Kathryn Abell of Edukonexion shares some tips ahead of her talk at the British Education Fair in Madrid taking place on 19-20 October 2015.
When applying to a UK university, the discovery that school grades alone are not enough to gain entry onto the programme of your choice can come as an unwelcome surprise. This is especially true for international students, many of whom see the words 'personal statement' for the first time when starting their university application.
But far from being a barrier, the personal statement is, in fact, one of the stepping stones to achieving your goal of studying at a UK university.
A personal statement can help you stand out
If you have selected your study programme well – that is to say, you have chosen something that you are truly excited about that matches your academic profile – then the personal statement is simply a way to communicate to admissions tutors why you are interested in the programme and what you can bring to it. And given the fact that many universities receive multiple applications for each available place, and that most do not offer an interview, your written statement is often the only way you can express your personality and say 'choose me!'.
The 'personal' in 'personal statement' suggests that you should be allowed to express yourself however you want, right? Well, to a certain extent that is true: admissions tutors want to get a picture of you, not your parents, your teachers or your best friend, so it has to be your work. However, the purpose of the statement is to persuade academic staff that they should offer you one of their highly sought-after university places; although there is no strict template for this, there are specific things you should include and certain things you should most certainly leave out.
The importance of the opening paragraph
The online Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) undergraduate application form allows a total of 4,000 characters (around 700 words), meaning that you need to craft the statement carefully. The most important part is unquestionably the opening paragraph, as it acts as an invitation to continue reading. If you are not able to catch the attention of the admissions tutor, who has hundreds of statements to assess, then it is highly unlikely they will read through to the end.
The best advice here is to avoid much-used opening lines and clichés such as 'I have wanted to be an engineer since I was a child'. This kind of thing is not the invitation readers are looking for. Instead, try using an anecdote, experience or inspirational moment: 'Although tinkering with engines had always been a childhood hobby, it was the vision of the fastest car on earth, the Bloodhound, at an exhibition in London, that roused my desire to learn everything I could about automotive engineering'. Really? Tell me more!
Of course, your opening paragraph could start in a variety of ways, but the fundamental purpose is to grab the reader’s interest.
Provide evidence of your commitment and skills
Following on from that, you have to provide evidence of your passion and commitment to your chosen programme, and highlight the specific and transferable skills you possess to study it successfully. You can do this by following the ABC rule.
Action: Include examples of what you have done, experienced or even read that have helped you in your choice of degree and boosted your knowledge of the subject area.
Benefit: By doing these things, explain what you learned or gained; in the case of a book or article, put forward an opinion.
Course: The most successful applicants ensure that the information they include is relevant to their course in order to highlight their suitability. Flower-arranging may allow you to realise your creative potential, but will it help you study astrophysics?
It is perfectly acceptable to base this ABC rule on school-based activities, as not all students have opportunities outside the classroom. However, if you can link extra-curricular pursuits to your desired programme of study, you are further highlighting your commitment. As a general rule of thumb, the information you include here should be around 80 per cent academic and 20 per cent non-academic. So, for example, as a member of the school science club – a non-curricular, academic activity – you may have developed the ability to analyse data and tackle problems logically. Taking part in a work placement falls into the same category and could have helped you develop your communication, time-management and computer skills. You get the idea.
Non-academic accomplishments may involve music, sport, travel or clubs and can lead to a variety of competencies such as team-working, leadership, language or presentation skills. A word of warning here: it is vital that you sell yourself, but arrogance or lies will result in your personal statement landing in the 'rejected' pile. Keep it honest and down-to-earth.
Provide a memorable conclusion
Once you have emphasised your keen interest and relevant qualities, you should round off the statement with a conclusion that will be remembered. There is little point putting all your effort to generate interest in the opening paragraph only for your statement to gradually fade away at the end. A good conclusion will create lasting impact and may express how studying your chosen course will allow you to pursue a particular career or achieve any other plans. It can also underline your motivation and determination.
Use a formal tone, stay relevant and be positive
As you have to pack all this information into a relatively short statement, it is essential to avoid the superfluous or, as I like to call it, the 'fluff'. If a sentence sounds pretty but doesn’t give the reader information, remove it. In addition, the tone should be formal and you should not use contractions, slang or jokes; remember, the statement will be read by academics – often leaders in their field.
Referring to books is fine but don’t resort to using famous quotes as they are overused and do not reflect your own ideas. Also, while it's good to avoid repetition, don't overdo it with the thesaurus.
Negativity has no place in a personal statement, so if you need to mention a difficult situation you have overcome, ensure you present it as a learning experience rather than giving the reader an opportunity to notice any shortcomings. Also, bear in mind that your personal statement will probably go to several universities as part of a single application, so specifically naming one university is not going to win you any favours with the others.
