how can I usefully identify the gaps that need further study? Also necessary if I am to evaluate qualitative, observational, quantitative or aggregated data with any meaningful application for my practice. I actually think that most teachers would love to have a CPD session based around the dissection of a journal article – much like the Journal Clubs that Ben mentioned as being present in the high-performing education systems in Singapore and China.

We all need to take a step back and slow down. And then speed up. The time frame for teaching practice to become better informed by educational research might be long. Decades long. All the more reason to press on right away!

What kind of nutter plans a conference without a lunch break or networking time? Kind of agree, but also glad that so much was packed in! Made the trip to the pub afterwards that much more delicious.

Dr Carol Davenport

Although Ben Goldacre explicitly said that one teacher in one classroom cannot carry out a meaningful RCT in any true sense of the word, I’m sure a lot of teachers thought along the lines of “I can accept that, but I still want to do something NOW.” Hence my curiosity in finding out about Action Research. This session was billed as one where “participants will gain a basic understanding of how to carry out action research and look at different data collection tools that they can use in their classroom”.

What I learned:

Action research is good reflective practice. The pro-forma that suggested ways in which teachers can improve their reflective practice in the language of research. So instead of a simple “What Went Well” – “Even Better If”, the teacher is encouraged to think about what problem they are being asked to tackle in advance, set themselves success criteria and then put together a time line with metrics (or research methods) for measuring success.

Enlightened SLT could use this to set Performance Management targets. When asked for contributions and comments, two members (who I couldn’t see through the crowd) said that they would be using something similar to the approach outlined by Dr Carol Davenport to help members of staff set targets for their performance review.


Dr Kay Yeomans

With all the talk about the importance of research in schools, there seemed to be relatively little exploring how universities and schools already work together – namely through the Widening Participation agenda. Together with her colleagues, Dr Kay Yeomans presented an overview of a collaboration existing between UEA and 10 schools in the Norfolk/Suffolk region as part of a nascent project funded in the short term by an RCUK grant of £150,000. With the work we are engaged in at The Brilliant Club, this seemed perhaps the most pertinent, although it was made clear that this was not strictly speaking WP work as such.

What I learned:

University departments want to engage with schools. But the main problem they have is understanding how schools work. This was another issue flagged up by other speakers such as Laura McInerney who flagged up how difficult some researchers found it to deal with the fact that a teacher’s working day is a mix of strictly compartmentalised contact time and random and unpredictable behavioural incidents. Rachel (JoneS?) – Head of Biology at the City of Norwich School has helped deal with the administration of a relatively large scale project of public engagement across some 10 schools and school groups in the region and seemingly lends her expertise on how ‘schools work’ that allows UEA to liaise more effectively with them.

Departments for education within universities are underused by other subject departments. Despite liaising with many schools, UEA does not seem to have engaged with its own Department for Education in this project. In general, Departments of education which are carrying out research into what works in schools, among other things, should surely be well placed to advise and work with other subject departments on how to work with schools.

There is a sore lack of meaningful links between secondary and tertiary education – for teachers and for pupils. A huge amounts seems to have been invested by secondary and primary schools in developing stronger links. In my experience secondary schools typically have a member of SLT with responsibility for cross-phase transition and get to know the communities that their pupils are coming from. The gap from secondary to tertiary is equally daunting and yet universities and schools could do more to forge excellent links that mean every pupil understands what a university is, how to get there and so on. This will probably be the topic for a future blogpost.

If money is invested, impact evaluation is crucial. Given that the money for the RCUK project is limited, it’s very important to evaluate the short-term impact (and long-term potential) of the collaborations in order for it to turn into something sustainable. The examples were exciting (inter-disciplinary projects on bee-keeping that involved the arts, sciences, high-attainers and naughty pupils alike), but Dr Yeoman herself mentioned that it remains to be seen to what extent all of these projects can be continued in the long term.

Kids know what research is. Sort of. An interesting survey of all pupils (of different ages) showed that they strongly believe that research is a worthwhile activity and one that applies across different careers. Interestingly, they also recognised research as a prestigious activity. I think we at The Brilliant Club could carry out a similar survey with our pupils; we live in a society where if you’re bright, people tend to say “oh you should be a doctor or a lawyer”, rarely are you told that you should choose a subject you love and pursue it to the deepest level you can.

Laura McInerney

As a Brilliant Club tutor, I knew that Laura would be stellar and she was. (A bit cheeky to claim her for one of our own?) Laura’s perspective is manifold and rather unique; she has taught in a secondary school in the UK and she is an educational researcher. She gave a presentation asking us teachers to come up with education’s equivalent of the Millennium Prize for mathematics.

What I learned:

Researchers struggle with different constraints. Where teachers are chiefly concerned with the day-to-day of teaching and the school timetable/calendar, researchers need to consider the timing of their project and these logistical priorities can clash. More importantly, the focus of the research should focus on the cognitive or social development of young people, as this will allow for quicker and more effective implementation of any findings – the crucial obstacle often being a lack of justification behind any changes that new research might indicate as being beneficial.

Focusing our efforts onto narrow problems gives more bang for your buck. As David Weston pointed out, the solutions to what might be initially thought of as cutting edge or “edge-of-practice” problems might already be out there, but lost in the disparate world of educational research. Focusing efforts onto answering some of these questions might enable others to go off and unearth these hidden gems.

Give us principles. This should the request from all research that claims to have made a breakthrough. In order to practically apply any individual research finding to your own classroom, it’s not enough to be given a resource and a new-fangled lesson plan. You need to work out the underlying principles and then make them work for you within that ‘Black Box’.

