The long personal statement students have to write when applying to university is unfair and should be replaced with a series of short-answer questions, a report has suggested.
Students are currently required to submit a 4,000 character essay on their Ucas forms when applying to UK degree programmes.
But the long, free-answer nature of the personal statement creates unnecessary pressure for applicants, hinders transparency and exacerbates inequalities, said the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).
The education think tank suggested that short-answer questions could instead focus on an applicant’s interest in their course and their relevant skills.
The organization said it reviewed 164 draft personal statements from 83 applicants from underrepresented backgrounds.
It found that 83% of projects did not provide an evidence-based opinion on a relevant academic topic and many applicants struggled to organize their statement effectively, 35% struggled to write with cohesive paragraphs in at least one of their projects.
HEPI also said there was a large amount of work involved in writing a personal statement, with some applicants spending between 30 and 40 hours creating their essay.
Ucas said it would publish a report in the coming months outlining proposals to replace the “existing approach to personal statements”.
Personal statements “have become little more than barometers of middle-class privilege and are no longer accurate or fit for purpose in university admissions”, according to a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter.
Lee Elliot Major, who called for the reforms, said: “This review adds to growing evidence that reforms are now needed to ensure statements are an effective way of capturing a student’s passion for their subject and their academic potential.” .
Lead author of the report, Tom Fryer, said: “We know that Ucas’s personal statement is unfair. Our work provides new evidence of the huge challenges facing applicants from underrepresented backgrounds. We blame the format of the personal statement.
“Is it any wonder that an essay without a question, a ‘personal statement’ that is more ‘academic’ than ‘personal’, generates an ambiguity that allows those with more support to thrive?
“Universities currently operate an admissions system that contradicts their own code of practice. The personal statement should be replaced by short answer questions.”
Steven Jones, professor of higher education at the University of Manchester and co-author of the report, said the debate on the issue “has gone on for too long”.
He added: “The solution proposed here represents a compromise position and provides the first practical way forward for the sector.
“Core skills would be transparently assessed, but more advantaged candidates would no longer be given free rein to catalog prestigious work experience and extracurricular opportunities or to flex their other cultural and social capitals.”
Kevin Gilmartin, post-16 specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said he welcomed “the principle of leveling the playing field in terms of university admissions”.
He said: “Research from HEPI indicates that the personal statement in its current form favors more advantaged students as they are more likely to receive extensive support from families and other sources.
“Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be able to access this support, particularly where students come from families with little university experience.
“Parents or carers of disadvantaged students are also often too busy working long hours just to make ends meet to offer any other form of support.
“While teachers work hard to support students with personal statements, giving them advice and guidance, they cannot solve a systemic inequity and it is the system that needs to change.”
Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said: “We have been working on options for personal statement reform since publishing our student-focused reform agenda in May 2021.
“This involved consulting widely with 1,200 students, over 170 teachers and advisers and over 100 universities and colleges on our reform programme, as well as working with UK governments, regulators and the charity sector .
“We have already simplified the academic reference and will replace the existing personal statement approach in the next application cycle with a more structured model to help students guide their answers.
“A report setting out proposals will be published in the coming months and we strongly encourage feedback to help us shape these reforms further.”