“This is a must-read for students applying for Uni.” (Head of Careers, University of Warwick, 19/10/2021)
I originally wrote these four articles, along with about sixty others, for the Which? University website. The site was very popular amongst schools and careers advisers until it sadly closed down a couple of years ago.
These four articles in particular proved to be especially successful and I was told they attracted a huge number of hits on the site and got lots of positive feedback. And whilst I first wrote them a good few years ago, I think they generally still hold true today.
So I’ve decided to re-publish them in my blog, with a few minor updates and amendments. I hope they might still inspire students who are struggling for inspiration, whilst also drawing attention to some of the dos and don’ts that I still find are frequently overlooked.
They might be especially useful when read in conjunction with my ‘How to write a killer opening’ article, which I also originally wrote for Which? and which can be found here on my blog: https://alanbullockcareers.com/2020/11/29/ucas-personal-statements-writing-a-killer-opening/
10 things to put in your personal statement
No two personal statements should be the same (the clue is in the personal) but there are certain additions that will get the attention of the admissions tutor reading it, whatever subject you want to study. We asked admissions tutors for their personal statement dos and don’ts and here’s what they said.
1. Explain your reasons for wanting to study the course
What motivates you to take this course at university level? Mention how your interest developed, what you’ve done to pursue it or how you’ve drawn inspiration from your current studies. Or, just demonstrate your enthusiasm for it.
“Be specific from line one.” (English admissions tutor)
2. Explain how you’re right for the course
Provide evidence that you fit the bill, not only that you meet the selection criteria but also that you’ve researched the course or profession and understand what studying the subject at university level will involve … and that you’re prepared for this.
“Keep on topic and show that you’ve really done your research and know why you want to do the course.” (Sport admissions tutor)
3. Reflect on what you’ve learned beyond the classroom …
If possible, outline how you’ve pursued your interest in your chosen subject beyond your current syllabus.
For example, talk about any further reading you’ve done around the subject and give your critical views or reflective opinions about it. This could be from books, quality newspapers, websites, periodicals or scientific journals or from films, documentaries, videos, blogs, radio programmes, podcasts, attending public lectures and so on.
But try to avoid mentioning the wider reading that everyone else is doing.
“If I have to read about Freakonomics once more, I’ll scream.” (Economics admissions tutor)
4. … And why it’s relevant to your course
Reflect on your experiences, explaining what you’ve learned from them or how they’ve helped develop your interest in the subject. This could be work experience, volunteering, a university taster session or outreach programme, summer schools, museum, gallery or theatre visits, archaeological digs, visits to the local courts, travel, competitions, a maths challenge or whatever.
“It doesn’t have to be anything fancy.” (Archaeology admissions tutor)
5. … And relevant to your future career (if appropriate)
Reflecting on relevant experience or observation will be essential for some professional courses where, in effect, you’re applying for the career as well as the course:
“Whatever environment you’ve been in, what did you spot or learn from what happens there, or what have you observed about how the qualities exhibited by professional staff helped them engage effectively with patients or service-users?” (Medicine admissions tutor)
“Reflect on your experience, don’t just describe it. Talk about the skills the profession needs, how you’ve noticed this and how you’ve developed those skills yourself.” (Occupational Therapy admissions tutor)
6. Can you demonstrate transferable skills?
Yes you can and admissions tutors will want to hear about them. It could be your ability for working independently, teamwork, good time management, problem-solving, leadership, listening or organisational skills.
7. Expand on the most relevant ones
But don’t simply list off the skills you think you have. Think about which ones relate most readily to the course you’re applying to, then demonstrate how you’ve developed, used or improved them. Again, admissions tutors want to hear about specific examples, like:
- projects and assignments (what role did you play, what went well?)
- positions of responsibility (what did you achieve, how has it improved your self-confidence?)
- sport, music or drama (what did you learn from your role, how did you work as a team?)
- Young Enterprise, Duke of Edinburgh Award (what was the biggest challenge and how did you overcome it …. or what went wrong on what did you learn from that?)
- volunteering or part-time job (what have you observed, what extra responsibilities have you taken on, what skills have you demonstrated yourself?)
