Writing a psychology personal statement: expert advice from universities
Get tips from the top to help you nail your psychology personal statement
We’ve spoken to psychology admissions experts at four UK universities to get the lowdown on exactly what they want to see in your personal statement.
Are you looking for inspiration?
Over on The Student Room, we have more than 50 examples of real psychology personal statements.
Research the course and make it clear that you understand what it’s all aboutBefore you sit down to write your personal statement, do a bit of research to make sure you know exactly what the course entails, and that you have a realistic idea of what you’ll be doing on it.
“For me, understanding the subject is key,” says Dr Ebony Murray, academic course leader for psychology at the University of Gloucestershire.
“Students who have grasped the subject and what psychology looks like as a university degree present strong personal statements; they show their enthusiasm for accurate material (for example, the importance of research and research methods) and realistic achievements of the next three or four years (for example, students will not finish an undergraduate degree and be a clinical psychologist).
“Some students mis-interpret what they’ll learn on the course and that doesn’t bode well for the personal statement.”
“Open up the websites of the universities you want to apply to and go to the specific course pages," says Ruth Boyce, schools and colleges development officer at the University of Winchester.
“Go through each course’s information page and jot down a handful of phrases about the course that interest you, or seem to be the main focus. You might notice similarities in what the courses will offer and can then choose a handful of topics, ideas or aspects of the course that you can pinpoint in your statement.”
Keep it focused on youThe whole point of a personal statement is that it’s all about you – don’t lose sight of that when writing yours.
“We want to see why YOU want to study psychology," says Andrew Martin, psychology lecturer at the University of Kent. "What is it about psychology that interests you? Show that you understand what a psychology degree involves.
“We have all had personal experiences that make us interested in mental health, cognition, forensic psychology and so on, but try to weave these experiences with books you have read or scientific papers that have caught your eye."
… but make sure you understand what the course is all about and keep it academicEbony at the University of Gloucestershire highlights a common pitfall in psychology personal statements.
“Given the topic, it’s not unusual to see personal statements where students have given too much personal information in terms of speaking about their own life events, mental health challenges, learning difficulties, or similar.
“This loops back around to my above point about students mis-interpreting the degree and what they will realistically learn and achieve whilst on the course. In many instances, studying psychology as an undergraduate degree won’t help them fully understand their own experiences, and for others, some of the topics on the course may even be a trigger. Personal touches are usually a nice addition, but know when to not go too far."
“Many students are drawn to psychology because of their own personal experiences, but just think carefully about how you share,” says Ruth at the University of Winchester.
“For example, if you want to mention the mental health of a friend as a reason for your interest, this is fine providing you keep your writing academic and subject focused rather than an emotional narrative.
“If it’s your own experiences and you want to add more detail, use the additional support section of your Ucas application and speak to your referee to see if they can add any specific details from their perspective so your personal statement stays academically focused."
- Read more: how to write your university application
Answer the question of why you want to study psychologyThe admissions tutor should have a clear idea of exactly why you want to study psychology after reading your personal statement.
“Psychologists know better than most that motivation is the key to success, so admissions tutors will be looking for you to provide evidence of your motivation to study psychology,” says Dr Adam Jowett, associate head of school (recruitment and marketing) at Coventry University's School of Psychological, Social and Behavioural Sciences.
“What is it about psychology that interests you? You don't have to have previously studied psychology to demonstrate this. Original examples can often better demonstrate your interest. For instance, perhaps you have read a recent article in The Psychologist magazine or visited the Freud Museum in London. Use examples to convince the admissions tutor that you really want to study psychology."
Show the range of your interestPsychology is a wide-ranging subject, and admissions tutors want to see that you understand that.
"During the degree you will have the opportunity to examine all aspects of human experience and behaviour, employing different perspectives within psychology, such as biological, cognitive, social, developmental, and individual differences," says Ruth at the University of Winchester.
“If you have studied psychology, try to demonstrate your knowledge across the range of psychological study in your statement. If you have not studied the subject before, try to find out a little more about one or two aspects so you can provide some detail.”
- Read more: personal statement FAQs
Highlight any relevant work experience“Psychology is a broad subject and showing evidence of engaging with any of the areas of psychology is valuable, “ says Ebony at the University of Gloucestershire.
“For example, some students have worked as teaching assistants and worked with children with developmental disorders; some students have volunteered or worked within prison-based services, or within the NHS, or for mental health charities.
