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Personal statement secrets – universities reveal all

Want to know how to craft an amazing personal statement? Take some advice from the experts...

If you’re applying to uni this year, you’ll already know that one of the trickiest tasks is coming up with an original and interesting personal statement. 

That’s why we’ve gone straight to the experts – the university admissions staff themselves – to pick their brains on what makes a stand-out personal statement.

Getting ready to write your personal statement

Understand what a personal statement is

Your personal statement is a really important part of your application, and your chance to sell yourself to your chosen university. 

"Ultimately, a personal statement is a chance for you to convey why you would like to study a particular course, and how you hope this will benefit you in the future. We want to hear what skills and experience you possess which will help you at university, and your passion for your chosen subject," explains Annie Richardson, outreach assistant in the outreach and educational partnerships team at the University of Greenwich.

"Admissions staff look for applicants with a strong interest in their course; good qualifications and relevant experience; and the resilience and motivation to complete their degree," Annie adds. 

Swot up

Before you even start writing, you need to have your motives for applying clear in your mind. Don’t rush your research. "It's impossible to write a strong personal statement until you have explored your options and feel confident in your university course choices," says Annie.

"Spend time planning what you intend to write and include in your personal statement," adds James Calcutt, schools and colleges liaison manager at Royal Holloway, University of London. "Students with the strongest and most detailed plans write the best statements. This is because they have something to refer to, ensuring they stay on topic, and it offers them the opportunity to order all their thoughts before writing their statement."

Take the time to review uni websites, prospectuses and online student guides, as well as attending open days and checking out our university guides. You could also visit the forums for any unis you're interested in on our sister site The Student Room.  

Make sure you read the detail of each course and what it has to offer. Just because they have the same name, they will still have varying requirements.

"Start early and take your time," says Anjli Shah, careers consultant at City, University of London. "Read the course summaries for every course you wish to apply for and where possible underline what they are looking for in candidates. Some universities will stipulate either in the course summary or clearly state what they look for in the personal statement.

"Research the five courses that you want to apply for in detail. Every university publishes the course content and structure on their website. Understand what topics and modules you will be learning. Identify key themes across the courses and think about what you have done so far to develop your understanding and learning around the subject. As you do this, reflect on why this in interesting to you and why you want to study this.

"Take a blank sheet of paper and jot down everything that comes to mind about why you want to study the course, the evidence (reading, experiences, project work etc) that you could include to show how you have developed your thinking about this subject. Always demonstrate what you learned rather than listing what you did. 

"Remember whilst it is a difficult exercise, it is also helping you to reflect on why you want to study this subject and the courses you are applying for, and so it is an important tool in your own decision making."

Keep your options open

Remember, it’s not wise to show a personal preference to one particular university, even if you have a favourite.

"If you have paid to send five Ucas applications at once, the admissions tutors for each university all see the same personal statement. Do not make a specific reference to a specific university," says Annie at the University of Greenwich.

"Remember that you can only have one personal statement no matter how many universities you’re applying to, so avoid mentioning any universities or modules by name," says Lisa Thomas, deputy director of admissions at the University of Chester. "Instead, it’s your task to show these universities why you’re well-suited to their courses, without mentioning specifics.

"If you’re going for similar courses, you should notice likenesses in the skills, qualities and experience they’re looking for, making your life a bit easier. If you’re applying for courses that are very different, have a think about how your achievements, skill-set and experience can be applied more generally to fit with the varying course descriptions." 

Getting started

Keep it personal

When you're looking for inspiration on how to get started, remember: it's all about you. "The clue is in the word 'personal'," says Anjli at City, University of London. "All too often, students write what they think they ought to or will mention something in order to tick it off a checklist. This leads to disjointed personal statements that are too general and don’t tell us anything about why the student wants to study the subject they have chosen. So, make it personal! Spell out what motivates you to study the course; show us your academic engagement with the course." 

It can also be tempting to Google ‘personal statement’ and take your pick. But, be warned. Ucas has resources which will identify any plagiarised statements from the extensive library of archived statements. 

Don’t be like the rest of them

Be sure your statement is a true reflection of you; this will give it a more authentic feel.

