Applying to Uni: how to write your personal statement

Take heart – a personal statement isn’t even 50 lines long. But writing one hangs heavy over sixth form and college students at this time of year.

It’s a biggie, but it’s not impossible - if only you could get started, and really the earlier the better.

It doesn’t have to be witty, dramatic or packed with fantastic feats and facts. But it must read well and convince a tutor that this subject is really what you want to study.

 
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“Keep it focused, make it clear – don’t waste time. That first impression matters,” says Professor Neil Fowler, dean of students at the University of Salford, who’s had 21 years of reading personal statements, and is still amazed at the spelling mistakes. Here’s how to write the best statement you can.

What should I put in it?

Your personal statement should be around 70 to 80 per cent about your chosen subject – you need to convince universities that you are genuinely interested and will stay the course. It’s not enough to say you love a subject – you must prove it. But how?

“We’re looking for a connection between what the applicant is saying and what they want to study,” says Prof Fowler. Any extra reading around a subject and relevant work experience, or visits are good – but only if you can make the connection, by reflecting upon what interested you, how your thinking developed or how it relates to your course. Most medical, veterinary or healthcare related degrees will require work experience that’s directly relevant, but other degrees don’t.

Don’t feel panicked by friends who’ve got connections, had glamorous work experience or fancy overseas trips, says the University of Oxford. You could just as well talk about a television programme or podcast or local museum that inspired you. “What did you want to find out next? What did you do?” asks the university. What have you studied already that has prepared you for your chosen course or piqued your interest? Remember the ABC rule, says the University of Warwick. Write about the Activity – whatever you did, its Benefit to you and how it relates to your Course.  Enthusiasm will take you far.

What do you hope to get from a course and do you have a particular career in mind? What are your strengths and abilities and how will they help you study or how could you develop them during your degree?

For the remaining 20 per cent you can include details that prove you are a real and rounded person. But again, says Prof Fowler, “don’t just tell me your football team won the league. That’s great but I don’t care. Tell me what you learned from being part of a team, dedicating time to training, communicating with others. Likewise with work experience or hobbies – if you can draw from them what you learned and relate it back to – say time management, attention to detail or commitment, then include them. If not, then leave them out. Reflective thinking is one of the most important skills for university study, so it’s great if you can really demonstrate it.”

 
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Structure?

You don’t need a killer opening line, but all must read well and hang together. “All subjects require you to be able to communicate clearly, so show you can,” says Prof Fowler. Make sure your key points stand out. There’s no set structure to a personal statement, but start with the most important points, while a clear, concise conclusion summarising your academic interest could draw it all together.

Who can help me?

Tutors, teachers and lecturers might be able to pinpoint areas of interest or strengths that you hadn’t thought of, advises Ucas. Sixth forms and colleges might offer dedicated workshops. Talk to friends or family studying similar courses. Take all the help you can get from any open days – ask students on hand about what they put in their own personal statements.

What should I leave out?

No lists of achievements, no jokes “they just don’t work” says Prof Fowler, and nothing irrelevant to your course. All universities you apply to will read the same statement so be careful to make any subject references relevant for each course, and don’t mention a university by name unless it’s your only choice.  Don’t exaggerate and certainly don’t lie – you might be undone at interview. But be bold; “this is no time for modesty”, says Oxford.

Who will read it?

Admissions tutors will take first look. Some academic departments decide which students they’ll accept, and some universities decide centrally. The more competitive a course or university, the more likely an academic tutor will look at your statement, which will act as an extra filter.

The good news?

A personal statement is just one part of your application – it accompanies an academic reference from a teacher and your predicted grades. While it requires polishing, it doesn’t need to be rewritten again and again, advises the University of Oxford.

Once done, redrafted and proof read by family or tutors – “you’d be amazed at how many are done at the last minute and full of mistakes” says Prof Fowler – you’ll need to return to your course work.