“I would want to hear about that in personal statements, especially in a context of how that’s helped you choose to do a psychology degree. We will encourage students to complete suitable work experience/volunteering during their degree, so showing us that you’re already doing that means we’ll know you’re keen, and will likely continue to engage with extracurricular activity when you join us."
And work experience outside the healthcare sector could still be relevant, tooDon’t worry if you haven’t had clinical work experience – it’s well worth thinking of other stuff you’ve done, and ways it might be relevant to a psychology degree.
“Psychology is such a broad subject that you can link almost any kind of work experience or extracurricular activity to the subject,” says Adam from Coventry University.
“For instance, if you play a sport, you could use this to demonstrate an interest in sport psychology or use retail work experience to demonstrate skills and interest in understanding consumer behaviour. The key to an excellent personal statement is to link your experience to psychology and demonstrate transferrable skills."
Ruth from the University of Winchester elaborates on some of the skills that could be particularly relevant for a psychology degree. “In addition to subject knowledge, psychology students also develop skills in communication; numeracy; analysis; teamwork; critical thinking; computing; independent learning; and many others.
“So, you can be confident to use your hobbies or extra-curricular interests to highlight these skills in your statement so universities can see you will have the necessary skills to thrive on the course.”
"Any experience is valuable," says Andrew from the University of Kent. "We want to see that you are a well-rounded person and can bring your experiences to the psychology degree. Perhaps you have grown up in a different country, different culture, maybe you are a musician or sports star! Whatever it is, we want to know what you can bring to our department."
Reflect on your relevant experienceRather than just listing out everything you’ve done, it’s much better to reflect on what you learned from those experiences.
“Many students will share work experience, or volunteering, but rather than what you did, try to reflect on your experiences," says Ruth at the University of Winchester.
“Choose the elements most relevant that highlight how you are connecting your experiences to psychology. For example, if you did a placement in a primary school, you might say ‘I supported pupils when they were playing’. If applying for psychology this might be phrased as ‘whilst supporting pupils, I was able to see how those of a similar age have developed their emotional engagement with their peers at quite differing rates’ (linking to developmental psychology)."
Avoid clichesThe best personal statements avoid sweeping generalisations, and keep things both personal and detailed.
“Don’t start with a big psychology question or overarching quotes such as “I am keen to embark on a journey of the human mind” or “I am fascinated by human behaviour.” These statements are not wrong, but more detail would be needed and universities see them a lot in applicants’ introductions," says Ruth.
Let it all flow out in your first draftWhen you sit down to write the first draft of your personal statement, don’t worry about editing yourself – that will come later with subsequent drafts once you’ve honed exactly what you want to say.
“Don’t edit yourself as you write. Own the fact that you are not producing the best thing ever as you write it for the first time, just write,” says Ruth.
“The power of the personal statement is in the editing and polishing and you’re likely to do that a lot before you’re happy with it. When editing, you can’t include everything you have ever studied and depending on your qualifications you might have an EPQ or A-level that feels less relevant to your application, but try to focus on any transferable skills you have gained.
“Within psychology, courses can ask for specific scientific and mathematical skills so think about where you have gained these across your academic study."
Don’t worry if you don’t know exactly where you want your career to take you yetA psychology degree has loads of transferable skills, and admissions tutors won’t necessarily expect you to have a clearly defined career path at this stage.
“Due to the wide range of skills, and the rigour with which you are taught, training in psychology is widely accepted as providing an excellent preparation for many careers” says Ruth
“If you want to be a clinical psychologist then you can tell us in your conclusion, but don’t worry if you are not sure what you want to do yet, just don’t put a career because you think it will look good.”
And a few final tips from universities…
Whether they’re writing research reports, clinical reports, other essays, or just writing emails day-to-day, their written communication skills will be under scrutiny. As such, proof-read; ask a friend or a family member to proof-read; write clearly and concisely; use paragraphs suitably.
If you’re submitting a personal statement with more than a couple of grammatical errors and/or typos (etc), that’s not a great sign for the next three years and beyond.
Remember that a personal statement should be written to persuade the admissions tutor that you're a good fit for the course and have the skills to succeed. Put yourself in their shoes and think about what would convince you.
Be honest but avoid false modesty. Sell yourself as a future psychologist in the making.