How to Write a Personal Statement

Learning Tips, Tips for Parents

The key word in ‘personal statement’ is, well, ‘personal’.

It’s the only part of a university admissions form that gives the applicant an opportunity to talk about themselves, their passions and interests, and really give a sense of who they are as a person. It is crucial to get this part of the application right to ensure your child has the best chance of getting into their chosen university.

What is a Personal Statement?

A personal statement is like a 4,000 character showcase for a student: a cover page that allows university applicants to demonstrate why they should be given a place at their chosen college. It forms part of the wider submission that students make through UCAS, the UK university admissions service.

Planning a Personal Statement

The biggest mistake a student could make is to sit down and write their personal statement without preparation: this is unlikely to result in a polished, concise piece. Instead, we’d recommend that parents sit down with their children and spend time pulling together the key information.

Points to consider:

  • Why do they want to study this subject? Demonstrate passion through evidence: examples of things they’ve read, lectures they’ve been to, or pieces of work they’ve crafted that have ignited their interest.
  • Why this particular course? Make sure to read up on the course criteria for each university and note down general themes (nothing too specific, unless your child is applying for only one).
  • What extracurricular activities have they done that make them stand out? Work experience, theatre volunteering, DoFE, etc.
  • What skills do they have?
  • What are their hobbies? Music, sport, etc.
  • Have they won any awards?
  • What are they like as a person – what is their work ethic like?

How to Structure a Personal Statement

Now that you’ve gathered all the necessary information, it’s time to start putting together a first draft. The ‘ABC rule’ is one that is favoured by many tutors and educators: Action, Benefit and Course. What this means is following a structure that demonstrates – at every point – how the applicant has taken action to further their interest in the subject (or their general learning capabilities), what has been taken away from that experience, and how this relates back to their desired course and future plans.  It is worth keeping a reminder of the ‘ABC rule’ at your fingertips to ensure that this model is followed throughout.

We recommend adhering to the following loose structure when writing a personal statement:

  • Introduction: why do I want to study this course at university? Don’t get too bogged down with the idea of a perfect opening line, here: the important thing is to be concise, avoid clichés, and get straight to the point. Remember, too, that a personal statement is seen by all UCAS choices so it’s not a good idea to mention anything too specific regarding an individual course.
  • Part two: academic background. Some careers tutors say that this section should take up 75% of the statement: however it’s weighted, it’s certainly the most important bit. However, this doesn’t necessarily need to be limited to subjects taken at school – it could also extend to work experience that is relevant to the course (particularly important for competitive subject like law and medicine, where most applicants will have high grades).
  • Part three: your subject beyond the classroom. In this section, it’s good to talk about how the subject has been engaged with outside of school, and any extra-curricular events that have sparked the student’s interest: articles or books that have been read, places that have been visited, etc. 
  • Part four: work experience, hobbies and interests. This section could include work experience (if this experience didn’t relate specifically to the applicant’s chosen subject), as well as special skills and interests (musical examinations, awards that have been won, etc.).
  • Section five: conclusion. A summation of all the key points, relating back to the applicant’s chosen subject and course. If your son or daughter has a keen sense of what they’d like to do after university – becoming a teacher, for instance – they should outline how studying their chosen course will help them achieve future goals.

Polishing a Personal Statement

What not to do in your personal statement:

Exams may be coming up for many students, so it may come as a shock to find that there’s something else to start thinking about: your personal statement! If you’re considering applying to Oxbridge, your personal statement needs to be submitted by October – which means the summer months are vital for whipping it into shape.

When working on your personal statement, it’s easy to focus on crafting the perfect opening line – a process that can take a lot of time, and cause a lot of stress! Whilst it’s a good idea to make your introduction memorable, resist the urge to overthink: you have plenty more words with which to make an impression on the reader.

Sometimes it’s best to think about what not to do, rather than what you should be doing. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of things to avoid when composing the introduction to your personal statement.

1. Steer clear of overused openings.

2018 marked UCAS’ first year of utilising new software to assess personal statements. Their review of the data concluded that not only were a whopping 4,000 personal statements plagiarised, a big no-no, obviously!).

Ten common opening statements you should avoid:

  1. ‘From a young age, I have (always) been [interested in/fascinated by]…’
  2. ‘For as long as I can remember, I have…’
  3. ‘I am applying for this course because…’
  4. ‘I have always been interested in…’
  5. ‘Throughout my life, I have always enjoyed…’
  6. ‘Reflecting on my educational experiences…’
  7. ‘[Subject] is a very challenging and demanding [career/course]’
  8. ‘Academically, I have always been…’
  9. ‘I have always wanted to pursue a career in…’
  10. ‘I have always been passionate about…’

Admission tutors read thousands of personal statements each year, so the likelihood is that no statement is going to be a complete surprise to them. However, you can make things a little easier by avoiding sentences that are completely overused, like the ones mentioned above.

