Writing your personal statement
Help and advice on putting your application together
Your personal statement is a key part of your Ucas application; it may even prove to be a deciding factor in the offers you get. This is particularly true when you're applying for very competitive courses, where there will be little difference between you and other applicants. This guide covers the important things to consider when writing your personal statement, with tips from Ucas and university admissions experts.
As with any form of writing, getting started is often the hardest part. A good way to get started is to just jot down a few notes. The main things to think about are:
- What do I want to study? (if you can't answer this, you should probably concentrate on working this out, rather than writing a PS)
- Why do I want to study it?
- What personal qualities, interests and experience do I have that show I am suited to study this subject at university?
- What are my other interests and skills?
These are the main areas you'll want to cover in a personal statement - add some notes to each and then start to expand upon what you've written. You just keeping things rough at the moment, so don't worry yet about the finer detail.
If you're having trouble thinking of things to add, try putting those headings down in a notebook or notes app. Every time you think of something, you can note it down before you forget about it. That way, if inspiration strikes while you're on the bus to sixth form, you'll be able to avoid forgetting it.
Watch now: This video from Dr. Amina Yonis is a great starting point for putting your first draft together quickly.
Turning your notes into a personal statement
OK, so now you've got your notes things should start to get easier. When writing a personal statement, there are certain things you want to include/leave out, and lots of important things to think about.
Things to consider
- You've got 47 lines and 4000 characters (including spaces). If you leave lines between paragraphs - which you should - then 3500 characters is a more realistic limit.
- Type your personal statement into a cloud-based word processing program, such as Google Docs or Microsoft Word. Then copy and paste it onto your form on the Ucas website. One of the benefits of doing it this way is that you can run spell check easily. (Please note, though, that Word adds "curly" quotation marks and other characters (like é or ü) that won't show up on your UCAS form, so do proofread it on UCAS before submitting it to ensure it is how you typed it.) Another big benefit is that you'll always have a backup of what you've written. If you're being super careful, you could always save your statement in another place as well.
- Bear in mind that extra spaces (eg adding spaces to the beginnings of paragraphs as indentation) are removed on Ucas.
What should you include?
The notes you've put together will guide you here. But be sure to consider at least the following:
- Interest in the course. Why do you want to spend three years studying this subject at university?
- What have you done outside school or college that demonstrates this interest? Think about things such as fairs/exhibitions, public lectures or voluntary work that is relevant to your subject.
- Relevant work experience (essential for the likes of medicine, not required for non-vocational courses such as English)
- Skills and qualities required for that career if appropriate (medicine, nursing and law as obvious examples)
- Interest in your current studies - what particular topics have made an impression on you?
- Any other interest/hobbies/experiences you wish to mention that are relevant either to the subject or 'going to uni'. Don't just list your hobbies, you need to be very selective and state clearly what difference doing these things have made to you.
- Plans for a gap year if deferring entry.
What’s the most important part?
Why do you want to study this subject at university? If your personal statement doesn't answer this simple question above all else, then start again.
Courteney Sheppard, senior customer experience manager at Ucas, advises that your personal statement is "the only part of the application that you have direct control over. Do lots of research to demonstrate your passion, curiosity and drive to pursue your chosen subject."
"Make use of the advice that is out there – Ucas has a range of subject specific personal statement videos on the Ucas Hub," Courteney adds.
What sort of structure should I use?
It isn't an essay. Start with the course/subject, and why you want to do it, then mention what else you do outside school/college - relevant work experience and extra curricular activities. Keep the paragraphs (and ideas) simple and to the point.
As a guide, spend around 60% of the space talking about your course, why you want to do it and how you’re suited to it, and 30% on your work experience and any other activities that are relevant to your subject and 10% on any obvious career aspirations/gap year plans.
Exactly how you write your statement depends on your subject - generally people write more about work experience for vocational subjects like medicine and law than they would for subjects like maths or English where work experience is less important. Remember that it should be about why you want to study your chosen subject. It should not simply be an essay about what you are doing at school or college.
How do I prioritise my ideas?
A simple approach is to include anything about the course towards the beginning of the statement, and anything that’s less relevant towards the end.
A very simple structure might be:
- Introduction: Why do you want to do the course, how did you make your decision, show your enthusiasm for the subject - why do you want to spend three/four years at uni studying this subject in depth?
- Relevant work experience [for vocational degrees only - for non vocational courses relevant work experience isn't necessary so can be left out of a PS if you haven't done any] and subject relevant extra-curriculars : anything that you've done which is relevant to the subject can go here. Also briefly mention any career aspirations.
- Enthusiasm for current studies and specific examples of current work that your enjoyed.
- Skills and qualities: What skills and qualities have you demonstrated that will you need to do this course. Do NOT just list skills though, give examples of circumstances when you've displayed or used those skills - in fact you don't even have to mention the "skill" at all.
- Anything else: This paragraph usually contains brief details of what else you do with your life besides studying. Try to link it with the course oe subject you are applying for, or to having the required maturity to 'going to university'. If you're deferring entry, an explanation of your gap year plans can go here.
- Conclusion: Sum up why you think the university would want to make you an Offer.
Things that will make little or no difference to a UCAS application
- Positions of responsibility like prefect or head girl. Universities aren't impressed by this as they will have no idea how or why you got the job - and it tells them nothing about your intellect or academic potential
- Expensive voluntary work overseas. If its obvious that you were able to do this only because of your parental income it won't impress an Admissions Tutor at all. They know that you'd get the same experience of 'life' working in your local charity shop once a week.
