Magazine article The Spectator

Personal Best

Magazine article The Spectator

Personal Best

Article excerpt

Two programmes, two very different worlds, and all in the space of a Sunday afternoon.

Imogen Stubbs gave us a Radio 4 moment when she used the network to campaign against those personal statement forms which young students have to write as part of their applications to colleges and universities. The instruction booklet (or guidance for parents) obtainable from Ucas (the centralised organisation otherwise known as Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) suggests that this is an opportunity for the prospective candidate 'to demonstrate their enthusiasm and commitment and, above all, ensure that they stand out from the crowd'.

Orwell would have been horrified by the use of that meaningless cliche. How can they all 'stand out'? And from 'what crowd'?

Stubbs set out to undermine the process by asking a sixth-form head and a retired judge to write a statement for an imaginary candidate in law, which she would then submit to the scrutiny of an admissions tutor at Southampton School of Law. She chose law because law courses, currently, are besieged by students: at Southampton, there are eight candidates for every place and the admissions tutor has to read through 300 admissions every day during the rush for places before Christmas. There are no interviews;

the personal statement is crucial. Candidates are requested to give their reasons for their application, and to explain their suitability for the course, in just 4,000 characters including spaces, or about 600 words (a couple of paragraphs shorter than this column).

I can remember having to do it, but never dreamed of asking for any help, and especially not from my parents. Back then, at 17+, we trusted to our own passion, our own desire to get a place, and more than a bit to fate - if we didn't get in, we weren't meant to. Nowadays, in their quest for success, many candidates secure the help of teachers and parents, or, more unwisely, the internet.

Last year 29,228 personal statements were caught by Ucas's anti-plagiarism software as having been downloaded in part or in total from the web. There are even companies now who blatantly offer to write your personal statement for you at a cost of £96 for three-day delivery, or £273 if you have left it so late you need something to arrive in your inbox the same day.

Stubbs herself cobbled together a series of quotes from Aristotle and Shakespeare in her mock statement for an imaginary student who came from a troubled, although moneyed family, who had been expelled from one school and run away from another. …

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