2. Don’t quote – use your own voice.

If you’ve come across a turn of phrase that you find particularly inspiring, or if you want to demonstrate how much you’ve read, you might be tempted to start your personal statement with a quote. Don’t. Chances are someone else will have already used that quote; and, more importantly, the admissions tutor wants to learn about you. They’re probably already familiar with what Chaucer has to say about women, but they’re not familiar with you: your background, your voice, what you’ve got to say about your subject and experiences.

If you really want to use a quote, steer clear of the big hitters. Choose a lesser-known expert in your chosen field and find an epigraph that you’ve found truly inspiring, or which really captures your enthusiasm for the subject.

3. Don’t be long-winded.

Sticking to the personal statement word count can be the most difficult task of all – there’s so much you wish to get across, but relatively few words in which to say it all! As such, you really don’t want to pad out your introduction: this is the place to be both clear and concise.

Resist the urge to use hyperbolic language or academic jargon in your opening sentence, and play around with it until you’ve communicated what you wish to say in as few words as possible. Successful opening sentences tend to be succinct. Being verbose will not be helpful: less is more!

4. Avoid joking around.

What’s more memorable than humour, you might think? Perhaps you have the perfect pun or joke to start your statement with. However, humour is a very particular thing – and there’s no guarantee that the person reading your statement will share yours. In addition, the most important thing to convey in your personal statement is your enthusiasm for and dedication to the course you have chosen: starting with a joke could undermine your commitment to academic study.

5. Don’t start with your opening sentence at all…

If you’re not sure how to start your personal statement, don’t spend ages agonising over it. Instead, leave it until later on – or even last of all – and revisit once your statement has started to take shape. You may find that a fantastic opening line comes to mind as you’re writing other sections: it’s amazing how the human brain works! In addition, as the rest of the piece comes together, it might be easier to decide what you would like to focus on in your introduction.

How to Polish a Personal Statement

The first draft is unlikely to be perfect so it’s a good idea to encourage your child to get the first draft written well ahead of the deadline. Make it clear that you will need to go through a few drafts before it’s finished and that they shouldn’t lose heart – it’s quite a long process, but a good experience for the future (they may well have to write dissertations or work on long projects at university which will necessitate lots of rounds of editing, too!).

You can help by being on hand to proofread and check the draft(s) through. Here are few things to keep in mind whilst you’re assessing their writing:

  • Is it concise: A personal statement offers only a limited amount of characters to get across a great deal of information, so it pays to adopt an economical writing style. When reading through the statement, consider every sentence and ask yourself: does each word in this sentence add something? If it doesn’t, strike it out. It sounds brutal, but with so few words to make an impression with, every single word counts (so say good bye to the ‘howevers’ and ‘furthermores’!).
  • Be truthful: Students are desperate to impress with their personal statement, and as such it’s tempting to elaborate. You must encourage your son or daughter to be 100% genuine – even if it means quizzing them on certain parts of the statement to ensure they are being honest. At an interview, students can easily be caught out if their statement isn’t truthful, so this must be avoided at all costs.
  • Avoid clichés: It’s difficult to convey passion without descending into hyperbole or relying or clichés, but it’s important that the statement strikes the right balance. Cohesive, crisp writing will serve your child best when it’s time for the statement to be reviewed. Remember that admissions tutors have thousands of personal statements to read: they will be more easily won over by a statement that is easy to read than one that is full of emotive waffle.
  • Proof for punctuation and grammar errors: This sounds obvious, but even a stray comma can have an impact on how the statement is viewed as a whole, so do check carefully. Mistakes are easy to miss when re-reading the same passages over and over again, as your son or daughter will have – a fresh pair of eyes can work wonders!

A personal statement is a crucial part of university admissions, allowing applicants to showcase their passions and interests. It serves as a 4,000-character showcase to demonstrate why they should be accepted. 

To write an effective Personal Statement, plan ahead, consider motivations, extracurricular activities, skills, and hobbies. Structure the statement following the ‘ABC rule’ – Action, Benefit, and Course. Avoid common pitfalls such as overused openings, extensive quoting, being long-winded, using humor, or focusing too much on the opening sentence. Polish the Personal Statement by ensuring conciseness, honesty, avoiding clichés, and proofreading for errors.

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