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The ten biggest mistakes when writing your personal statement

Dodge these common blunders and you'll be well on your way to creating a great uni application

Writing your personal statement is, for most applicants, the most stressful part of a university application. Different universities and courses have different requirements, and the assessment of personal statements will always be very subjective.

While there is a lot of general advice, it's hard to know exactly what a university is (and isn't) looking for. There are, however, some really common errors you can easily avoid with minimal effort. We've compiled a list of the 10 most common mistakes and what you can do to make sure you're on the right track. 

1. Telling a story

Lots of applicants think their personal statement should be a chronological log of their life events. While some context can be useful, higher quality statements will be more selective, and only include experiences and study directly related to their chosen course and will discuss these in detail. Generally, you should only be focusing on recent study and experiences (i.e. in the last few years). Anything older than that should be kept to a minimum and only included if it's really relevant or provides important context.

2. Repeating information already contained in your application

It can be hard to fit everything you want to say into just 4000 characters. Unfortunately something we see commonly is applicants repeating information that's already on their UCAS form, such as listing their A level subjects, or mentioning previously achieved grades. Remember that the admissions tutor can see your whole application, so there's no need to repeat yourself. 

3. Spending too long discussing personal issues

Many applicants like to mention personal issues in their statement, such as ill health, bereavement and other issues that affect studies. Whilst these often are relevant, they may be better discussed in your reference. If it's already contained in there, then you don't need to mention it in your statement. If you do want to include personal information, it's a good idea to make sure you keep it short (one or two sentences is enough) and factual, to avoid coming across as looking for sympathy. 

4. Making simple, grammatical errors

Students are often so focused on the content of their statement that they forget about grammar and making sure their writing has a good flow. Poor grammar can cause the reader to focus on that, rather than on the content. You should always read your statement aloud and, ideally, get a friend or parent to do so as well so that you can identify any issues and make sure your statement reads well. 

5. Failing to demonstrate capability of university-level study

When writing your statement, it's important to remember that you are applying to university, and therefore it's great if you can demonstrate that you can study in a university style. This could include things like discussing an experience and what you learnt from it, and then explaining how you undertook further independent study (this could be things like reading a book chapter, an article, attending a conference, completing an online course) to expand your knowledge. Things like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are also really good for this, and you can find lots of free ones online. 

6. Using clichés 

Saying things like 'my passion for history began...' or 'I have been interested in geography since a young age' are extremely overused. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it doesn't make for very exciting reading. Remember that admissions tutors will read hundreds if not thousands of statements in each cycle and you want yours to stand out. Try to make your sentence starters as interesting as possible. 

7. Not going into enough detail about experiences

It can be tempting to try to cram as many experiences as possible into your personal statement to show how well-rounded and dedicated you are. Often, this can have the opposite effect, as the limited character allowance can mean you aren't able to go into any detail. It's better to talk about two or three experiences in detail with examples and links to the course than to list five or six.

8. Telling the admissions tutor things they already know

Remember that admissions tutors are often experts in their field. Whilst it can be tempting to add in facts, you aren't there to tell them about the subject. This isn't a good use of your character allowance. 

9. Losing sight of what the personal statement is actually for

It's surprisingly easy to write a statement that doesn't actually meet the aim of a personal statement. Essentially, the personal statement serves two main purposes, firstly, to explain why you want to study the course at degree level, and secondly, to demonstrate your capability to complete the course to a high standard. The vast majority of points you make should clearly meet these two criteria. 

10. Forgetting that the personal statement should be personal

Often, we see students who take every piece of advice they are given without questioning whether it's right for them. It's quite common to get conflicting advice, whether that's from online sources, teachers or tutors, as much of personal statement is opinion. If you do receive advice that doesn't seem quite right, it's fine to ask for more information or justification. It may simply be something you haven't quite understood, or it may be something you don't think suits you or your statement. Ultimately, it is you, not your teachers/tutors who needs to be happy with your statement.

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