Kathryn Abell of Edukonexion shares some tips ahead of her talk at the British Education Fair in Madrid taking place on 19-20 October 2015.
When applying to a UK university, the discovery that school grades alone are not enough to gain entry onto the programme of your choice can come as an unwelcome surprise. This is especially true for international students, many of whom see the words 'personal statement' for the first time when starting their university application.
But far from being a barrier, the personal statement is, in fact, one of the stepping stones to achieving your goal of studying at a UK university.
A personal statement can help you stand out
If you have selected your study programme well – that is to say, you have chosen something that you are truly excited about that matches your academic profile – then the personal statement is simply a way to communicate to admissions tutors why you are interested in the programme and what you can bring to it. And given the fact that many universities receive multiple applications for each available place, and that most do not offer an interview, your written statement is often the only way you can express your personality and say 'choose me!'.
The 'personal' in 'personal statement' suggests that you should be allowed to express yourself however you want, right? Well, to a certain extent that is true: admissions tutors want to get a picture of you, not your parents, your teachers or your best friend, so it has to be your work. However, the purpose of the statement is to persuade academic staff that they should offer you one of their highly sought-after university places; although there is no strict template for this, there are specific things you should include and certain things you should most certainly leave out.
The importance of the opening paragraph
The online Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) undergraduate application form allows a total of 4,000 characters (around 700 words), meaning that you need to craft the statement carefully. The most important part is unquestionably the opening paragraph, as it acts as an invitation to continue reading. If you are not able to catch the attention of the admissions tutor, who has hundreds of statements to assess, then it is highly unlikely they will read through to the end.
The best advice here is to avoid much-used opening lines and clichés such as 'I have wanted to be an engineer since I was a child'. This kind of thing is not the invitation readers are looking for. Instead, try using an anecdote, experience or inspirational moment: 'Although tinkering with engines had always been a childhood hobby, it was the vision of the fastest car on earth, the Bloodhound, at an exhibition in London, that roused my desire to learn everything I could about automotive engineering'. Really? Tell me more!
Of course, your opening paragraph could start in a variety of ways, but the fundamental purpose is to grab the reader’s interest.
Provide evidence of your commitment and skills
Following on from that, you have to provide evidence of your passion and commitment to your chosen programme, and highlight the specific and transferable skills you possess to study it successfully. You can do this by following the ABC rule.
Action: Include examples of what you have done, experienced or even read that have helped you in your choice of degree and boosted your knowledge of the subject area.
Benefit: By doing these things, explain what you learned or gained; in the case of a book or article, put forward an opinion.
Course: The most successful applicants ensure that the information they include is relevant to their course in order to highlight their suitability. Flower-arranging may allow you to realise your creative potential, but will it help you study astrophysics?
It is perfectly acceptable to base this ABC rule on school-based activities, as not all students have opportunities outside the classroom. However, if you can link extra-curricular pursuits to your desired programme of study, you are further highlighting your commitment. As a general rule of thumb, the information you include here should be around 80 per cent academic and 20 per cent non-academic. So, for example, as a member of the school science club – a non-curricular, academic activity – you may have developed the ability to analyse data and tackle problems logically. Taking part in a work placement falls into the same category and could have helped you develop your communication, time-management and computer skills. You get the idea.
Non-academic accomplishments may involve music, sport, travel or clubs and can lead to a variety of competencies such as team-working, leadership, language or presentation skills. A word of warning here: it is vital that you sell yourself, but arrogance or lies will result in your personal statement landing in the 'rejected' pile. Keep it honest and down-to-earth.
Provide a memorable conclusion
Once you have emphasised your keen interest and relevant qualities, you should round off the statement with a conclusion that will be remembered. There is little point putting all your effort to generate interest in the opening paragraph only for your statement to gradually fade away at the end. A good conclusion will create lasting impact and may express how studying your chosen course will allow you to pursue a particular career or achieve any other plans. It can also underline your motivation and determination.
Use a formal tone, stay relevant and be positive
As you have to pack all this information into a relatively short statement, it is essential to avoid the superfluous or, as I like to call it, the 'fluff'. If a sentence sounds pretty but doesn’t give the reader information, remove it. In addition, the tone should be formal and you should not use contractions, slang or jokes; remember, the statement will be read by academics – often leaders in their field.
Referring to books is fine but don’t resort to using famous quotes as they are overused and do not reflect your own ideas. Also, while it's good to avoid repetition, don't overdo it with the thesaurus.
Negativity has no place in a personal statement, so if you need to mention a difficult situation you have overcome, ensure you present it as a learning experience rather than giving the reader an opportunity to notice any shortcomings. Also, bear in mind that your personal statement will probably go to several universities as part of a single application, so specifically naming one university is not going to win you any favours with the others.
Get some help but never copy someone else's work
Checking grammar, spelling and flow is essential and it is perfectly OK to ask someone to do this for you. A fresh pair of eyes and a different perspective always help, and, as long as the third party does not write the content for you, their input could be of vital importance. And while you may get away with not sticking to all of the above advice, there is one thing that you absolutely must not do: copy someone else’s work. Most applications are made through UCAS, which uses sophisticated software to detect plagiarism. If you are found to have copied content from the internet, or a previous statement, your application will be cancelled immediately. Remember, it is a personal statement.
