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How to Write Your Personal Statement: A Practical Guide

How to write personal statement - useful tips and tricks
14 February 2017

In this practical guide we show you how to structure your personal statement, explain what to include (and leave out) and give you a range of useful tips and tricks.

The Personal Statement — not as scary as it seems

To apply for a place at university in the UK candidates are required to fill in and submit their UCAS form online. This is relatively straightforward, but one section of the form causes almost universal consternation and gnashing of teeth: the personal statement. In 4000 characters (around 1000 words) or less, applicants must explain why they deserve a place on their chosen university course, and convince the admissions tutors that they are enthusiastic, inquisitive, and disciplined enough to manage their time and their work as independent students. The obvious importance of the personal statement makes it a challenge, with fear of getting it wrong finding candidates struggling to write even a sentence, let alone a 1000-word essay. There’s also the fact that the personal statement seemingly requires candidates to boast about themselves and their achievements, something that most teenagers find distinctly uncomfortable.

The truth, though, is that writing a good personal statement doesn't have to be such a struggle. By asking the right questions, and by following certain guidelines, any candidate can produce a highly persuasive, well-structured statement that maximises their chances of being offered a place at their first choice university. In this practical guide we’re going to provide you with those guidelines, showing you how to structure your personal statement, detailing what you should include (as well as what you should leave out) and giving you a range of tips and tricks to make the whole exercise slightly more bearable.

The Four Golden Rules

Before we begin to look at how to write the personal statement, we want to remember these four golden rules:

  • Be concise. You need to make sure that what you write in your statement is relevant, written in clear English (you don’t get extra marks for having a panoptic, sorry, wide vocabulary) and that you stick to the point.
  • Prove it. Rather than telling the admissions tutors what you like, focus on demonstrating what you’ve done to further your understanding of your chosen subject.
  • Don’t be vague. If you really want to study this subject at university then you’re going to know about it in detail. Discuss those details! The more specific you can be about what area of your subject you’re interested in the better, since that will show that you want to get a place to learn, rather than just to attend the university.
  • (The biggest rule of them all) Remember who you are writing for. Your personal statement is going to be read by admissions tutors and academics. They are going to want to see that you are a bright, enthusiastic, hard working individual, but also that you are going to be able to thrive in a university environment. They don’t want someone with minimal interest in their subject; they want someone who might end up doing a PhD. Write your personal statement with them in the back of your mind.

Part 1: Your relationship to your subject

The first section of your personal statement needs to introduce the way in which you relate to your chosen subject. This is effectively the introduction to your personal statement, and involves addressing three questions:

  • Why do you want to read this subject?
  • How have you shown that you want to read this subject?
  • What other aspects of your academic life do you find interesting I.e in other subjects?

Let’s look at each of these one by one.

  • Why do you want to read this subject?

The very beginning of your personal statement needs to very clearly state your reasons for wanting to study your chosen subject, and a good way to go about this is to think about the specific moment when you started to think you might want to study your subject at university. Was there an event, a day, a week, a month, or even a year or so in which you gradually found yourself falling in love with that subject? Where, and when, did that process occur?

An example of this might be: ‘My passion for English literature really emerged when I studied The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck for my GCSEs. I fell in love with Steinbeck’s austere and quasi-Biblical style…’, or ‘it was when I first visited the observatory at Greenwich that I started to think about becoming an astrophysicist…’

As well as detailing when and how you first developed an interest in your subject, you need to ask why it matters, both to you and to society at large. This is important because by showing how your subject connects to the wider world you implicitly show your potential to create new avenues in research, which is what universities are ultimately for.

Some caveats:

  • Try to avoid hyperbole. You have not wanted to be an engineer since the day you were born.
  • Be honest. The best personal statements will reflect the enthusiasm of the candidates writing them. Tell a story that shows you at your most engaging and passionate.
  • What evidence is there that you enjoy your subject?

