It wasn’t until my elder daughter applied for university that I became aware of personal statements – 4,000 words with which the applicant can persuade the seat of learning that they are made of the right stuff. I sought guidance from an old friend whom I happened to be catching up with, an eminent lawyer with several university-educated children. Are these statement things important, I asked. “Yes, they are,” he harrumphed. “Certainly far too important to leave to some daft 18-year-old to write.”
At around the same time, I was assured by an admissions tutor at a Russell Group university that these statements were hardly ever read; they just looked at the predicted grades.
So, take your pick. My offer of assistance with my daughter’s offering was rejected in the strongest terms with the kind of industrial language I hoped she would not use in the statement itself.
Lee Elliot Major, Britain’s first professor of social mobility, said this week that personal statements have become “a systematic disadvantage to poorer students”, as it’s the middle-class applicants getting all the help. He is quite right, of course. But that problem takes root at a much younger age.
A friend was the deputy head of an elite girls’ private school in London, with responsibility for admissions. I asked her what on earth she asked 11-year-olds. To her despair, most of them seemed to have memorised a script prepared by their parents. “There was stuff about geopolitics I really couldn’t follow. One girl told me what kind of hedge fund she wanted to run,” my friend wailed. She said the best answer she ever got to the question: “Why do you want come to this school?” came from a girl who said: “It’s on the Piccadilly line.”
This would be my advice, certainly: keep these things simple.