Selling yourself in under 4,000 characters to an academic you've never met is pretty daunting even for the most confident sixth-form student. So we've put together some dos and don'ts to make sure you show yourself in the best possible light.
Here are eight don'ts
• Don't spend ages trying to come up with a perfect, snappy first line – write anything and return to it later.
• Don't use cliches. According to the Ucas Guide to Getting into University and College, the most overused opening sentences this year were variations of "from a young age I have always been interested in…" This looks formulaic and is a waste of characters.
• Famous quotes should be avoided, as these will be found in countless other applications. For instance, this line by Coco Chanel was found in 189 applications for fashion courses this year: "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only."
• Don't list your interests, demonstrate them. Professor Alan Gange, head of the department of biological sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London, says: "Actually doing something, for example joining a national society or volunteering for a conservation organisation, tells me that students have a passion."
• Style matters. Don't be chatty and use slang, but on the other hand, don't be pretentious. Cathy Gilbert, director of customer strategy at Ucas, says: "If you try too hard to impress with long words that you are not confident using, the focus of your writing may be lost."
• Don't ask too many people for advice. Input from teachers is helpful, but it is important that the student's personality comes across.
Nicole Frith, 19, who has just started a BSc in Geography at the University of Durham, asked two teachers for advice on content. "I would seriously advise against asking teacher after teacher," she said. "There is no such thing as a perfect personal statement, and everyone has different opinions." Most admissions offices are happy to give general advice, and the Ucas website has video guides on how to plan and write your statement.
• Don't be tempted to let someone else write your personal statement for you. A recent news report says sixth-formers are paying up to £350 on the internet for personal statements written by university students. Ucas, which uses fraud detection software to identify cheating, warns of "serious consequences".
• Dont' skimp on paragraphs, despite their negative impact on line count. You want your statement to be readable.
And eight dos
• Organisation is the key. Caroline Apsey, 19, who started a medical degree at the University of Leeds this term, says: "Before I started writing, I made bullet points of everything I wanted to include, and ordered them from most important to least."
• Leave yourself plenty of time for editing. "Start writing early, so that you have lots of time to re-read it with fresh eyes," Caroline says. Then edit and edit and edit again.
• Be specific. Lee Hennessy, deputy head of admissions and recruitment at the University of Bath, says: "Don't just say, you're interested in a subject because it's interesting. Ask yourself, what it is, specifically, about the subject that interests you?"
Lee Marsden, associate dean of admissions for the faculty of arts and humanities at the University of East Anglia, agrees: "We want to know what excites the student: perhaps a book they have read or a play they have seen. There needs to be a hook."
• Show you are up to date with developments in your subject: perhaps you could analyse a recent journal article or news event.
"You need to tune in to what's current in your subject," says Louise Booth, assistant director of sixth form at Fulford school in York. "For example, if you're a politics candidate: have you been to see the prime minister or your local MP speak?"
• Around 80% of your statement should be dedicated to your studies and work experience, and 20% to extra-curricular activities. Hobbies are valuable, but must be used to reveal something relevant about the applicant.
"A simple 'I have done' list is not useful," says Helen Diffenthal, assistant principal for advice and guidance at the Sixth Form College, Farnborough. "Saying that you were captain of the cricket team doesn't make any difference unless you use it to show that you can manage your time effectively."
• Be original but treat humour with caution – jokes can fall flat.
"Original is excellent," says Gange. "I once saw a statement written in the style of a tabloid journalism article. It was factual and entertaining; the student gained a place here and got a first."
"We let through quirky statements if the student is quirky," says Booth. "Don't try to be funny if that's not you – it won't work."
• Correct spelling and grammar is vital, so use the spell-check on your computer and get other people, such as teachers, to proofread your statement.
• In the end, honesty is the best policy. Tell the admissions tutor, in your own words, why you deserve a place. "Just be yourself," says Nicole. "That worked for me."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.