Now that you’ve put down how you first became interested in your subject and why your subject is important, you need to prove that you’re interested in it. You can show this by discussing:

  • Books you’ve read (remember, the more specific you can be about details in these books the better)
  • Lectures you’ve been to
  • Work experience that you’ve done (related to your subject)
  • Any general extra-curricular activity that developed your knowledge of the subject area
  • Courses you’ve been on
  • Places that you’ve visited

For this bit, try to be as specific as possible. For example, if you’re discussing a book, don’t just mention it – go into the specifics of what the book discusses. The more detail the better.

  • What other aspects of your academic life do you find interesting?

So, you’ve said that you’re interested in your subject, and you’ve proven it by talking about all the ways you’ve been widening your knowledge. Your specific details give everything that you’ve said a lovely silver lining of credibility. Now it’s time to discuss what you’re doing for A-Levels, Pre-Us, Advanced Highers, IB etc. What do you like about your subjects? Are there certain aspects of subjects (other than the one you want to go on and study) that you found exciting and wanted to learn more about? Can you tie that in to the subject that you want to study?

Part 2: The argument/premise

This is an essential part of your personal statement, and may well end up being the decisive factor in whether you’re offered a place or not. In this section you need to discuss either a premise or an argument in your chosen subject that has interested you. The format should be: an area that I’m really interested in is x and when I’m at university I would like to build on this and find out about y. In this section you need to have a lot of discussion and argument. You need to show that you’re the kind of person directors of studies would like to teach; you can think around the topic, argue your case and consider different ideas and points of view. This is you writing as though you’ve already been accepted to the university.

Essentially, you need to write this part of your personal statement with an eye on the future. You’re going off to study for your first degree, but there’s a chance you’ll go on to do a Masters, or even a PhD. If you did do a PhD, what might it be in? This is what you need to argue about. It’s needs to be specific, perhaps quite niche, and show that you’ve really thought deeply about an aspect of your subject. The more original you can be the better, too.

The argument/premise part of your personal statement doesn’t need to be huge, but it does need to be there.

Part 3: Achievements and plans

Once you’ve dealt with how you relate to your subject and with the argument/premise, you need to open up the scope to cover other aspects of who you are, both academically and otherwise, beyond your subject.

(It’s worth noting that we can see a sort of over-arching structure that consists of two parts: the first, including the argument section, is very much to do with your subject; the second section is to do with you more generally.)

In this section you want to discuss your school achievements, such as prizes and awards. You also want to go into detail about your extra-curricular activities. Have you represented your school in anything? Have you taken in part in music, or drama? There’s no need to bring this back to your subject – this is about you, and why you’re special. However, what you do need to do is discuss how you  benefited from these experiences. What did they teach you? Did you learn how to meet people (e.g. travelling) or did you instead learn how to manage yourself and your time (an essential skill for the university student)? At this point you should also discuss work experience that is not related to your subject. It doesn’t matter how lowly it was – if you were working, you were probably learning something.

Once you’ve described your achievements and talents you need to discuss the future. What career do you ultimately want? Are you going to have a gap year (for candidates doing deferred entry)? How are your plans relevant to your university application?

Part 4: Conclusion

End your personal statement by summing up what you’ve written. Emphasise again how interested you are in your subject, and come back to you work experience and achievements to show why you’re the perfect person to study it at university. Return to the argument section and reiterate your interest in pursuing the answers to that one specific problem. Finally, end with a killer sentence in which you list your qualities, and really try to persuade those admissions tutors to give you a place.

General Points

  • It goes without saying that you personal statement should have perfect spelling, punctuation and grammar. Ask several people to read it through before you submit it
  • Draft the personal statement in a Word document – don’t put it direct onto the UCAS website, you never know what could go wrong!
  • When it comes to submit the personal statement be careful about formatting. Strange things can happen when you copy and paste from a Word document into a web browser so keep your wits about you and check!

So there you have it: a practical guide to writing your personal statement. Remember: keep it concise, detailed and let your enthusiasm shine through. Good luck!

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