Get your ideas down in a mind-map first
Finally, I will leave you with my top tip. If you understand all the theory behind the personal statement and have an abundance of ideas floating in your head, but are staring blankly at your computer screen, take a pen and paper and make a simple mind map. Jot down all your experiences, activities, skills, attributes and perhaps even include books you have read or even current items that interest you in the news. Then look for how these link to your course and highlight the most significant elements using arrows, colours and even doodles. Capturing thoughts on paper and making logical deductions from an image can give structure to your ideas.
Register for our British Education Fair in Madrid, taking place on 19-20 October 2015, for a chance to talk directly to staff from 40 UK universities, vocational colleges and English language schools.
Get more advice from our Education UK site on your UCAS application and writing your statement.
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Think carefully about how you want to structure your personal statement. If your argument flows naturally and follows a logical order, this will impress admissions tutors and show them that you will do well on their course. After all, it’s a skill that will come in very handy when it’s time to write your essays and sit your exams over the next three or four years.
Basic personal statement structure tips
- Use paragraphs. This can be tricky as it will eat into the 47 lines available to you so don’t use lots of paragraphs but try to have a few. This will make your personal statement easier for the admissions tutor to read than one large block of writing.
- Have a clear beginning, middle and end. This will make help your personal statement flow naturally. For help with how to begin your personal statement, read our article on writing your opening sentence and, for help with the rest of your personal statement, read our article on what to include in your personal statement.
- Use the ABC method. When writing about each experience, use the ABC (action, benefit and course) structure. What is the activity, what skills and qualities have come from it and how does it relate to the course?
- Keep it short and sweet. You’re limited to 4,000 characters (47 lines) so use short, concise sentences and delete any unnecessary words.
Structure your personal statement to best show off your examples
There is no one set way to structure your personal statement. However, consider putting the most relevant and unique examples of your skills and experience towards the start of your personal statement. This can be more effective than working through all your examples in chronological or reverse chronological order.
For example, if you’re applying to study history you’ll probably want to make sure the school trip you went on to Auschwitz in year 12 has centre stage, rather than feeling you need to start with examples from year 13 or from when you were doing your GCSEs.
Read our article on what to include in your personal statement for more help on what to write about.
The three section approach to your personal statement
If you’re still not sure how you want to structure your personal statement, you might find it helpful to loosely split your personal statement into three sections. Jonathan Hardwick is a former head of sixth form and now a professional development manager at Inspiring Futures, a provider of careers information, advice and guidance to young people. He explains: ‘Your personal statement should cover three things. These are:
- why do you want to study the course?
- what have you done that makes you suitable for the course?
- what else have you done that makes you somebody who will contribute to the course and to the university?’
Section one: why do you want to study the course?
You need to explain to the admissions tutor your reasons for wanting to study this subject. If it’s a vocational course, such as nursing, think about what you like about this profession and why you think it’s the right career for you. If it’s an academic degree, such as geography or chemistry, why do you want to spend a long time studying this subject in detail? Think about what you’ve enjoyed so far and what you want to learn more about.
Section two: what have you done that makes you suitable for the course?
This is the biggest part of your personal statement. You’ll need to draw on your experiences to explain why you think you’d be a good student on the course and how you’ve developed the skills and knowledge needed.
If it’s a vocational course, think about what you’ve done that shows you’re engaging with the profession. Now is the time to mention any relevant work experience or voluntary work that you’ve done.
If it’s an academic subject, show that you’re going beyond what your teacher is telling you to do. If you’re doing an EPQ (an extended project) or you’ve done lots of extra reading, for example, tell the admissions tutor what you’ve done and how this has prepared you for the course. Or if you’re applying for a creative course, such as drama or music, write about what you’ve done outside the classroom. For example, for a creative writing course you could mention your blog or the poetry competition in which you were shortlisted for a prize.
Section three: what else have you done?
‘As a rule of thumb, 75% of your personal statement should be about your studies and your justifications for applying and 25% should be about your extracurricular activities,’ says Emma-Marie Fry, an area director at Inspiring Futures. Emma manages the careers guidance team in London and the south-east and goes into schools to deliver support to students.
A quarter of a personal statement is 1,000 characters (around 11–12 lines), so aim to roughly devote this amount of space to what else you’ve done. This is your chance to write about what you’ve done that perhaps isn’t so related to the course but makes you an interesting and well-rounded person. This could include any hobbies you enjoy in your spare time, paid employment or volunteering.
‘It’s important that you demonstrate why these interests and experiences are relevant to your application (for example, to show that you are able to balance your studies with your commitments) rather than just listing them,’ says Dr Helen Moggridge, a lecturer in geography at the University of Sheffield. Use your examples to show that you’ve developed important skills that will help you thrive at university. Good skills to highlight include independence, time management and organisation. So, for example, a Saturday job as a waitress may have improved your communication skills as well as your ability to work under pressure and prioritise urgent tasks. These skills will help you communicate with your lecturers and peers on your course, as well as juggling your coursework and exams.
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