8. Show that you’re a critical thinker
“If you’re taking the EPQ, do talk about it, as it’s the kind of studying you’ll be doing at uni.” (Modern languages admissions tutor)
University is all about being able to think independently and analytically, so being able to demonstrate that you’re working like this already is a big plus point. Explaining how one of your A-level or IB subjects, a BTEC assignment or placement, or additional studies such as the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) has made you think more critically could be a way of doing this.
9. What’s the longer-term plan?
Mention what your longer-term goals are if you can do it in an interesting way and if you’ve got a specific path in mind. But if you do, then try and show a spark of individuality or imagination.
“Just saying you want to be a journalist isn’t going to stand you out from the crowd.” (History admissions tutor)
If you’re not sure yet, just talk about what you’re looking forward to at uni and what you want to gain from your course or from university life.
If you’re applying for deferred entry, do mention your gap year plans if you’ve made a firm decision to take a year out. Most courses are happy for you to take a gap year, but will want to know briefly how you plan to spend it.
10. Keep it positive
It can be difficult to get going with your personal statement, but don’t panic. Start with your strengths, focus on your enthusiasm for the course and talk positively about yourself.
10 more things to put in your personal statement
Our original top 10 of what to put in your personal statement was so popular, we decided to do it all again. Read on for 10 more things to tick off as part of your UCAS application.
To help you ensure your personal statement stands out, we asked university admissions tutors – the ones who will actually be reading your personal statement as part of your application – what they’re really looking for. Here are 10 more key points they shared.
Use paragraphs, rather than one solid block of text, to help organise your material and make it more readable. A statement with three or four clearly-defined, well-structured paragraphs will look a lot easier on the eye to an admissions tutor who has hundreds to read.
Because you can’t indent on UCAS Apply, leaving a line between each paragraph will look even better. But on the other hand, the lines you leave will count towards your 47, so you won’t be able to write so much.
In the end it’s a matter of personal choice – it might even be a good question to ask at a uni open day, to see which they prefer. However, one way to get the best of both worlds and to make the most of all 47 lines is not to leave a line between your paragraphs, but to tweak it so that the final line of each paragraph finishes midway or at least before the end of the line. That way, it still looks like a separate paragraph.
2. A balance of academic and extra-curricular content
Universities tend to suggest that you focus about 75% on your academic interests and why you want to study the course and 25% on the extra-curricular dimension that shows you’re a rounded person. This is a useful guideline.
That said, it’s not a hard and fast rule. So if you don’t do much outside your studies, don’t pretend, just focus mainly on your academic interests and talk about what you think instead of what you do. Different courses will need different approaches too, especially if you’re applying for a professional course like medicine, nursing, primary teaching or social work, which will need much more emphasis on your relevant insights or experience.
On the other hand, for subjects like law, psychology or engineering, where having relevant work experience is useful but not essential, maybe think about other ways that you’ve observed or engaged with the subject, or demonstrated relevant skills, like in your wider reading, hobbies, personal life or part-time job.
3. Evidence that you’ve researched your choices
If your statement is all about your passion for media production, but their course is all about media theory and analysis, they won’t be impressed. Likewise, raving about Ancient Rome won’t impress if their history course starts in 1500. So do research the courses thoroughly and ensure that the content of your statement shows you know what you’re applying for.
Some university websites (such as Bristol and LSE) have sections on what their admissions tutors typically look for in personal statements and this sometimes includes specific advice for individual courses. You could be at a big disadvantage if you haven’t checked these out.
An admissions tutor wants you to stand out from the crowd, but in a good way.
Show your genuine enthusiasm and engagement with your chosen subject by reflecting on the book you found in the library that changed your views, the relevant experiences you’ve had, the project you did, the podcast you just heard or the summer school or public lecture you went to. These will help you get the tutor’s attention.
However, you won’t achieve this by being bizarre, or with meaningless clichés like ‘I was born to dance’, ‘biology is my life’ or ‘it has always been my dream to be a vet’.
5. Lateral thinking
Do talk about what inspires you about your chosen course, but try to avoid the more obvious and popular things that hundreds of other applicants will write about.