"We really want to see applicants being themselves and using their own experiences to inform their personal statements," says Lisa at the University of Chester.  

"When you’re about to make the transition to higher education, it’s tempting to write in a stiff and formal way. It’s important to write clearly and appropriately but you should, ultimately, sound like yourself."

Watch now: University admissions experts give their top tips for writing your personal statement in this video from our sister site The Student Room.

What to put in your personal statement

That first sentence…

For many of you this will be the hardest part, thanks to writer’s block, feeling pressured and desperation to create the perfect sentence. The solution? Get into your flow and scribble down all your thoughts in any old order first. 

"Students often struggle writing their personal statements because they think it needs to be perfect, or that they need to sound smart – so they end up not sounding like themselves," says Annie from the University of Greenwich. "Write multiple drafts of your application and start as early as possible.  Even if you begin with a spider diagram or bullet points – that is still a draft." 

Then, when it comes to structuring your notes into your personal statement, focus on the things the universities will want to read. "Students can stand out by using their introduction to talk about what they are looking to study, why they have chosen this and where their interest comes from," says James at Royal Holloway, University of London. "This gives an excellent context to the statement and provides the admissions specialist with the important information early on."

"Opening your statement with a unique line about yourself and how it relates to you wanting to study a particular course is a great way to get your personal statement to stand out straight away," adds Lisa at the University of Chester. 

Be original

Avoid clichés (like the plague...), not least openers such as 'I have always wanted to be', 'From a young age' or 'I have always dreamed of' to justify your choice of subject.

"Try to avoid phrases such as ‘I have been passionate about law from a young age’ - even if it’s true," says Lisa. "Admissions teams see them again and again. As an alternative, consider using your personal examples to demonstrate your passion for a subject. [For example], ‘I have been interested in law since shadowing a barrister as part of my work experience’." 

Make the word count count

Your personal statement has a strict limit of 4,000 characters (including spaces) or 47 lines of 95 characters (including spaces); whichever is shorter. Exceed this and Ucas Hub will immediately cut you off and could leave your personal statement dangling in the middle of an unfinished sentence. Editing matters!

"Make sure each word counts," says Anjli at City, University of London. "Anything that you choose to include in your personal statement must be relevant to answering the question 'Why I want to study this subject'.

"Avoid generalisations. Be specific. If you read a book tell us about a specific school of thought or theory and your learning from it. Does it back your point up? Do you disagree with it? Why? Don’t simply state you read it. Avoid trying to include everything that you have done in your life – only relevant elements that back up your motivation for and understanding of the academic subject you wish to study." 

Ditch the quotes

Admissions teams aren't interested in what somebody else has said about your subject – they want to hear what you think. 

"We often recommend that students avoid including quotes," says James at Royal Holloway, University of London. "The statement is short, and students only have a small space to demonstrate their thoughts and experiences. 

 "We’re interested in hearing the student's opinions, not those of whoever they are quoting. Instead of quotes, we suggest students paraphrase the ideas and critical arguments of what they’ve read and give their interpretation." 

Don’t be a bluffer

Don’t write something in your personal statement that you won’t be able to talk about in an interview – keep it honest and resist the temptation to embellish the truth. 

"It’s important not to exaggerate or even make something up just because it sounds good," says Lisa at the University of Chester. "We get that you’re out to impress, but when it comes to your personal statement, it’s important to be honest and true to yourself."

Emphasise your student super powers

Universities need to be convinced that you have developed your study skills enough to be able to study independently.

"Students who demonstrate they have critically engaged in their subject through wider reading, taster days and online courses stand out," says James at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

"It should become evident to the reader that the student knows why they wish to study the subject they have chosen as they demonstrate their learning so far and understanding of the subject," says Anjli at City, University of London. "This can come through their academic engagement with the subject in class but also through additional activities such as reading, listening to documentaries or podcasts or work experiences or project work that they have been doing."

Getting ready to send off your personal statement

Are extracurricular activities important?

This is always a very popular question on our sister site The Student Room. The key is relevance.

"Admissions tutors are pleased to see extracurricular activities on a personal statement as it shows you have excellent time management and varying interests – traits that will serve you well during university," says Annie at the University of Greenwich. 

