Writing Your Personal Statement
What the experts say:
Strikingly original or sensibly orthodox? Circumlocutory or straight to the point?
Despite all the advice out there, we all find plenty of room to include things we shouldn’t. We’ve asked the experts how to avoid the most common pitfalls:
Where to begin?
Click here if a mind map would help!
The daunting first line should be handled with care and be sure to strike a suitable tone.
Head of admissions for the University of Sheffield Alan Carlile stresses the importance of a striking opening, but warns: “Using humour or a radical statement to get the attention of an admissions tutor can go wrong – particularly if your opening line suggests that Hitler wasn't all bad, or that the first time you were on stage was in your mother's womb. Yes, real examples...”
That said, you’ll want to avoid overused opening sentences. Whatever you say, don’t write that you’ve wanted to study your subject since a young age: there’s only so often admissions tutors can read that sentence without risk of mental collapse. Finding a balance is key.
Don’t assume Word spell-check will pick up on every error; if you’re running factory standard ‘American English’, the spellchecker will be letting through all sorts of Zs which should be Ss, for instance.
“A spelling or grammar mistake is the kiss of death to an application,” says Ned Holt, former head of sixth form at Reading School.
And mistakes are often hiding in plain sight as Ken Jenkinson, headmaster of Colchester Royal College, knows well: “This morning, we had a very bright student who spelt his own name wrong.”
The advice from both men?
“Always have someone proof read it.”
Write like you
Many personal statements end up looking less like a record of your brilliance and more like a written application to work as a human thesaurus. Admissions tutors are looking for substance, and pomposity won’t do anything to convince them you love their subject.
The personal statements that don’t do well, says Alan Bird, head of sixth form at Brighton College, are those which “lack genuine personal flavour”. Start telling your universities why you’re so keen to study and why you’ll be the best student since Hermione.
And never simply say you’re right for the course – it’s your job to demonstrate that by being specific. Whatever you write needs to be intrinsically you, which is something easy to lose while rattling off achievements.
Make everything count
Universities are looking for someone interested in the course and someone interesting to teach it to. Cut the small talk and press home why what you’re saying is relevant.
Alan Bird sees too many lists which say nothing: “Students might name a book and then give it a review – I could read that off the dust jacket.”
Remember that anything extra-curricular is padding, albeit the good kind, and needs to be spun the right way. “Charity work or being captain of a sports team is very positive and can be great as part of a statement – but make sure whatever you include has relevance to what you are applying for,” says Alan Carlile.
The University of Manchester’s head of widening participation, Julian Skyrme, encourages taking a straightforward approach: “We’re asking ‘why does your part-time job relate to you being an engineer?’ Nail your experience to the course. Personal statements can sometimes appear like a biography.”
You’re good but you’re not that good
After flicking through 30,000 admissions, a little modesty is likely to go down better than a literary rendition of Simply the Best.
“Confidence is great, veering into egotism is not,”
Remember you’re applying to study something new. Your statement should convince universities that you’re excited to engage with new experiences based on your past experiences. Bragging about your achievements just won’t do this.
Top 10 most overused personal statement opening sentences
- I am currently studying a BTEC National Diploma in ... (used 464 times)
- From a young age I have always been interested in ... (309 times)
- From an early age I have always been interested in ... (292 times)
- Nursing is a very challenging and demanding career ... (275 times)
- For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with ... (196 times)
- "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only” ... (189 times)
- Nursing is a profession I have always looked upon with ... (178 times)
- For as long as I can remember I have been interested in ... (166 times)
- I am an International Academy student and have been studying since ... (141 times)
- Academically, I have always been a very determined and ... (138 times)
Reproduced from the 'UCAS Guide to Getting into University and College' with permission of UCAS - available from www.ucasbooks.co.u