For example, a criminology statement that reflects on crime in 15th century Spain or the causes of the vandalism encountered in your part-time job in a leisure centre might have more impact than yet another one that talks about serial killers or one of those TV series that everyone else watches too. Think outside the box.
Be honest. It’s your voice they want to hear. And if there’s even a remote chance that you might be invited for an interview, your statement will need to stand up to close scrutiny. You don’t want any exaggerated claims coming back to haunt you during their questioning.
“Most of all we want people who are enthusiastic about the course”. Admissions tutors are likely to love their subject and they want to teach students who share their enthusiasm. If you can also demonstrate intellectual curiosity, that’s even better.
8. Saying HOW
SHOW, DON’T TELL. Provide examples and evidence that demonstrate what you think or do. For example:
- HOW has playing basketball improved your teamwork skills?
- HOW has doing the Duke of Edinburgh Award made you a better leader?
- HOW did reading about the historical context of Yeats’s poetry change your understanding?
- HOW did you get the elderly man with dementia in the nursing home where you volunteer to tell you about his life?
- HOW did you get a new insight into law or psychology in your Saturday job on the deli counter at Sainsbury’s?
9. Saying what you want from your course
Admissions tutors often mention this. As well as outlining what you can offer them, what do you want them to help you achieve?
10. Ending on a positive note
Make the conclusion short and sharp, choosing your key message carefully and conveying it concisely. Don’t simply regurgitate what you’ve already said. Finish on a positive note with something that adds to your statement.
If you’re struggling to think of something, two unis we spoke to said they especially look out for applicants who will be good ambassadors for the university. If you already do things at school or college that make you a good ambassador, maybe mention how you hope to build on this at uni.
10 things NOT to put in your personal statement
University admissions tutors read hundreds of personal statements from students each year. But what is it that they really don’t want to see in there? Well, we headed to uni campuses to ask tutors themselves what their top personal statement no-nos are and some of them told us their pet hates. If you’re serious about going to uni, steer well clear of these …
It’s your voice they want to hear – not Coco Chanel, Einstein, Paul Britton, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, David Attenborough, Descartes or Napoleon’s. So don’t put a quote in unless it’s really necessary to make a critical point, otherwise it’s a waste of your 47 lines.
“So many people use the same quotes and the worst scenario is when it comes right at the start of the statement with no explanation.”
“I don’t care what Locke thinks, I want to know what YOU think!”
“We ignore quotes, so it’s a waste of space.”
Or as a sport admissions tutor said: “I’m totally fed up with Muhammad Ali quotes.”
Avoid giving a list of all the books you’ve read, countries you’ve visited, work experience placements you’ve done or positions you’ve held. For starters, it’s boring to read. It’s not what you’ve done, it’s what you think about it or learned from it that matters.
A dentistry admissions tutor summed it up: “I would much rather read about what you learned from observing one filling than a list of all the procedures you observed.”
3. Over-used clichés
Avoid ‘from a young age’, ‘since I was a child’, ‘I’ve always been fascinated by’, ‘I have a thirst for knowledge’, ‘the world we live in today’… You get the idea. They constantly recur in hundreds of personal statements and don’t really say an awful lot.
4. Bigging yourself up with sweeping statements or unproven claims
More phrases to avoid: ‘I genuinely believe I’m a highly motivated person’ or ‘My achievements are vast’. Instead give specific examples that provide concrete evidence. Show, don’t tell!
5. The word ‘passion’
“The word ‘passion’ (or ‘passionate’) is incredibly over-used.”
“Try to convey your passion without using the word ‘passion’.”
6. Stilted vocabulary
Frequent use of words or phrases like ‘fuelled my desire’, ‘I was enthralled by’ or ‘that world-renowned author Jane Austen’ make you sound a bit fake or like you’re over-using the thesaurus.
If you wouldn’t say something in a day-to-day conversation or discussion, don’t say it in your statement. It’s even worse if you get it slightly wrong, like ‘I was encapsulated by the bibliography of Tony Blair’ or ‘it was in Year 10 that my love for chemistry came forth’ (or, worse still, ‘came fourth’, which is what one applicant actually wrote).
