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Tips for writing a successful personal statement

Published on 30/09/19

Personal statements receive mixed publicity and frequently conflicting opinions on their importance.

Parents and students alike question to what extent are they read? Do they really make a difference? The simple answer is that it varies greatly from course to course and university to university. In general they are a significant part of the university application. With an increasing number of universities now not interviewing they are often ‘deal breakers’ in obtaining an offer and can be instrumental in securing an interview for the most over-subscribed courses. That said, they still form just part of the application process with exam grades taking priority. Our students complete a first draft of their personal statement using UCAS and Unifrog at the end of Year 12 though workshops and tutorials and add to it over the summer holidays to finalise at the beginning of Year 13. 

Consider personal statements from the point of view of the university admissions tutor. It is the one part of the application that is solely the students and their insight into the candidate themselves and what drives them. This is particularly the case in non linear subjects such as Management, Medicine, Anthropology, Law, Architecture where they are interested in what has motivated the student. It is therefore important to to demonstrate that you have taken an active interest in the subject that has involved doing more than reading a couple of websites and a book.

The statement is about you and not about the subject. The biggest problem with personal statements is often that they are not personal enough. They may tell the admissions tutor more about the subject than about the applicant. This is something to avoid at all costs. It is perfectly acceptable to write about how interest and enjoyment of a subject have evolved. However, there is no point in explaining how the minimum wage works or how a favourite author interprets the Spanish Civil War or how the ear is connected to the nasal passages, for example! For the same reason, it is usually inadvisable to include quotes within the statement.

The key to success is being able to provide evidence to prove your engagement with the subject to which you are applying and to prove that you have thought, personally, about your application. Our advice is always to ‘evidence the example’ even if it means fewer examples!

Each personal statement should have an obvious structure and logic to it. Statements which may cause you more problems relate to applications for more than one university course. For example, you may be applying for Classical Civilisation in one place but for Egyptology in another or for Physics in one place but for Physical Sciences in another. As each institution only sees their application (a blind selection process) you will need to be very careful about what you write. Some degree courses are ‘Joint Honours’ and therefore a combination of two subjects, for example, History and English or French and Law. Your Personal Statement must reflect the combined nature of your choice.

An excellent personal statement is one where the student has examined the details of the courses applied for. If, say, you are looking at studying economics and one of the courses is strongly international in its flavour then you will need to consider how you are going to reflect this issue in what you write. Similarly, it would not be very wise to apply for an English Literature course with a significant 20th century authors and criticism component if you do not refer to such books or literary methods in your statement. As a rule, avoid making great play about how influenced you have been by the texts and authors that are integral to your A Level or IB study. You should be pushing boundaries beyond that in your chosen subject.

Similarly, if the course requirement for a subject such as economics is a good level of mathematics and if chemistry is essential for the study of medicine then it makes sense that your statement must include reference to what you have done in these particular disciplines to make yourself a better applicant.

Some publications have become widely read and often quoted in personal statements and whilst these are great texts to read they will not make you distinctive all on their own! They will also be widely cited and have the reverse effect of turning admissions tutors off. Likewise no one expects you to read the first year law texts on Tort or the entire content of the last 2 years of New Scientist! They want to know about your natural interest and where your reading has taken you academically. How it has influenced your desire to study at university and how you can reflect on it through your personal statement or discuss it if interviewed. 

Use your work experience or volunteering to good effect by reflecting on it. Make anything like this work for you in the statement. However, you will not be a better lawyer because you worked in a solicitor’s office or a better medic because you watched an operation. Anyone could do anything like this! The student who stands out is the one who articulates what they have learnt by doing this kind of thing. Doing the work experience is the first step, following it up and being able to prove it will be what counts for you.

Finally, be honest! Don’t claim that you have read what you haven’t or have an interest where you don’t. Admissions Tutors are experts in spotting this. Certainly never plagiarise (copy) from the Internet or anywhere else. All your statements will be checked electronically for any copying. Don’t do it!

As a conclusion, do not make a weak repetition of an earlier comment or end with something bland. It would be better not to have such a conclusion than to waste words. End, just as you began, with something of impact, something of interest.

Writing advice

There is no simple formula to write the statement and there is no perfect statement, there reaches a time when you just have to let it go. Using the schools workshops and tutor slots, sticking to the school deadlines all ensure that you spend the appropriate time on it whist still focusing on your studies.  Please avoid showing your version to multiple people as you will receive a multiplicity of advice that will eventually confuse you. The statement must fit into the 47 lines on the UCAS online form and be a maximum of 4,000 characters including spaces. You do not need paragraph indents or line breaks between paragraphs.

Most of the universities you will be applying for will expect a personal statement that is three quarters academic (why you have chosen the subject, motivations and strengths as they relate to the subject). The last quarter (or less) should be personal, your wider interests, particularly where they involve leadership or organisation or self-discipline. These are all skills that admissions tutors know will help you get through the course. 

Consider the following:

  • Does taking part in the Bank of England Target 2.0 competition make you a better economics undergraduate?
  • Does subscribing to the History Today make you a better historian?
  • Does participating in Model United Nations automatically make you a better lawyer?
  • Does being the lead violinist in the orchestra or the hockey captain make me a stronger geographer?

The answer to all the above is, of course, “no”! It is likely that the best students will be doing all of this but it is what they can show they make from these opportunities that is the key.

Think carefully about the skills needed for the study of your chosen degree course. You should aim to refer to these and how you know you have them. Most universities and courses have help videos or checklists on their websites that provide you with tips. Make good use of them!

Finally, our workshops, support and advice extends to what ever form your personal statement takes for the higher education facility you are applying for. Our experience extends to overseas university applications, foundation courses and more recently degree apprenticeship programmes. Whilst many of our students apply to these alongside their UCAS application support is available to tailor make the personal statement into the required and competitive format. All students complete the first draft of the personal statement, even those intending to take a gap year as the reflection and research required in its preparation has been found to be an invaluable part of the application process.