UCAS personal statements: writing a killer opening

This is a tweaked version of an article I originally wrote for the former ‘Which? University’ website. Large extracts from it can currently be found on the UCAS site. It might be useful for students who need inspiration to start their personal statement or for parents, teachers or advisers who are trying to help them put pen to paper.

Are you getting frustrated because you can’t think of a good way to open your personal statement? Or, worse still, are you struggling to write anything at all because you just don’t know where to start? If so, you’re not alone – and my advice is to stop worrying.

I picked up numerous tips on this from admissions tutors up and down the country, albeit a few years ago, and they all tended to take a similar line, which was …. don’t get stressed about trying to think up a killer opening!

Yes, it’s important to ‘sell yourself’, but don’t overdo it. In fact, one of the dangers of trying to come up with a killer opening is that what you often end up with is overkill. As one admissions tutor said: “Be succinct and draw the reader in, but not with a gimmick. This isn’t ‘The Apprentice’”.

Even some Oxbridge admissions tutors mentioned this. They emphasised the need for candidates to engage the reader with a punchy start, but not to fall into “the dreaded overly-dramatic X Factor style” of opening. They want to be engaged by your relevant perceptions or ideas, not by something flashy.

Here are some more admissions tutor comments and I hope they might help relieve some stress and give you a starting point:

  • Don’t waste time trying to think of a catchy opening. It’s often a complete turn-off.
  • Your interest in the course is the biggest thing. Start with why you chose it.
  • The best personal statements get to the point quickly.
  • Start with a short sentence that captures the reason why you are interested in studying on the programme you are applying for and that communicates your enthusiasm for it.
  • Go straight in. Why are you excited about studying this course?
  • The opening is your chance to introduce yourself, to explain your motivation for studying the course and to demonstrate your understanding of it.
  • It’s your enthusiasm for the course we want to know about. Start with that.
  • Write what comes naturally.
  • ‘What you want to study and why’ should be in the first two sentences. What excites you about the course and why do you want to learn about it more?
  • Be specific from line one.
  • Talk about you and your enthusiasm for the subject from the very start.
  • In your opening paragraph you need to show that you know what you are applying for. Don’t waffle or say you want to study something just because it’s interesting. Explain what it is that you find interesting about it.
  • It’s much better to engage us with something interesting, relevant, specific and current in your opening line, not ‘from a young age’ or ‘I have always wanted to’. Start with what’s inspiring you now, not what inspired you when you were six.

And the following three comments from admissions tutors suggest you shouldn’t even begin at the start… :

  • I think the opening line is the hardest one to write, so I often say leave it until last and just try and get something down on paper.
  • Don’t spend too long on the introduction. Concentrate on the main content of your statement and write the introduction last.
  • I often advise applicants to start with paragraph two, where you get into why you want to study the course. That’s what we’re really interested in.

The general theme here is that the best statements tend to be those that are genuine and specific from the very start. So you won’t go far wrong if you begin by explaining or reflecting on your enthusiasm for the course, your understanding of it or what you want to achieve from it.

However, do try to avoid the most obvious opening sentences. UCAS once published a list of the most common opening lines in personal statements and urged applicants to avoid using ‘hackneyed’ phrases. The top five were:

  • From a young age….
  • For as long as I can remember…
  • I am applying for this course because….
  • I have always been interested in….
  • Throughout my life I have always enjoyed….

And at number eleven was a Nelson Mandela quote … which brings me to one last piece of advice.

In a very popular article I once wrote for ‘Which?’ called ’10 things not to put in your personal statement’, quotations were top of the list of admissions tutors’ pet hates. They especially tend to dislike it if you put a quotation in right at the start – and it’s even worse if you don’t actually explain why it’s there.  

So remember, in the opening line of your statement they don’t want to know what Nelson Mandela thought, they want to know what you think.  

One last thought. A technique that can be quite effective is the ‘necklace approach’. This is when you make a link between your opening sentence and your closing sentence, whilst also adding an extra dimension to what you said at the start. For example, if you started with an interesting line about what is currently motivating you to study your chosen degree course, you could link back to it in your closing paragraph by briefly elaborating on something specific about the subject that you’re excited about exploring in more depth.

I can still vividly remember the person who first inspired me about the necklace approach. It was a student called Marianne, who used it herself and was accepted by Cambridge to study Law. Interestingly, she now has a very successful career as a Product Owner and Technical Writer. But that’s another story!

© Alan Bullock, updated 14/6/2021

The photographic image (of Old Harry Rocks on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast) is from my own collection.

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