To write a great personal statement, take time to plan it in detail. Print out the template below – or draw your own up – get a pile of post-it notes and start brainstorming. As you come up with ideas, write them on the post-it notes and stick them in the sections. Use post-its so you can move them around later.
Remember: Does everything on here convince a subject lecturer that you are the right person for their course?
Add to each area (remember the weighting for the first section) everything you can think of that demonstrates to the admissions tutor you are the person they are looking for. Write evidence for each one and make a note, too, of how this makes you a strong applicant for the course. Don’t worry if you have a few gaps or are not sure how much information to add. Use this as an ideas session; you can keep coming back when you think of new things. Planning means you have time.
For instance, if you lack evidence that shows your genuine interest in the subject, enter an essay competition online for a relevant society, or go to a local lecture – and suddenly you have transformed into a really strong candidate.
The tabs on the left contain examples and ideas for each section. If you’re not sure which section to put a post-it note in, just go for the best match. Using post-its means you can move them around – which you need to do anyway to put them in their final order.
For now, ignore the introduction and conclusion – they are best written when you know what you are introducing and concluding.
Things you have done outside the limitations of the specification.
Admissions tutors know what you study at A level. What will make you stand out from other applicants is what else you have done that shows you have an interest in the subject beyond the classroom.
An economics lecturer, for example, might not care you play third trumpet in the school band but will like that you entered an economics essay competition or competed in a virtual share competition.
Gathering your ideas, write one piece of evidence at the top of your post-it. Underneath, note why you did it and one or two reflections on what you learnt from it. For example:
All of this shows enthusiasm for the subject and a desire to expand your knowledge. Depending on your subject, you might want to list literary fairs, book readings, trips to museums and exhibits, society memberships (RSPB, WWF, Greenpeace, National Trust) and visiting sanctuaries. Remember the school trip to see Othello? The admissions tutor doesn’t know it was compulsory.
If you are applying to study economics, read The Economist – and have an opinion on a piece, maybe show a preference for a certain writer. For biology, it would be New Scientist or Nature. Ask your subject teachers to point out the go-to publication for your specialism. If nothing sparks your interest, perhaps you’re looking at the wrong course.
The university lecturer who reads your statement will know more about the role of rhodopsin in eyes than you, but you can impress them by saying WHY YOU FOUND IT INTERESTING, especially if you find links to something on their particular course – because all courses are not the same.
For example, if you are applying to study history, check what eras the course focuses on. There would be no point waxing lyrical about the Roman Empire and saying which sites you have visited in Britain if the course you are applying focusses on the 21st-century America.
Notice there is no mention of reading a book yet. Yes, books are relevant, but your choices must stand out. If you are applying to study biology, don’t bother mentioning you have read The Blind Watch Maker because so will have thousands of other people – and it is about 50 years out of date.
Similarly, watching a David Attenborough box set is not a strong reason to study biology; neither is CSI for forensics. Reading a clichéd book feels like ticking off just for your personal statement, rather than showing any genuine personal interest. A good starting point is to look at your preferred course’s prospectus to find recommended reading and dip into those books. Listing books, though, just tells an admission tutor you can use Google. Read one or two and share your opinion on a specific point to show you can think.
Evidence of independent learning.
One of the main criteria universities look for is evidence they don’t need to spoon feed you. They want students who are committed to learning, who show maturity in managing time and deadlines. Why? Because universities lose money if a student drops out, and committed students are more likely to stick the course.
Universities often offer places to students with lower grades from ‘worse’ schools as they know a B from one of them is probably self-taught. An A from a top private school means nothing if the teacher has led endless exam revision sessions and coursework resits, holding students’ hands every step of the way.
Examples of independent learning:
An example would look like this:
You might find yourself adding a post-it in the maturity section that you have already written under genuine interest. This crossover is absolutely fine and, in fact, preferable. As we have said already, you will reorder everything before you write it anyway, so it is good if one or two events can show more than one positive attribute.
Corporate work experience is hard to get – but admission tutors know this. Repeatedly on training courses we attend, universities stress what they really want to see is applicants who have ventured beyond the school gates and entered the real world, then reflected on what they’ve seen. This is the crucial bit.
Do not simply list things your parents organised for you through contacts but reflect on what you learnt from the experience. It doesn’t have to be formal work experience. If you work part-time in a small shop, you probably know more about the workings and problems of a company than someone who has done a week at PWC. By working in the family pub, you might help with stock checking, buying on credit and organising staff timetables, all great for a statement, where you could reflect on and critically evaluate the experience and link it to studies in business and management.
Have you helped organise a mini tournament in your sport for younger children? Have you spent time in a lab, working in a clothes shop or cinema, babysitting? If so, explore the many skills needed.
For example, you could turn a ‘boring’ day at a library into:
Imagine you are applying for business studies and spent a week at a doctor’s surgery, helping the GP’s receptionist. Don’t write that you made appointments and did the filing. The key points might be these:
The auto-biographical stuff
This is the final paragraph and should be no more than eight lines. Relating it to your course is key. For example, if you’ve run the swimming team, that by itself isn’t relevant – but putting that you’ve gained experience in organising events and working to deadlines is. Many university applicants do DofE, so make your experience stand out and relevant to the course, e.g. a love of the outdoors and how it interacts if applying for geography, working in a charity shop if applying for economics.
With the four headings of your plan in place, take your time. List everything you are proud of, do and have done and see how you can adapt them. This is no time for modesty.
It might also be the time to read the Geographical Review or go on a trip to a museum, check your local university for free talks, lectures or seminars. Attendance at some of these would really bolster your statement as long as you reflect on what was said.
UCAS has a very large and very powerful database that checks every personal statement against over 1.5 million past and present references as well as against the web and books before sending them to universities.
Fun fact: the highly individual phrase below occurred 234 times – including the spelling mistake – in personal statements.
“Ever since I accidentlly burnt holes in my pyjamas after experimenting with a chemistry set on my eighth birthday, I have always had a passion for science.”
UCAS announced that in 2010 30,000 students were ‘caught’. 10% of these were identical to other applicants’ personal statements or online examples (e.g. from the Student Room). UCAS then informs universities and the student’s own school, so they can take ‘appropriate action’. Plagiarism will damage your chances – perhaps catastrophically.
It is absolutely fine to scour the internet for examples of good personal statement practice to get an idea of what works. But all your hard work will be undone if you cut and paste a single sentence. So when you start your draft, start from scratch!
You should have six to eight post-it notes. Reread them and make sure they include what you have learnt from each experience. That is what the admissions tutor wants to read to know you are a good candidate for the course. Jot down a few more notes if necessary.
Try to put your post-it notes in a sequence. This may mean moving them out of the box they are currently in; if so, don’t panic! Apart from the autobiography at the end, they should be in order of importance and impressiveness. Make the first thing that admissions tutor sees about you most eye catching.
Keep going through it again and again to really make sure that it is clear, concise and relevant. Remember this is the only piece of paper you control that the admission’s tutor sees.
The 10 most common opening sentences of 2010 were:
This is not to say that any of these are particularly bad, but do they stand out from the crowd? Comedic ‘alternative’ or ‘individual’ first lines also very rarely work, the admissions tutor is looking for professional young academics, not comedians. The same is also true for your conclusion. The admissions tutor would have made a decision by now, so keep your summary of why you think you would be an excellent applicant to two sentences.
Does every sentence make an admissions tutor see you as stronger candidate?