Some teachers aren’t satisfied with pragmatism. Overall Laura impressed everyone and I heard many comments about what a loss to the classroom she is. Judging by some questions at the end, however, there is a feeling among some teachers that it’s all very well identifying a set number of problems at the “edge-of-practice”, but this would ignore some of the more important issues that need to be addressed in the education system in general. My own view is that I like this approach for two reasons. First, it puts the needs of the child explicitly at the centre of any research question. Secondly, it will inevitably lead to changes in systems if the current system doesn’t allow for what the findings prove to be the most effective way of teaching.

Daisy Christodoulou

Daisy’s talk added nuance to her previous discussions of the works of Dan Willingham among others. Recognising the importance of evidence-based practice (EBP), she was hoping to show how implementing research can nevertheless be challenging when you do not understand the root causes of the effect that the research seems to have proved.

What I learned:

We should be wary. There’s always an opportunity cost when choosing to invest in one type of EBP over another. The case brought here was the huge amount of money spent in California on reducing class sizes to no significant beneficial effect after previous studies had shown there might be some benefit. To me this seemed a classic case of mistaking correlation with cause. Quite how research could be implemented so badly is beyond me. Maybe there should just be a generic red warning siren atop the DfE that goes off whenever someone starts a sentence with “All schools need to have XYZ” with XYZ costing an obscene amount of money!

Teachers don’t all know what theory means. Or as Daisy put it: “in the English speaking world we seem to have a distrust of theory.” It apparently makes us imagine something spurious that can be dismissed in the face of fact. This ignores the true meaning of the word in an academic sense as more of an inference that is based on a series of established facts. This reminded me of pupils in my class who argued against the likelihood of evolution by saying ‘oh but that’s just a theory.’

No-one is original, but some of us are ignorant. Daisy quoted Keynes: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” This apposite citation had earlier in the day been echoed by Dan Willingham who claimed that every teacher inevitably has a theory of how children learn. It’s interesting to note that Keynes’ quote goes on to make a telling observation about conspiracy theorists: “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” Applies to the fears around many of the structures in the British education system perhaps?

Reading is not a transferable skill. Skills are domain specific and the best readers are those that know a little about a lot and can therefore make more links.

Familiarity is not the same as knowledge. Making reference to Nickerson and Adams’ 1979 penny experiment, we conclude that recognising something doesn’t mean that you can remember it. This reminded me of some of the things that Mathew Syed wrote in Bounce about the difference between purposeful practise and practise per se; it’s the reason that Mo Farah practices sprinting and hill runs as much as he does long-distance running. You cannot assume that doing a lot of one thing will make you good at it – you have to break the thing down to its constituent parts and work on them in turn also.

There’s a real challenge in making an apostrophe memorable. In a series of themed lessons where pupils worked in ‘tribal family’ groups around series of writing tasks, it was the family drama that the pupils remembered and not the grammar implicit in the writing tasks. Not surprising perhaps, but turn this phenomenon on its head and you have a conundrum: how could you tap into the fact that memories seem to remember narrative so well in order to teach something like the apostrophe in English?

There’s nothing wrong with a young teacher telling it like it is. I liked Daisy’s approach which was led by confessional anecdotes from her own teaching experience. To criticise her for only a few years in the classroom misses the point: she has reflected on those few years with a depth and honesty that not everyone choses to do. As a result she has chosen to pursue cognitive science as the key that can improve the practice of others – and that’s a good thing in and of itself.

Sam Freedman

For this talk Sam took off his Teach First hat and put on his old, battered policy adviser DfE-branded headwear.

What I learned:

Politicians want us to blog and tweet more. The 3 principal filters to a politician are advisers, the civil servants and then the wider research community. But all politicians use Twitter (as do their advisers and civil servants). Sam implied that politicians are all too aware of the evident confirmation bias inherent in the current set up of filters, but there is ground for optimism that social media can actually cut through these structures.

There is a place for ideology. Sam reminded us that focusing on EBP was in many ways an ideological move made by Blair positioning the Third Way as a route of pragmatism that all could rally behind. Moreover, where evidence is insufficient, ideology will point the way so it behoves us to continue engaging with ideology, particularly when EBP will come into conflict with democracy. Just because something is empirically right, say, doesn’t mean that it will be accepted as reasonable by the electorate.

The civil service suffers from a ‘consultant culture’ where top civil servants move on every two or three years. Just as a civil servant has got to grasps with the issues in their department, the demands of career progression move them on. The irony of the parallel with this and with the perception of the Teach First programme as a two year ‘stint’ in the classroom were not lost on me.

Educational research in the UK is at capacity. Compared to the enormous resources available in the USA, what we have in the UK may seem piddling. Of more concern is the fact that there are, according to Sam, no more researchers available for organisations such as the EEF to give grants to for RCTs and such.

Professor Coe vs Ollie Orange

It was nice to go and witness a debate rather than a presentation at the end of the day and this did not disappoint. Both speakers took turns to explain their interpretation and opinion of ‘effect size’ as a viable metric for determining what works.

What I learned:

Pure maths has no time for ‘effect size’ metrics. Ollie Orange attacked the formulas that Hattie used to determine effect size across a variety of studies in order to work out what works. As a mere ‘BA’ myself, I did my best to follow the thread of his argument which seemed to centre around the fact that the metric was mathematically flawed and that it is impossible to meaningfully compare study A with study B when completely different methodologies and metrics had been used.

You have to draw the line in the sand somewhere or you’ll stand still in search of perfection. To mix metaphors. Professor Coe was quite up front about the fact that it was a “crude tool” for working out what works, but was better than nothing.

Hattie’s gold standard 0.4 metric does not define what’s ‘good’. Both Mr Orange and Professor Coe agreed that an effect size of ‘0.4’ is meaningless without context and should therefore not be used in abstract terms to work out if a teaching method is worthwhile or not.


Hope this was of interest. We then went to the pub, but my impressions of that part of the day I’ll save for another blog post.