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University personal statements under attack, but who actually writes them?

7 December 2012

The Sutton Trust today criticised the system of personal statements for university admissions, as they favour well-connected children from private schools. Spectator readers might not be surprised by that, though: in September Molly Guinness revealed in the magazine that those who can afford to often contract the writing of the statement out to graduates for a generous fee. Guinness wrote:

‘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.’

You can read Guinness’ full article on personal statements here. To subscribe to the Spectator, click here.

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Show comments
  • Daniel Maris

    Parents, teachers, private tutors, social workers, internet websites, older siblings…in fact just about anyone apart from the young people themselves. :)

  • @blokeonatrain

    The dishonesty continues after admission. Having paid someone to write their personal statement to get in the student can pay the same people to write their essays to get the degree.

    • Fergus Pickering

      The personal statement is bollocks. Of course I would help my child to write it. We older people have more experience of that kind of bollocks. An interview is worth a mile of personal statements, but the left hate interviews. I got into Oxford on an interview. I wouldn’t have known one end of a personal statement from nother and anyhow my father would have written it. But the person they interviewed was me, not very brilliant but at least me. I seem to remember I rabbited on about the novels of Evelyn Waugh, not because I had been told to but because I wanted to. It perhaps helped that I didn’t care at all whether I got in or not.

  • RealTory

    Well I wrote my daughter’s personal statement for her. I don’t know if it was the only reason she got into a competitive Masters programme at UCL but I like to think it helped. She graduated with a distinction and she did all the work for that herself. I helped her also with her CV for her first job; what father would do less?

    • Sarah46

      My son goes to a well known london private school and he wrote his statement himself. I haven’t spent a fortune, scrimped and saved to pay the fees, to give him a great education to pay someone to do his work for him! Friends who have sent their children to the local comprehensive, lots of lefties who send their children to comprehensive on “principle”, some I know have either written their children’s statement or paid for it to be written for them.

  • sallieri

    So once again we see a long-overdue attack on a form of wholesale abuse – but for completely the wrong reason: not because these mandatory ‘personal statements’ are a gigantic fraud, or at the very least an open incitement to exaggeration and insincerity, but because the privileged few have the opportunity to be more inventively fraudulent, and of course more conceited, than the majority. What limp-wristed humbug. It reminds me of the time when NuLabour invited all hereditary peers to submit ‘missions statements’ to justify their re-selection to sit in a new-look House of Lords: I gave a silent cheer for the dignified few who refused to demean themselves by complying, simply as a matter of principle, even if it meant certain expulsion.
    In our brave new world integrity has been replaced by box-ticking. There’s a reason for that, and I suspect we all know what it is.

  • Nick Reid

    I’m not sure how much notice univ admissions staff pay to these things. They’re bright enough to realise that some 18 year called Blair, with an address in SW1, might have had a bit of parental help getting that summer internship at the White House.

    More shocking was the fact that many personal statements from state school kids weren’t checked for spelling (or their teachers can’t spell either) and also general lack of ambition.

    As many politicians, businessmen, writers etc say they get plenty of invites to talk at public schools but hardly ever from state schools. And it doesn’t cost anything. Probably not even transport if you plead poverty.

    Would be interesting to know how many schools Fraser has spoken at and what is split between state and private.

  • Adrian Drummond

    This is a wider reflection of our society that has become more dishonest over the years. Certainly doping athletes, falling footballers and pilfering politicians are all good examples of today’s role-models. I suppose we have to expect what we sow…

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