Get some help but never copy someone else's work
Checking grammar, spelling and flow is essential and it is perfectly OK to ask someone to do this for you. A fresh pair of eyes and a different perspective always help, and, as long as the third party does not write the content for you, their input could be of vital importance. And while you may get away with not sticking to all of the above advice, there is one thing that you absolutely must not do: copy someone else’s work. Most applications are made through UCAS, which uses sophisticated software to detect plagiarism. If you are found to have copied content from the internet, or a previous statement, your application will be cancelled immediately. Remember, it is a personal statement.
Get your ideas down in a mind-map first
Finally, I will leave you with my top tip. If you understand all the theory behind the personal statement and have an abundance of ideas floating in your head, but are staring blankly at your computer screen, take a pen and paper and make a simple mind map. Jot down all your experiences, activities, skills, attributes and perhaps even include books you have read or even current items that interest you in the news. Then look for how these link to your course and highlight the most significant elements using arrows, colours and even doodles. Capturing thoughts on paper and making logical deductions from an image can give structure to your ideas.
Register for our British Education Fair in Madrid, taking place on 19-20 October 2015, for a chance to talk directly to staff from 40 UK universities, vocational colleges and English language schools.
Get more advice from our Education UK site on your UCAS application and writing your statement.
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We’ve produced this little guide to ease the pain of writing a personal statement for your UCAS form. We hope you find it useful, and please let us know if you have any comments by emailing us at email@example.com. Further help can also be found on our blog.
When should I start writing my personal statement?
It's never too early to start thinking about it! Unfortunately, UCAS deadlines have a tendency to creep up on most students.
However, you probably want a good idea of what course you're going to apply for before you launch in to actually writing the thing.
Check out our choosing a degree section if you're still deciding what subject to take.
On the other hand, don't leave it too late - you'll probably need a few weeks to write it and a week or so to get a reference written.
As a general guide we would say start writing it when you come back to school or college after the summer, though it might be worth jotting down a few ideas during the holidays.
We know some people are extremely organised and get at least their first draft done by the end of the summer!
How long can the personal statement be?
There is no actual word limit - instead, you have a maximum of 47 lines or 4000 characters to work with.
This is all the space UCAS give you on their online system, Apply. You can check that your statement will fit in the area provided by using our handy Personal Statement Length Checker.
How do I start writing my personal statement?
Most people won't be able to just start writing their personal statement off the top of their head - so it's a good idea to jot down a few notes first.
The main things to think about are:
These are the two main things to start with, and if this still doesn't help you can look at a few more detailed starting points.
Many people have trouble writing about themselves and their personal qualities.
So if you're having trouble pop down to a library or bookstore and get a book on writing CVs that will go into this process in much more depth.
What are admissions tutors looking for?
Usually the sort of things you've written about for the part above!
Obviously the things admissions tutors are looking for will differ but in general: "Do we want this student on this course?" And "Do we want this student at this university?".
The idea of your personal statement is to show this - so once you've written it, have a read through and see if it answers these questions.
Individual universities and departments often publish information on applying and writing personal statements, so surfing the admissions scetion of their website should turn up more specific information on exactly what they're looking for.
Our blog post, 8 Things Not To Put In Your Personal Statement, will help you avoid making any obvious errors. Then check out What You Should Include In Your Personal Statement to make sure you don't miss anything important.
What's the most important part of the personal statement?
From our days of GCSE English, we would say either the beginning or the end.
A good first sentence will get the reader interested and ensure they actually read your statement rather than skim it.
A good ending will ensure the reader remembers your personal statement, though it also helps to have a good middle section as well.
The first line is probably the thing to work on - most people put their reasons for studying the subject at the top, and this is generally regarded to be the most important bit of the statement.
How do I write a statement for two different courses?
There's no easy way to write a personal statement for two totally unrelated courses.
If the courses are similar (i.e. Business Studies and Economics) you may find you can write a personal statement that is relevant to both subjects without mentioning either subject by name.
If the courses are totally unrelated it may be impossible to write for both subjects without your personal statement sounding vague and unfocused.
Instead, you will need to concentrate on just one subject and just ignore the other.
Should I talk about what I want to do after university?
You could, but only if you have a good idea of what you want to do.
If you sound sure about what you want to do after university, it gives the impression that you've thought carefully about your course and what you want to do with it.
It is also a nice way to round off your personal statement, rather than just finishing on less important stuff like extra curricular activities.
If you don't have any future plans then leave it out - you don't want to be asked about them at interviews.
How should I structure my personal statement?