- Work experience that you only got because of your parent's job or social status. Work experience at one leading Law firm might be excusable, anything more than that looks suspicious.
- Clever remarks about leading academics in that subject. You'll just look immature.
Tips from the experts on writing your personal statement
Liz Boden, education liaison officer at Staffordshire University says you should "be enthusiastic about your subject and show that you understand what the course involves. Admissions tutors reading your statement may have spent many years in their field so they’ll be looking for applicants who are as equally enthusiastic and engaged!"
It's also worth making the most of your limited word count: Liz advises that applicants avoid "repeating information that is already on your Ucas form such as your name, school/college and your age".
"Being confident can shine through in your personal statement. Making sure you are talking about your achievements and what you are most proud of is a great way to show the admissions tutor that you are a well-rounded student with interests that go beyond your education," Edward says.
And "make sure you focus on your positive experiences and attributes and never downplay your achievements," Edward adds
Edward also explains that "some people may fall into the pitfall of using quotes or clichés because they believe it is going to help them in their application. Do not use them unless it is actually relevant and appropriate."
Tom Kidd, head of UK recruitment and admissions at the University of Gloucestershire, says you should "consider your opening lines carefully as this could make them sit up and take notice."
"If you already have clear ideas about the career path you want to follow then use this opportunity to tell your university. Increasingly, your degree is linked to your career and universities will be excited to see how you expect your degree to help you achieve your goals," Tom finishes.
A summary of dos and don'ts
- Remember that your personal statement is your personal statement, not an article written about your prospective field of study - it should tell us about you, not about the subject.
- Discuss your personal statement with your tutor and other teachers.
- Only put in things you are prepared to talk about at interview.
- Show your personal statement to as many people as possible. Ask them what you've left out, what you could have put in a better light, and what you've over done. Be careful of plagiarism though - only share your PS with people who aren't applying this year.
- Give convincing reasons for why you want to study the course - more than just "enjoying the subject" (this should be a given).
- For very competitive courses, find out as much as you can about the nature of the course and try to make your personal statement relevant to this.
- If you have (realistic) long term career plans, make a link between these and the course you've chosen to study.
- Talk briefly about what you do outside school if this reveals anything about your suitability for University
- Be reflective. If you make a point like 'I like reading', 'I travelled abroad', say what you got from it.
- Keep paragraphs concise.
- Be afraid of details - if you want your PS to be personal to you that means explaining exactly which bits or work or topics or activities you've taken part in/enjoyed. It's much more compelling to read about one or two detailed examples than paragraph that brushes over 5 or 6.
- Just list what you're doing now. You should pull out the experiences that are relevant to the courses for which you're applying.
- Mention skills and activities without giving examples of when they have been demonstrated or what you learnt from them. Anyone can write "I have great leadership skills" in a PS, actually using a sentence to explain when you demonstrated good leadership skills is much rarer and more valuable.
- Refer to experiences that took place before your GCSEs (or equivalent)
- Mention interests without being more specific - for reading mention authors or genres, likewise with music or art - mention particular artists.
- Exaggerate, lie or show off.
- Give explanations about medical or mental health problems. These must be explained in your reference, not your PS.
- List academic books you've read unless you can state why you read them and what you got out of reading them
- Apply for too many different courses, making it difficult to write a convincing personal statement which supports the application.
- Write a statement specific to just one institution, unless you're only applying to that one choice.
- Copy and paste the statement from somewhere else! This means do not plagiarise. All statements are automatically checked for plagiarism by UCAS, those that are highlighted by the computer system are checked manually by UCAS staff. If you are found to have plagiarised parts of your statement, the universities you apply to will be informed and it could jeopardise your applications.
Top 10 most overused UCAS personal statement opening sentences:
1. I am currently studying a BTEC National Diploma in ... (used 464 times)
2. From a young age I have always been interested in ... (309 times)
3. From an early age I have always been interested in ... (292 times)
4. Nursing is a very challenging and demanding career ... (275 times)
5. For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with ... (196 times)
6. "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only” ... (189 times)
7. Nursing is a profession I have always looked upon with ... (178 times)
8. For as long as I can remember I have been interested in ... (166 times)
9. I am an International Academy student and have been studying since ... (141 times)
10. Academically, I have always been a very determined and ... (138 times)
Source UCAS (2013)
- Listen to Hemingway and cut back ruthlessly. Building up is the easy part.
- Don't lecture the admissions tutor on their subject.
- Introductions are best kept short
- No flowery language. Keep it simple.
- Avoid all fire-related metaphors (sparked, ignited, etc.)
- Don't use hackneyed phrases like 'I've always been interested in....' (no you haven't) for any subject or 'I just want to help people' if you are applying for Medicine, Nursing or Social Work.
- A sense of quiet confidence is the key. No modesty and no arrogance.
- Try to make it flow. The first and last sentences of each paragraph can help link it up.
- Extra-curriculars aren't the main thing. Write about your subject and why you want to do it.
- Always say exactly what you mean.
After you've written it
- Check it.
- Get someone else to check it
- Check it once more yourself.
I cannot emphasise enough the importance of checking your PS, especially when it comes to spelling, punctuation and grammar. No matter how good the content of your PS, if it reads like it was written by a 10-year old, it won't reflect very well on your ability to cope with a degree.
It's also important to check the balance of your personal statement. A common mistake is to write too much about your extra curricular activities or about your current subjects and not to explain clearly what you like about the subject you plan to study for the next 3+ years of your life.
Compare what you've produced against your notes and/or plan (you did do these, didn't you?). If it's deviated significantly, is this for the better, or has it made your statement worse than it could have been? Did you miss anything out that you wanted to include?