That said, you’ll want to avoid overused opening sentences. Whatever you say, don’t write that you’ve wanted to study your subject since a young age: there’s only so often admissions tutors can read that sentence without risk of mental collapse. Finding a balance is key.
Don’t assume Word will pick up on every error; if you’re running factory standard ‘American English’, the spellchecker will be letting through all sorts of Zs which should be Ss, for instance.
“A spelling or grammar mistake is the kiss of death to an application,” says Ned Holt, former head of sixth form at Reading School.
And mistakes are often hiding in plain sight as Ken Jenkinson, headmaster of Colchester Royal College, knows well: “This morning, we had a very bright student who spelt his name wrong.”
The advice from both men? “Always have someone proof read it.”
Write like you
Many personal statements end up looking less like a record of your brilliance and more like a written application to work as a human thesaurus. Admissions tutors are looking for substance, and pomposity won’t do anything to convince them you love their subject.
The personal statements that don’t do well, says Alan Bird, head of sixth form at Brighton College, are those which “lack genuine personal flavour”. Start telling your universities why you’re so keen to study and why you’ll be the best student since Hermione.
And never simply say you’re right for the course – it’s your job to demonstrate that by being specific. Whatever you write needs to be intrinsically you, which is something easy to lose while rattling off achievements.
Make everything count
Universities are looking for someone interested in the course and someone interesting to teach it to. Cut the small talk and press home why what you’re saying is relevant.
Alan Bird sees too many lists which say nothing: “Students might name a book and then give it a review – I could read that off the dust jacket.”
Remember that anything extra-curricular is padding, albeit the good kind, and needs to be spun the right way. “Charity work or being captain of a sports team is very positive and can be great as part of a statement – but make sure whatever you include has relevance to what you are applying for,” says Alan Carlile.
The University of Manchester’s head of widening participation, Julian Skyrme, encourages taking a straightforward approach: “We’re asking ‘why does your part-time job relate to you being an engineer?’ Nail your experience to the course. Personal statements can sometimes appear like a biography.”
You’re good but you’re not that good
After flicking through 30,000 admissions, a little modesty is likely to go down better than a literary rendition of Simply the Best.
“Confidence is great, veering into egotism is not,” says Alan Carlile.
Remember you’re applying to study something new. Your statement should convince universities that you’re excited to engage with new experiences based on your past experiences. Bragging about your achievements just won’t do this.
Ten most overused opening sentences
Ucas guide to the personal statement
UCAS: Dos and don't s (external)
Durham University guide: How to write an effective personal statement (external)
Studential: Writing a personal statement (external)
David Ellis is editor of studentmoneysaver.co.uk
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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