There has been some interesting publicity concerning personal statements. To what extent are they read? Do they really make a difference? These are the key questions and the response will be different from course to course. In general they are a significant part of the university application. They are often ‘deal breakers’ in obtaining an offer or an interview and this is especially the case for the most over-subscribed courses.
It can be helpful to consider personal statements from the point of view of the university admissions tutor. It is likely to be their one opportunity to ‘meet’ you, to understand a little about how you think and, indeed, whether you have thought about the course to which you are applying beyond the title of each unit topic! Particularly in the case of subjects which are new to the applicant such as Management, Medicine, Anthropology, Law, Architecture or Geology. it is important to be able 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.
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.
Examine the details of the courses to which you are applying. 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. Scientists writing a statement about Dawkins’ God Delusion, Lawyer quoting Barnard et al. What about Law or Geographers writing about Collier’s The Bottom Billion come to mind. These are great texts to read but they will not make you distinctive all on their own! You must consider where your reading of these texts has taken you, academically. However, do not panic! 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 what you have done. This is not therefore about what you have been forced to do and which therefore you probably have not enjoyed or really thought about – yes, you have read the books or articles, but you have not engaged with them beyond that!
Use your work experience or volunteering to good effect. 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! However, we would hope that you have learnt something by doing this kind of thing and this is what you should write about in the statement. 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.
There is no simple formula to write the statement and there is no perfect statement so please avoid showing your version to multiple people as you will receive a multiplicity of advice. 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.
Academic (three quarters – probably more): A discussion of the subject you have chosen, your motivations and your strengths as they relate to the subject. University admissions tutors are used to reading statements where the student claims involvement in a range of activities. It can be very difficult for them to work out what you have actually done. In your Personal Statement you must, therefore, try to provide suitable evidence for what you are saying. For example, the time-old phrase, “I enjoy reading” should not only indicate what exactly you enjoy reading but perhaps how your reading has shaped the ways in which you think.
Personal (one quarter - absolute maximum): Your wider interests, particularly where they involve leadership or organisation or self-discipline. For example, a long term commitment to a charity or to a sports team or an orchestra indicates something about you as an individual. It is now a myth to think that the admissions tutor will accept anyone as long as they will play sport for the university or bring some other form of non-academic glory. They want to take students with commitment and are increasingly cautious to ensure that they do not accept undergraduates who might drop out during their 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 study of geography?
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. Many courses have help videos or checklists on their websites that provide you with tips. Make good use of them!
Be honest and be clear
Tell your story and make it interesting or ‘remarkable’! Remember it needs to stand out or ‘of remark’
Be concise – don’t waffle but do use most of the characters available (4,000 including spaces)
Avoid clichés and hyperboles
Avoid quotes – unless very skilfully used
Avoid summaries of the subject – it is about you not about the subject
Avoid seeking the opinions of too many people (your teachers and others) on your statement – it is personal, you will therefore get different but equally correct advice from different people
“The best hobby or interest you can have is reading”, a quote from our Oxbridge Admissions event – but do make sure you say what you read and why! ‘I enjoy reading in my spare time’ isn’t going to be very impressive or credible.