Most people write their personal statement in an essay style, usually starting off with the course and why they want to do it, then talking about their relevant work experience and skills, and finishing off with extra curricular activities.
However, you can use any style that you feel works best for you.
As a guide, spend around 50% of the space talking about your course and how you're suited to it and 50% on your work experience and other activities.
Exactly how you write your personal statement depends on your subject - generally people write more about work experience for vocational subjects like Medicine and Law than they would for Maths or English, where work experience is less important.
Is it worth doing loads of extra-curricular stuff to make my statement sound good?
There's no point doing extra things just to try and make yourself look good to universities - you won't enjoy it and it probably won't help much either.
From what we've seen, an interest and aptitude for the course is more important to admissions tutors than lots of extra curricular activities.
If you do want to do something to boost your application, read relevant books or do work experience related to the subject instead.
Should I talk about my qualifications?
No. There's already a section on the UCAS form for this, so don't waste space talking about them on your personal statement.
If you have something important that doesn't go in the qualifications section, ask your referee to put it down in your reference - it will sound better if it comes from them than from you.
Where can I see some example personal statements?
We have loads of free personal statement samples that you can browse through, broken down into subject categories so you can hopefully find what you are looking for quite easily!
Looking at what other students have written and submitted on their application is a great way of seeing what makes a good personal statement (and what doesn't!).
Just make sure you don't copy sentences or whole chunks of these examples though, as UCAS has plagiarism detection software and your application will be rejected if it's found you've cheated!
What should I do now I've written it?
Ask for opinions on it!
Show it to your friends, parents, teachers, career advisors, etc and note down their comments.
The most useful comments are likely to come from your teachers in the subject and the people at your school or college who handle UCAS applications.
If you have enough time, leave your personal statement for a couple of weeks or a month and come back to it - if you're not still happy with what you wrote, it's time to start redrafting.
Should I post my personal statement online?
It's generally not a good idea to post it on an internet forum or discussion board before you've started university, as anyone can steal information off a website and pass it off as their own, and with something as important as a personal statement, you don't want that to happen.
You should be OK sending it to people you trust by email - see the next question for a better way of getting people to look at it.
Can someone take a look at my personal statement?
To get people to look at your personal statement without the risk of plagiarism visit the personal statement review section.
You can also get people to look at it by asking nicely on the forums (without actually posting your statement) and a few members should be able to help you.
You can also get your personal statement professionally edited and reviewed here at Studential, through one of our very popular personal statement editing and critique packages.
We offer a range of services covering a variety of prices, so there's bound to be a package suited to you.
I'm still stuck with my personal statement - where can I find more in-depth advice?
Some people say writing a personal statement is easy – maybe it is, but it’s difficult to write a personal statement well.
As this is such a big topic to cover, we suggest taking a look at our personal statement examples to help give you some inspiration for what to write, and then read through our personal statement writing guide when you’re ready to put pen to paper.
Browse through the other information and advice we have in our personal statements section, and if you still feel you need a little extra help, you can always get your personal statement professionally edited and reviewed by one of our editors.
We offer a range of personal statement editing and critique services, so there’s bound to be one suited to your needs.
Don’t forget to ask your family, friends, teachers and careers adviser to look through your personal statement drafts, and incorporate any feedback they give you until you are 100% happy with it.
Remember - it doesn’t matter how many times you have to redraft your personal statement – the most important thing is you get it right so you give yourself the best possible chance of being offered places by your chosen universities/colleges.
IMPORTANT: When writing your personal statement, it’s vital you remember not to copy from anyone else’s personal statement (not even just a sentence!). Not only is wrong and unfair, but any plagiarism will be detected by the UCAS Similarity Detection Service.
If UCAS discover you have plagiarised your personal statement, whether you have copied someone else’s entirely or parts of it, they will cancel your application.
You can also try looking through our personal statement guide.
This takes you through how to write a personal statement step-by-step, and goes into far more detail than this short Q and A section does.
If you feel you need a little extra help, check out our personal statement editing and critique services where our professional editors will review your statement to make it a success.
A few last tips
What have you done, relevant to your subject, that is unique and no one else is likely to put down?
Many people have the same old boring interests and work experience - you need something to separate you from the crowd, and while it's a gamble to make an individual personal statement, anything individual you do related to your chosen field can only look good.
Have a think - what makes you so special? If you can't think of anything then you can't complain if you get rejected!
Finally, remember it's your personal statement, and you can write whatever you want in it.
If everything in this guide conflicts with what you've got already but you think you still have a killer personal statement, then use that.
A personal statement is about you, and you shouldn't let anyone tell you what to put in it - sticking blindly to the formula mentioned here will just stop your true personality showing through.