How to write a personal statement for university

by Dan Roberts

If there’s one thing that strikes fear in the hearts of students applying to university through UCAS, it’s their personal statement. Every year, so much angst is conjured up by these two little words, but it’s really not as scary as you might think.

With UCAS limiting your personal statement to 4000 characters over 47 lines, it must be tightly focused on what makes you an ideal candidate for university – including your academic abilities, transferable skills, interests and experience – and why you are excited about studying your chosen course.

What is a personal statement?

Your personal statement is part of the UCAS application for any undergraduate university course. There’s a clue in the title: it’s a personal statement, so it’s by and about you. That means it’s important to try to get something of your personality across as well as the facts. Writing your personal statement is a process of thinking, drafting, editing, discussing, rewriting and checking.

How should I structure my personal statement?

You can think of your personal statement as a story all about you – although, there shouldn’t be anything remotely fictional in it, but we’ll come back to that later! Like all good stories, it should have:

  • A beginning – A punchy summary of why you are applying for the course and why you will be an asset to the university. Try to avoid beginning with the rather lame ‘I want to study this course because…’. In fact, as a good rule of thumb, try to avoid starting your personal statement with the word ‘I’.
  • A middle – Here you’ll provide all the evidence to show that you’re passionate about your chosen subject and that you have the academic ability and personal skills to be a successful student.
  • An ending – You can finish by reiterating the reasons why you should be selected, possibly mentioning your prospective career path or what you hope to gain from your time at uni.

What should I include in my personal statement?

There isn’t a magic formula for content – and, remember, you’re aiming to be unique – but there are certain points that your personal statement should cover:

  • Reasons for applying – Focus on why you are excited about studying your chosen course. Think about what inspired your passion for the subject – maybe it was a film you saw, a book you read or a lecture you attended – and perhaps include this.
  • Academic abilities – Look at the course requirements to draw out the academic abilities and study skills that you need to demonstrate. In addition to your A Levels or other exams, talk about your EPQ (if applicable), as well as any relevant online courses, summer schools or outside reading you’ve completed.
  • Skills and achievements – Describe how your activities and achievements have given you valuable skills for the course. Have you held any positions of responsibility? Don’t forget the transferable skills you’ve developed through schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, National Citizen Service or Crest Awards.
  • Interests and hobbies – Talk about your extra-curricular activities: what floats your boat and makes you you. These activities show you’re a well-rounded person.
  • Work experience – Refer to skills you’ve learned via any part-time employment, work experience or volunteering, especially if these roles prove your interest in your chosen course.

How do I actually get started?

There is nothing as daunting as a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen. The key to getting started is to realise that it’s just that – a start. It will not be anywhere near right at the first attempt. At this stage, you should just write down any ideas that come into your head, in any order. Then start to put some flesh on these bones, but don’t worry about making it sound perfect – that comes later. Soon you’ll find that you have too many words, so you’ll need to start editing and enhancing your text.

What writing style should I use?

This is quite tricky, as you want to sound professional but you also want some of your personal character to shine through. Use plain English so that you communicate your message as clearly as possible. Write in a natural style so that your statement is pleasant to read and try to keep a positive tone throughout, as this helps to demonstrate your enthusiasm.

When should I start my personal statement?

As with all things in life, if there’s a deadline at the end, it’s never too early to make a start! Your university application is really important and your personal statement is a key part of this, so you don’t want to leave it to the last minute, when you risk leaving out something vital. Many students make the mistake of thinking that it’s just a few hours’ work but the best personal statements are gradually honed over a period of several weeks.

Things to avoid in a personal statement

Mentioning a particular university

Remember that your personal statement is used for every course that you apply for, so don’t refer to any particular uni or course name. Instead, talk about the subject area and why it interests you.

Arrogance

If there’s one thing that’s likely to alienate any Admissions Tutor reading your personal statement, it’s arrogance; no one likes a show off! However, you do need to use examples of your achievements to evidence your skills. It’s a fine line to tread – you need to sell yourself, but in a modest way.

Dishonesty

Don’t be tempted to exaggerate your abilities or experience. University staff may well refer to your personal statement during your interview – if you have one – so, honesty is definitely the best policy.

Plagiarism

It may be appealing because it cuts out a whole lot of work, but resist the temptation to pass someone else’s statement off as your own. You will be caught out, because UCAS has what it terms a Similarity Detection Service – it screens all personal statements against a massive library of them that includes sample documents scraped from websites. Statements with a similarity level over 30% are then reviewed and the universities you’re applying to may get to hear about it.

Special information to include

Universities can only make decisions from the information in front of them – so, if there are special circumstances that affect your application, you should include them in your personal statement. If your education was disrupted by moving home, health issues or a family tragedy, your personal statement is your chance to tell the Admissions Tutors about it.

If you’re an international student, your personal statement can be your chance to explain why you wish to study in the UK and – if English is not your mother tongue – demonstrate that you will cope with completing a course taught in English.

For mature students, your statement is your opportunity to explain why you want to return to full-time education and what you have done since you left it. Provide as much evidence as you can from current and previous employment or volunteering roles to support your application.

Check, check and check again!

Once you are happy with your personal statement, it’s time to get the opinions of other people you trust – this might be your parents, a teacher or friends. People who know you well may be able to make suggestions of things that you’ve missed out, or spot a spelling mistake or grammatical error.

If possible, ask family or friends to read your statement out loud, as then it will be obvious to you where the meaning is not clear or the text does not flow well. Keep improving it until you’re really satisfied. Then you can submit it online via UCAS Apply, but don’t forget to keep a copy to refer to if you’re invited for interview.


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Written by Dan Roberts
MD and Founder of Mystudenthalls.com

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