"It'll look good on your personal statement": a multi-case study of self-marketing amongst 16-19 year olds applying to university

Shuker, Lucie 

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The aim of the study presented in this thesis was to understand how 16-19 year old students within three different types of educational institution, approached the process of having to ‘market’ themselves in the context of applying for university places, and why discourses and practices of self-marketing have become more prominent in recent decades. The research focused particularly closely on the role of the Personal Statement as part of the Higher Education application process, and the ways that the particular characteristics and situations of different schools and colleges may shape distinctive self-marketing practices among their students.

A multi-case study model was used, in which interviews were conducted with 36 students and various key members of staff, across three institutions and over three successive research phases. This interview data was supplemented by further data gathered from field observation and documentary analysis. The final interview with each respondent used the student’s Personal Statement as a resource to explore their self-marketing behaviour in more detail.

Drawing on a Bernsteinian theoretical framework it was found that each institution had developed a pedagogy of self-marketing that was strongly embedded within and shaped by the dominant pedagogic code of that institution - both pedagogies being part of an ongoing strategic response to the conditions of the local education market-place. Self-marketing in the context of making applications to Higher Education institutions involved: firstly the recognition of a ‘destination habitus’ (a combination of institutional status and disciplinary habitus), and secondly the realisation of that destination habitus through the use of particular discourses in the production of the Personal Statement and, in some instances, performance in selection interviews. Crucially, the ‘imaginary subject’ projected by the dominant pedagogic code of the school/college was a reflection of the ‘destination habitus’ of the typical university/course that students from that institution in the main applied to. Individual student’s orientations to self-marketing were then summarised in, what I have termed, a ‘self-marketing profile’, which shaped the discourses they deployed on their Personal Statement, and was itself shaped by the institution’s pedagogy of self-marketing.

The primary conclusion of this thesis is that the far-reaching education reforms of the late 1980s in England and Wales have created market pressures which powerfully constrain both 16-19 institutions and Higher Education institutions to create market ‘niches’ for themselves, which then significantly influence students’ self-marketing practices. These practices are therefore strategic responses both on the part of the institutions that students are currently located in, and also those they are applying to, and demonstrate that the institution 16-19 year olds attend makes a very significant difference to their orientation toward and experience of self-marketing.

Self-marketing, Access to Higher Education, Sociology of education, Multi-case study
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
This work was fully funded by the Economic and Social Research Council [grant number PTA031200400193]