The harvest is in, the smell of dried leaves is in the air, Parliament’s back in session, and pretty soon the 17-year-olds will start ringing: the university admissions deadline is approaching and someone will need to write their personal statements for them.
Everyone who wants to go to university is required to fill in a Ucas form. It’s an administrative task until you get to the dreaded personal statement section, and then you have to call for back-up. The Ucas website encourages students to commit their personality to paper. In no more than 4,000 characters, they should outline key skills and hobbies and explain what’s drawn them to their chosen subject. Worse still, the personal statement is allegedly extremely important: ‘This may be your only chance to make the case for you to be offered a place,’ the Ucas website says. Those 4,000 characters (about 850 words) are the bane of sixth-formers’ lives. It’s no wonder that, left to their own devices, they come up with things like: ‘An extremely significant educational experience that led me to this application was when I first read The AS Level Constitutional Law Textbook,’ or: ‘My passion for business was first born when I did work experience in a shop and realised that business is vitally important to all our lives,’ and so on.
They need help, and they’d be crazy not to get it. ‘Why would anyone write their own?’ says my cousin Malachy Guinness, who set up a tutoring agency. He points out that with no interviews, there’s no way of checking the authenticity of the statements. His company fields dozens of calls each month on the personal statement question. They favour a collaborative approach: ‘It’s better if the pupil has some input,’ he says. But some private tutors can, for £500 or so, craft an elegant personal statement after a brief phone call.
For some reason I’ve become something of a go-to guy for friends and relations. Over the years, I’ve written a dozen or so (free of charge). Sometimes the teenagers pretend to contribute by sending a ‘draft’, by which they mean three or four half-finished sentences, but more often they treat it like a straightforward commission: ‘I’m afraid I have made very, very little progress on the personal statement and I just have no idea what to write in it, literally none,’ said one emailer. I often work in a team; in a typical session, my accomplice and I spend long hours with furrowed brows earnestly discussing what drew our candidate to sociology, while the candidate wanders in and out of the room. Sometimes, after the applicant has drifted away altogether, we have to ring them to check they’ve read the book we’re referring to on their behalf or to ask what’s on their syllabus, but generally we can do without them. I’m not alone; another seasoned statement writer found herself having to look up ‘communications studies’ on Wikipedia over and over again as she tried to explain why her nephew was so keen on it. The nephew was no help at all.
It’s not just kind friends and paid assistants that do it. One recent applicant describes trying to make some suggestions while his teacher worked feverishly to get it done in time for the deadline. The teacher just held up his hand with his eyes closed and asked politely not to be interrupted.
Ambitious parents sometimes encourage their teenagers to call in more than one person. My mother, who is also often called in to help nephews, nieces, children’s friends, vague acquaintances, was sent a draft statement that took her by surprise because it didn’t need much editing. When she rang me in astonishment, I explained that that was because I’d written it. There are pitfalls to this approach, though. When someone I know called in two distinguished academics to write her daughter’s personal statement, there was a falling out when the first academic discovered that the second had tinkered with her work. Nearly ten years on, the rift has not healed.
The Ucas website seems to think it has a watertight system: ‘Remember: we’ll check your statement is your own work, so don’t be tempted to copy from the internet or other people’s statements,’ says an advice video. The website is not lying when it tells students personal statements are important. Most British universities don’t interview prospective students, so references and personal statements are all they have to go on to distinguish between candidates with similar grades. Admissions tutors across the country say they set great store by them, and they’re blithely confident in the system: ‘The more corrected they’ve been, the more clichéd they tend to become and you begin to lose the sense of a personality,’ says Angela Milln, the head of admissions at the University of Bristol. She says she prefers the statements that are written from the heart, but that it’s only a hunch born of long experience that alerts her to imposters. A lot of them talk about this hunch: ‘In the same way as you know immediately when you turn on the radio whether it’s a documentary or a play, you can tell when it’s genuinely from the person,’ says Leslie Braiden, who’s in charge of admissions at the University of Newcastle.
But judging the authenticity of characters you’ve never met is never going to be an exact science. It’s clichés and meaningless flourishes that put the admissions departments on the alert: the word ‘passion’ is a bad sign, and it appears in 70 per cent of personal statements, according to Angela Milln; a lot of English candidates begin their statements by talking about the beauty and the joy of literature. This just sounds like bad writing — pupils who haven’t had enough help. Universities acknowledge that most personal statements are a team effort but tutors are shocked by the thought that some are written wholesale by someone else. ‘It’s bound to happen,’ says Richard North, who’s in charge of English admissions at UCL, one of the few universities that offer interviews. ‘There’s no way of judging what a person’s like until they’re sitting in front of you.’ But for universities that can’t offer interviews, the personal statement system is an article of faith; it has to be.
‘Personal statement’ isn’t a complete misnomer, as long as the commissioned statement sticks to accurate facts about its ‘author’. Admissions tutors can comfort themselves with the thought that a bad personal statement is a bad sign anyway: if you can’t write a good one yourself, it would show a worrying lack of resourcefulness, or even delusional tendencies, not to get it done by someone else. Knowing who to ask and how to get things done is one of the key lessons of university. If you’ve cracked it before you’ve got there, you’ll go far. And as the nights draw in, it’s nice for us, the anonymous troupe of copy-writers, to spend the odd evening imagining that we’re 17 again and that we might have a future in Celtic Studies or land management.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 22 September 2012