Personal Statement Guide

The UCAS statement forms one of the key pillars of your application to university. It’s 4,000 characters detailing the reasons you feel you would be an ideal candidate for the course. While 4,000 characters may sounds like a lot, in reality it isn’t much more than a side of A4, so it is important to be concise in order to convey your passion and enthusiasm effectively.

Getting off to a good start

The first paragraph of your personal statement is crucial. A strong opening will grab the interest of the admissions tutor, which is important when you have to stand out in a sea of potential applicants. This is the part of the statement where you have the most scope for creativity. Try and think of an original way of introducing your interest in the subject. I can’t tell you how to be original, but I can tell you what to avoid: tales of how you ‘wanted to do the subject since you were 5’ are unlikely to impress, given the vast number of students who write this every year! Many people try opening with a quote, but I’d advise against this. You want to demonstrate your interest in the subject – using someone else’s words doesn’t send out the best message.

Getting the right balance

Writing a good personal statement is a balancing act between academic interests and extra-curricular activities. You probably have loads of enrichment activities to talk about, and they may seem more interesting, but don’t fall into the trap of talking about them too much. Your personal statement will be read by a lecturer, and their main priority is selecting students who will be the best academics. They’re not too concerned about what you can bring to the wider university community – they just want the brightest students on their course. I would include a few lines on wider enrichment, to let them know you’re a human and not a subject-loving robot, but keep linking them back to how they make you a better student. Of course, feel free to talk about subject related enrichment such as work experience or summer schools as part of the academic section – this specific experience will really help you stand out from the crowd academically.

The general advice is that your personal statement should be 75% academic, 25% personal. I’d view this as a minimum to aim for - you won’t be disadvantaged for emphasising academic matters more.

Showing passion

‘Passion’ is the single most overused word in personal statements. Everyone knows that universities are looking for passionate students, but simply stating your passion for the subject over and over isn’t going to demonstrate this. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is the best mantra to use here. Demonstrate your enthusiasm for the subject by talking about wider reading that you’ve done; discuss an area of the subject you’re particularly interested in; show how you’ve extended your learning beyond the syllabus. All of these will give the admissions tutor a far greater indication of your passion than you simply stating it again and again.

Hitting the books

Talking about the wider reading you’ve done can really enhance a personal statement’s academic credentials. However, there are pitfalls to avoid when discussing wider reading. Firstly, make sure that your material is academically reputable – try to choose the highest level text you’ve read to talk about in detail. Articles from non-specialist sources such as the BBC are probably best avoided. Don’t just name drop lots of books you’ve read, try and discuss the content – anyone can read the words of a book, but tutors want you to demonstrate that you’ve gained a deeper understanding of the subject. Offer an opinion about the content, what did you think was particularly interesting? What was the overall narrative of the text? I’d recommend trying to discuss what you read with peers or teachers, as it is this discussion that will really help you gain insight.

If you’re talking about a magazine or journal you read, try and give a specific example of an article you’ve read. Loads of people applying for economics will say they read The Economist, but if you talk about an article you found interesting this shows that you’re really engaging with it. If you do mention an article though, keep a copy of it somewhere. If you’re invited for interview it may well come up as a talking point, and it’ll be pretty embarrassing if you can’t remember what it was about!

Don’t be a checklist ticker

You likely feel that there’s a list of things you have to include in your personal statement, such as details of your school subjects, your wider reading and your extra-curricular activities. While this is true to some extent, be careful not to make it seem like you’re ticking off things on a checklist. The idea of fulfilling a list often leads people to include things that just aren’t relevant. Some people feel it necessary to list all of the subjects they’re taking, often creating quite contrived ways to link it to their course. This simply isn’t necessary, as the tutor can see the subjects you’re taking on the form! Unless you have a meaningful point to make, like taking a wide range of subjects to become a well-rounded academic, save the characters.

Again, don’t begin every sentence like you’re ticking an item off the list. Sentence openings like ‘I enjoy lots of wider reading…’ or ‘I am engaged in lots of extra-curricular activities…’ scream of unoriginality. Be creative with your structure and you’ll engage with the admissions tutor much better.

Getting your point across

You might have a burning passion for the subject, backed up with a wealth of academic enrichment and wider reading, but if you’re not able to effectively utilise language you won’t be able to communicate this effectively. So many people seem to think that the key to writing a good personal statement is to write laboriously rambling sentences. I’ve seen examples of personal statements where sentences run over 3 lines. Not only is this style of writing hard to follow, it’s also pretty boring to read. Honestly, the best advice is to think back to GCSE English and writing to persuade; after all, persuasion is the name of the game. Use a variety of sentence structures, long and short. Don’t cram loads of ideas into one sentence, separate them. Avoid using the same word over and over, but don’t just blindly throw a thesaurus at it.

 When you redraft, take the time to rework awkward sentences. Read your statement aloud, and you’ll be able to tell when something doesn’t quite flow right. Simplicity is the key – useless rambling is not only using up valuable characters, but it also dilutes the impact of your statement.

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