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Writing a history personal statement: expert advice from universities

Here’s how to shine in your history personal statement

Your personal statement is a vital part of your university application. It’s your main opportunity to really sell yourself to the universities, and could tip the balance in your favour. 

We’ve taken the guesswork out of writing a quality history personal statement by speaking to experts at some UK universities. 
Are you looking for inspiration?
Over on The Student Room, we have more than 50 examples of real history personal statements.

Research the course

Take the time to have an in-depth look at the history courses you’re applying to, because they won’t all be the same. 

Dr Dina Rezk, associate professor in history at the University of Reading says: “Browse the history website! See what topics or themes draw you in, notice what gets you excited or asking questions. Referencing a particular individual’s research in the department will show that you’ve done your homework and paid attention to detail.”

Explain why you want to study history 

Universities want students who are keen and motivated: detailing exactly why you love the subject will help your personal statement stand out. 

Dr Christian O’Connell, history course leader at the University of Gloucestershire, says: “it is always interesting to learn why someone wants to study history.

“You can really make yourself stand out by telling us about a particular subject or topic that fascinates and motivates you, or describing experiences that made you want to learn more. These can be very personal life experiences or come from interests that you had at school, but they can really help lecturers to see your passion for the subject. 

“As an example, my love for the subject came from my discovery of blues music when I was a teenager. To learn more about where this fascinating music came from, I had to understand the African American experience, and how this relates to the wider history and development of the United States.” 

Dr Erik Mathisen, head of history admissions at the University of Kent says: “Admissions tutors will read hundreds and hundreds of personal statements each year. They are looking for a few things. Firstly, evidence of thoughtful students, who read a lot and can take a topic and develop it into a set of ideas or questions. Second, an indication that the student has a set of interests in the subject to which they are applying.”

Keep it personal 

Your personal statement should be just that – personal. 

“Communicating your enthusiasm for the subject is very important in the personal statement," says Christian at the University of Gloucestershire. "But it is also important to tell us about yourself beyond the subject.

“Don’t feel that everything has to be about history, whether in terms of your achievements or your experiences. It is good to try and strike a balance between your academic ability and your personal qualities and strengths. Being at university requires a number of other skills, but knowing these will also help us think of ways in which the institution can be a good fit for you." 

Dina at the University of Reading adds: “Don’t be afraid to get personal! Some people say that all research is me-search. Think about your family history, is there something there you’d like to explore further, some aspect of social or cultural history that your personal experience speaks to? Do you have particular language skills or access to local resources that might allow you to do this?”

Reflect on your motivations

Because personal statements are all about you, there’s no magical formula or template to follow. You’ll write the best personal statement if you simply take a bit of time to reflect on why you’d be a great history student. 

“There is no one correct way to write a personal statement," says Dr Colin Veach, history admissions tutor at the University of Hull. "So my first piece of advice would be: relax. If you are applying to do a history degree, you will already love the subject and have plenty of practice writing convincing arguments about it.

“What we want you to do is to take those skills and turn the lens on yourself: what has motivated you to study history? What in your past suggests that you would do well in our history programme?" 

Critique books you’ve read

Rather than just listing out everything history-related you’ve ever read, expand on what you thought about one particular book to demonstrate your critical thinking skills. 

“History is a reading-heavy discipline," says Erik at the University of Kent. "Nothing demonstrates your abilities more than writing a short paragraph about a recent book of history you’ve read. 

“Focus on the argument of the book. What did you make of it? What were its strengths or weaknesses? What did you learn from it? Demonstrating your skills is so much more convincing than telling someone that you have them. Most of all, personal statements (no matter the subject you are applying to) need to show a mind at work." 

Think outside the history classroom 

Everyone can write about the history topics they’ve been taught during GCSEs or A-levels. Thinking in a broader way by making links between history and other subjects you’re interested in will help your personal statement stand out. 

"Think beyond the curriculum!" says Dina at the University of Reading. "We know you’ve studied the obvious culprits like Cold War and Nazi Germany and no doubt found it fascinating. But are there interesting links you can make with other subjects you study or enjoy? For example, biology (to think about the history of a scientific concept ) or English literature (to reflect on how a work of fiction informs our understanding of a particular epoch).”

Write about relevant extracurricular activities 

Think about the ways your activities outside the classroom could be relevant to a history degree. 

“We like to hear about your interests, especially if they have some connection to the subject," says Christian at the University of Gloucestershire. "You may have had a particular experience that you feel is relevant, such as work in a museum or heritage site, or visits to sites of historical interest. Tell us what you got out of these and how they impacted you.

“Also, letting us know about how you spend your time out of school or work, whether subject related or not, can be a great way of highlighting your personality, strengths and values. Sharing your interests can be just as valuable as sharing your academic record, so don’t be shy about telling us about the things that motivate you.” 

Colin at the University of Hull says: “History has left its trace all around us – not just in books or museums, but in statues and computer games, maps and movies, online and in novels or films.” 

“At Hull, our modules and assessments reflect that, so we'd love to read about all the diverse ways in which you have pursued your passion for history, both in school and beyond. These and other extracurricular activities allow us to get a better feel for you as a person rather than as a set of school results." 

Only use quotations if you’re planning to expand on them

Admissions tutors aren’t interested in what other people have said about history – they want to know what you think. 

“If you decide to include a quotation such as ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, then use it as a jumping-off point for your own ideas," says Colin. "We know what George Santayana thought (we remember it!). What do you think?”

Ask someone to proofread your personal statement before you submit

A fresh pair of eyes may spot a glaring typo that you’ve missed, and a personal statement that’s riddled with errors won’t leave admissions tutors with the best impression. 

“Your personal statement may be the only writing sample we see before making a decision on your application, so it is worth asking a friend or family member to proofread it before submitting," says Colin. "Trust me, they will find typos that your eye skips over.”

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