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Teacher secrets for writing a great personal statement

Here's some useful advice and insider knowledge on writing your personal statement from a sixth form tutor...

If you want to make a solid impression on the universities you're applying for, it's a good idea to put a lot of effort into your personal statement. But what should you write about?

We asked a sixth form tutor with over 25 years of experience how to make your application stand out. Here are Mrs Kinetta's tips for writing a top notch personal statement.

What is a personal statement? 

Your personal statement is a key part of the university application process – you have 4000 characters or 47 lines (whichever you hit first) to talk about your background and interests.

The main thing to notice here is that it's a character limit – not a word limit – so spaces will be included in the count. It's worth copying and pasting your text directly into the Ucas form, as their formatting can be slightly different to other word-processing programs.

You only get to submit one personal statement and it'll be sent to all of the universities you apply for. For this reason, you'll probably want to avoid mentioning specific universities.

It also makes sense to apply for courses that are all similiar, so you'll be able to write a specific and targeted statement that will demonstrate your passion for the subject.

If you're applying for two completely different subjects, it'll be hard to write a general statement that covers both areas.

So, how do you write your personal statement?

Here are some tips gained from more than 25 years of experience as a sixth form tutor, based on loads of tried and tested applications.

Paragraph spaces are included in your character limit

The Ucas formatting can be awkward and it automatically removes indents – this means you'll need to add a whole line of spaces to sepeate your paragraphs, and this will be included in your character count. 

Spelling, grammar and punctuation matter

Admissions tutors read loads of personal statements and you want to stand out – but not in a bad way. Try to avoid clichés like 'my love for science began when...' and 'I have been interested in history ever since I was a child'. 

You can get creative, but make sure it's relevant. It's a good idea to keep your writing clear and simple, and give yourself plenty of editing time to remove any errors from your statement.

Don’t plagiarise

Ucas will test the originality of your personal statement by using their plagarism software. They will be able to find certain phrases or structures from your statement that have been taken from the internet, even if you've tweaked them slightly. 

There are plenty of personal statement examples online, but these should just be for inspiration. It can be good to get an idea of what a top personal statement looks like, but don't just copy it – your statement will be a lot better if it shows your own personality and experiences. 

Don't focus too much on extracurriculars...

If you're applying for an academic course rather than a vocational one, it's a good idea to make about 75% your personal statement about your specialisation in the subject. Most admissions tutors for these type of degrees are looking for candidates who are serious about their studies.

You can still write about what you get up to in your spare time – it shows that you're well-rounded – but try to keep your hobbies and part-time jobs to a quick summary.

...unless your course is vocational

But if you're applying for a vocational course, you should focus your statement around what you've learned from your relevant experience. This is because vocational degrees focus more on practical work instead of traditional exams. 

When you're writing about your extracurricular activities, be clear about what your role was and explain the effect it had on you. It's better to have a few key examples rather than loads of examples with minimal detail.

Be relevant

It can be tempting to make connection between all of your A-levels and the degree you're applying for, but you don't need to – it probably won't help you stand out. 

A better approach would be to expand the detail in your main examples, as they will be much more relevant. 

Say what you've learned from books

Writing about relevant books that have influenced you can be a good way to demonstrate your dedication to the subject area, but stick to about two or three examples – and make sure you explain what you've gained from reading them.

You should use more examples if you're applying for a literature-based course, as it can show your enthuasiasm for reading beyond the syllabus – without being forced to do it by your teachers.

You're not expected to be an expert 

You're applying to university to learn, so admissions tutors are looking for your commitment and potential rather than existing expertise.

It helps to be honest about how your interest in the subject has developed – maybe you've only recently started researching the subject? You can explain what made you apply.

Focus on the positives

Don't worry about including mitigating circumstances in your personal statement, these should be mentioned in your reference instead – if you're using a teacher for your reference, make sure you tell them anything you'd like them to include. 

As you don't need to write about mitigating circumstances, you can use all of your character limit to demonstrate why you'd be a great student on the course.

Make sure it reads well

Reading your personal statement out loud to yourself or a family member is a good way to check if everything flows well – you might be able to hear if any of your grammar sounds awkward. 

Focus on making your statement clear and easy to read. All it takes is a simple explanation of why you want to study the course and why you would be good at it.

Take your time and start early

It's worth putting in enough time to make your personal statement the best it can be.

Plan an early first draft as soon as you know what course you want to do, and then set it aside for a few weeks before revisiting it. You might find ways to improve your statement after looking at it with fresh eyes.

Some students even start their first draft at the end of year 12. This can be a good idea as it gives you something to work on over the summer holidays and you'll have time to research your courses – you'll also have enough time to start again if it isn't going too well.

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