"There must be a balance between academic and extracurricular content," says James at Royal Holloway, University of London. "We often suggest a 75%-25% split between academic and non-academic content. With the extracurricular content, this can be anything that demonstrates crucial transferable skills that will be useful in the course the student is looking to study." 

Lisa at the University of Chester agrees that extracurriculars can give your application a boost. "You might think they’re not worth including, especially with the 4,000-character limit, but extracurricular activities can be where you really set yourself apart from other applicants. So, if you have any interests, hobbies or experiences that relate to your subject of choice or showcase your personal qualities, make room for them."

Students "should highlight what skills they have developed by doing those activities and perhaps discuss how these will be useful on their course or at university," says Anjli at City, University of London. 

"If they are keen to continue certain activities at university then these can be referenced here. If they have had limited opportunity to pursue other activities, but have a part-time job or caring responsibilities, then these are equally important to talk about as they definitely give students a whole range of skills and show how the student is currently managing their academic studies with additional responsibilities." 

And Annie at the University of Greenwich has a tip for anyone puzzling over which extracurriculars to include. "If you are unsure how to make an extracurricular activity relevant to your application, you should remember your ABCs.

"Think of an Action you have taken (a recent course/hobby/part time job); write about the transferable skills or Benefit this has helped you to develop; and how this experience will directly benefit you in your Course."

Don’t keep the admissions team guessing

If you don’t know why the content of your statement is important, the admissions tutor won’t either.

Whether you're writing about your interest in the subject or clarifying your skills, “make sure each point you are making is well developed and shows your motivation for the subject and builds on from the previous point – make it flow," says Anjli at City, University of London. 

"The most important aspect of any student's personal statement is demonstrating their passion for the subject. This should be their main factor for studying at university and should be front and centre in their statement," says James at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Show understanding of your future career

If you're applying for a vocational course, such as medicine or law, you'll need to show that you know what to expect. 

"If your course is vocational, you should show understanding of the career you are aiming for, any challenges you might face and your ability to cope with these," says Annie at the University of Greenwich. 

Skip the jokes

Your personal statement isn't the place to try to be funny – save the jokes for meeting your roomates in halls. 

"A lot of people try to be funny in their application to stand out, but your sense of humour may not be the same as the admissions tutor," says Annie at the University of Greenwich. 

Remember what you're writing

Stay laser-focused on what you're writing and why, and you'll end up with a much better personal statement. 

"What separates a good personal statement from a flawed one is often the tone or the structure," says Annie at the University of Greenwich.
 
"Remember: it is not a letter – so do not structure it like one; it is not your life story – we do not need to know where you were born; it is not an academic essay – do not list all the books you have read; and, it is not a place to list your qualifications – you have already done that earlier in the application." 

Review and redraft

"You will probably redraft at least five times before you are happy with your personal statement," says Anjli at City, University of London. 

When you're editing it down, "keep the language simple and avoid unnecessary words such as 'indeed' or 'I had the opportunity to'. Keep it to the point," Anjli adds. 

"Remember the personal statement is about one side of an A4 sheet so you can only write so much. Do not try to include everything! Select five or six key points that you can develop in detail to demonstrate your motivation for and understanding of the course you are applying for." 

Read it out loud

"Read your personal statement aloud – this can make a big difference," says Lisa at the University of Chester. 

You could also "try reading your work from the bottom up, taking each paragraph at a time – reading it in a different order can help you spot mistakes," Lisa adds. 

Dotting the Is and crossing the Ts

Check, check and check again. 

"Now is not the time to be lazy with your proofreading and spellchecking," says Lisa.

"The extra time you spend checking your personal statement could make an important difference. Obviously, if you do send off your personal statement with a mistake in, it isn’t the end of the world! But don’t take away from the great things you’re saying with errors that could have been caught." 

Don’t be shy about asking for feedback

This is really important – when you’ve been re-drafting your application a number of times it can be hard to spot mistakes.

“Get someone else to check over it – a fresh pair of eyes can work wonders," says Lisa. 

Visit our personal statements hub for more tips to help you ace your uni application. 

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