Personal Statements – an Insider's View
James Seymour is Director of Admissions at the University of Buckingham. Here he provides some top tips for students preparing their personal statement.
Personal statements may seem formulaic but they can be critical to the decision-making process and we do read them.
This is your chance to demonstrate your enthusiasm and commitment and show us what value you can add to a university. In the vast majority of cases universities are finding ways to make you an offer, not reject you – the personal statement is your chance to make this decision easier for them!
If you’re applying for a high-demand course where there are more applicants that meet the criteria than places available, your personal statement could well be the deciding factor on whether or not you get an interview or audition.
First, you need to explain why you want a place on a course. You should:
- Explain the reason for your choice and how it fits in with your career aspirations/ideas.
- Give examples of any related academic or work experience.
- Show you know what the course will involve and mention any special subjects you are interested in.
- Demonstrate who you are as a person by listing any positions you’ve held, memberships of teams or societies and interests and hobbies.
- Show some consistency in your five UCAS choices. It may be difficult for an admissions tutor to take you seriously if your other choices are totally different. If you do have wildly diverging choices, it might be worth explaining this in the statement.
- keep it clear and concise – UCAS admissions is increasingly paperless – admissions tutors are reading your statement on screen.
Explain what you can bring to a course and try not to just list experiences, but describe how they have given you skills that will help you at university.
So, instead of simply:
I am a member of the college chess club. I also play the clarinet in the orchestra.
You could say:
I have developed my problem solving skills through playing chess for the college; this requires concentration and analytical thought.
I am used to working as part of a team as a member of the college orchestra (I play clarinet), cooperating with others to achieve a finished production.
Much has been written about what to put in a personal statement, but it is also important to consider how to prepare the statement.
- You could have excellent experiences but if they are arranged in a poorly-written statement then the impact will be reduced.
- On the other hand, a well-written personal statement with a structure that has clearly been planned and refined will not only make the information within stand out, it will demonstrate to the reader that you have an aptitude for structuring written pieces of work, a crucial skill that’s required for all university courses.
- It's worth putting the work in – you can use it for other things such as gap year applications, jobs, internships, apprenticeships and keep it on file for future applications too.
Some top do’s and don’ts include:
- Use positive words such as achieved, developed, learned, discovered, enthusiasm, commitment, energy, fascination…
- Use short, simple sentences in plain English — not contrived, not verbose or grandiose.
- Insert a personal touch if possible, but be careful with humour and vernacular/chatty approaches.
- Use evidence wherever possible to support your claims and statements.
- Plan the statement as you would an essay.
- Be clear and concise – the more concentrated the points and facts, the more powerful.
- Consider dividing the statement up into five or six paragraphs, with headings if appropriate.
- It’s an obvious point, but spelling and grammar DO matter.
- Draft and redraft – 10 drafts is by no means unusual – and ask others to proofread and provide feedback.
- Try to include your life history.
- Start with: "I’ve always wanted to be a..."
- Use gimmicks or quotations, unless they are very relevant and you deal with them in a way that shows your qualities.
- Be tempted to buy or copy a personal statement. Plagiarism software is now very sophisticated and being caught out is virtually a guarantee you won’t get a place.
Below are some real-life examples from students that we do not want to see again:
"I enjoy the theatre and used to go a couple of times a year." (Drama)
"I am a keen reader and am committed to the study of human behaviour through TV soaps!!"
"I have led a full life over the last 18 years and it is a tradition I intend to continue."
"I describe myself in the following two words: 'TO ODIN!!' the ancient Viking war cry." (Law)
"My favourite hobby is bee-keeping and I want to be an engineer."
"My interest in medicine stems from my enjoyment of Casualty and other related TV series."
"I enjoy socialising with my friends."
"I have always had a passion to study medicine, failing that, pharmacy." (A student putting pharmacy as her fifth choice after four medical school choices – pharmacy is just as popular and high status as medicine.)
Above all, remember that a personal statement is your opportunity to convince a university why they should offer you a place. So make it compelling and there’s a much higher chance they will.
Next page: Top Tips for Writing the Perfect Personal Statement
Step 1: Think about the information you want to include in your application
Don't worry about the structure yet. Think about and write notes on the following:
- What interests you about this course / subject? What do you want to do after you qualify? If you're passionate about the course, show it in your writing. Be enthusiastic and upbeat in your tone.
- Read through the description of the course and the requirements online and in our Undergraduate prospectus. What is the course / university looking for in a student? Have you got relevant personal qualities or attributes? If so, what are they and how can you show that you have them? The best personal statements link examples of the student's extra-curricular activities with the university's entry requirements really well. Take a look at examples of activities on the UCAS site that you can use to prove you're a good candidate for this course. Keep all of the information relevant to what the university is looking for.
- Do you have skills, knowledge and experience that's relevant to this course? Have you done any relevant voluntary work? Have you done unaccredited training? Have you undertaken relevant part-time or full-time paid or voluntary work?
Step 2: Structure and write your statement
You’ve done your research and written your notes. You’ve thought about the information you want to communicate. You have a clear idea about what makes you a strong candidate. Now you just need to do the following:
- Make sure your personal statement is well structured, convincing and easy to understand. Whatever course you do at university, you'll be required to write essays. If you can show in your personal statement that you can communicate well in writing, you’ll make a really good impression.
- Put your notes in order according to what the course you’re interested in is looking for. If it’s essential to be organised and demonstrate an interest in equestrian studies, for instance, put your examples of these at the top of the page.
- Give yourself time to write it properly. Your first draft alone could take you a whole day to write.
- Write in a formal style. You want to make an impression, but don't include jokes, conversational language, or anything unusual.
- Don’t copy. Avoid clichés. Keep your statement unique.
- Remember you have a lot to offer – you just have to write about yourself in a natural and positive way, and sell all the skills and experience that you have.
- Check carefully that your spelling and grammar is correct. Keep your statement factual and accurate.
- Get your teachers / friends / partner / work colleagues / someone you trust to read it out loud to you. It's a great way to spot errors and make sure it makes sense. Don’t be afraid to re-draft your statement until you feel really happy with it.
Good luck with your application!
Give yourself enough time to research and write a personal statement that shows you’re a strong candidate for the course.
Laura, NTU Admissions Team
The best personal statements are those that give the Admissions Team an idea of who you are, why you want to study your course of interest, and what you’d ideally like to go on to do after university. Give us an outline of what motivates you to study and why.
Putting together a portfolio for an Art and Design course?
Watch our video to find out what to include and what our tutors are looking for in your portfolio.
Further information on how to write your personal statement
For more hints and tips, visit the UCAS site or book your place on an NTU open day and attend our talks on how to write a personal statement (You may find UCAS’ free personal statement timeline, mind map and worksheet particularly helpful).
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