The past few years have represented significant upheaval for anyone involved in education.

For students, that has meant teacher assessment for grades, and heavily disrupted exam periods, not to mention the bulk of their tuition taking place online. Particularly badly affected were the students for whom access to higher education might already have represented a skewed and uneven playing field.

For those students – and in fact, for all university applicants – the news that the 4000 character/47 line UCAS personal statement will be radically overhauled for 2024 entrants onwards has been generally welcomed by students, teachers and universities.

The personal statement has always presented difficulties for students who might be academically able, but who are yet to find their own personal voice.

It has been worse still for those without access – financially or logistically – to the extracurricular activities that stuff the personal statements of their peers. Often from families where they might be the first to go on to degree level study, filling those 47 lines with information about why they are suitable can seem an impossible hurdle.

Other groups who have traditionally had difficulties with the statement are neurodiverse students who might require educational support. The kind of free and personal writing required can seem particularly difficult for students who respond best to structure and clear questions.

The personal statement has naturally favoured those whose families can either advise from personal experience, or who can afford coaching or editing services for the personal statement as well as additional academic support. For those who look to acquire knowledge rather than musical, scouting or volunteer achievements, it can seem to them as if they have nothing to say.

The Universities UK Fair Admissions Code of Practice has found that the statement in its current form is incompatible with its aims to level the playing field for all applicants.

No matter how able the student, over 80% of drafted statements failed to supply opinions backed up by evidence on the student’s chosen academic topics. At least 35% failed to organise their statement with any coherence or effectiveness at all (the skills required for the personal statement tend not to be acquired until the second or even third year of university study).

Grammatical skill also seemed to depart, even amongst the students that would normally score highly in this area. In other words, even those who might be expected to fare well, fared less well than they might think. In an academic year where time is precious – either for study or necessary recreation – an application necessity which can take the time equivalent of a working week to complete is ripe for change.

How were the changes to the UCAS appication process decided?

Ucas consulted with 1,200 students, 170 teachers, and more than 100 universities and colleges before making the reforms, as reported by The Times.

According to UCAS, although 72% of respondents surveyed felt positive about the personal statement, 79% agreed that writing the statement is difficult to complete without support, and 83% said they found the process of writing a personal statement stressful.

The structured questions aim to “bring focus and clarity for students, reducing the need for support”. Kim Eccleston, Head of Strategy and Reform at UCAS, said: “We believe this will create a more supportive framework, which in turn will help guide students through their responses by removing the guesswork, as well as capturing the information universities and colleges have told us they really need to know from applicants when it comes to offer-making.”

What will replace the personal statement?

The personal statement won’t disappear altogether, and nor should it – getting a flavour of the person behind the student is important to admissions officers. Indeed, this is why Studential was set up in the first place - to support students with this exercise and make sure they present themselves in the best possible light to prospective universities.

However, a series of structured questions which require shorter responses, and which by their nature will guide the applicant to a more relevant and revealing demonstration of their suitability for a course of academic study, will help both student and selection panel.

The questions will be about the course the student has applied for, so should present a more equal platform. UCAS have stated that the areas these questions might cover include:

  • Motivation for the course
  • How prepared you are for the course academically
  • How any experiences might have prepared you for a degree
  • Extentuating circumstances
  • Preferred learning style.

In addition, teachers will receive more guidance on how to write references for students, and several university entrance exams will be scrapped, including those for medicine, engineering, natural sciences and mathematical skills. However, some institutions will maintain the BMAT (medicine) element, so it’s worth checking first.

However, as students find their way back through the disruption of post-pandemic fallout, the introduction of structure into one more area of their academic life can only be welcome.