7. Plagiarism, lies or exaggeration
UCAS uses stringent similarity and plagiarism software and your universities will be told if you copy anything from another source.
And as for exaggeration, don’t say you’ve read a book when you’ve only read a chapter; you never know when it might catch you out at a university interview.
“If you didn’t do it, read it or see it, don’t claim it.”
8. Trying to be funny or quirky
Humour, informality or quirkiness can be effective in the right setting but it’s a big risk, so be careful.
“It can be spectacularly good – or spectacularly bad.”
“An admissions tutor is not guaranteed to have your sense of humour.”
“Weird is not a selling point.”
9. Negative comments or excuses
It can be difficult to ‘sell yourself’ in your personal statement, but don’t talk about why you haven’t done something, or why you dropped a subject. Focus on the positives.
10. Irrelevant personal facts – the ‘So what?’ rule
Before you write about playing badminton, or how your love of reading started when you were given a Beatrix Potter book when you were five, apply the ‘SO WHAT?’ rule. Does it make a useful contribution and help explain why you should be given a place on the course? If not, scrap it.
10 more things NOT to put in your personal statement
Our original 10 personal statement don’ts article was so popular, we’re back with this follow-up. Here is a fresh set of things you really shouldn’t include in that all-important statement.
1. Incorrect spelling and bad grammar
Don’t forget poor punctuation either. These are obvious and easily-avoided issues, so check and double check before you submit. Grammar and spelling crimes can result in rejection, especially if you’re applying to a very competitive course.
“One spelling mistake can mean rejection; law is a subject that requires precision.” (Law admissions tutor)
2. Long sentences
Keep it concise. If some of your sentences are several lines long and only separated with commas, or worse still not punctuated at all, try to break them up with more full stops.
3. Stating the obvious
Consider this sentence: ‘In my work experience I learned to communicate effectively with clients, which is an important skill in accountancy.’
It’s the last part of this sentence that’s unnecessary. Admissions tutors don’t need you to tell them it’s an important skill – that much is obvious. Instead, explain how you learned to communicate effectively, or give them an actual example.
4. Repeating irrelevant academic details
Your qualifications, subjects, grades and other personal details are listed elsewhere in your UCAS application, so you don’t need to list them in your statement or start by saying ‘I am currently studying…’. It’s a waste of those precious 4,000 characters.
Nor do you have to write about all the subjects or courses you are taking, unless you really want to. Statements that say ‘maths has given me this, English has given me this and Spanish has given me this…’ tend to come across as dull and unimaginative. Besides, admissions tutors especially like to know what you have engaged with beyond the syllabus rather than just within it.
5. Rhetorical questions and other waffle
‘So why should I be considered for a place on your course?’. ‘Why astrophysics?’. To put it bluntly, rhetorical questions like these just sound patronising; they serve no purpose and waste space. The same applies to waffle of any kind. As a senior admissions tutor once put it, “we have a waffle detector gland”.
6. ‘When I was young…’
This is a common complaint from admissions tutors. It can be tempting to begin your personal statement with something that first inspired you when you were six, but unis actually prefer to hear about something more recent or, better still, what is it that inspires you now?
Some statements have a tendency towards flattery, with sentences like ‘it would be an honour to be offered a place at your world-renowned university’. Don’t bother – it’s not what an admissions tutor wants to hear. What they want to find out is what you can offer them, or what you aspire to learn from them, not that you’re only choosing that course or university because of its prestigious reputation.
8. Names of universities
Individual university names creep into personal statements all too regularly, according to admissions tutors (even worse if combined with number 7, above). Avoid showing preference for any specific university unless there’s a good reason or unless you’re applying for only one. Universities may be looking for ways to thin down the number of applicants, so don’t make it easy for them.
9. Being formulaic
“Too many statements are formulaic” is a frequent comment we hear from universities. Following a standard formula or template could mean that your statement just won’t stand out. Yes, there are guidelines and criteria you might need to follow, but do be imaginative as well.
That said, don’t be too weird or off-the-wall in your approach. But then, don’t let anyone force you to be excessively conventional either and don’t be afraid to demonstrate your individuality. Yes, it’s right to get your personal statement proof-read but, if you let other people edit it for you, the danger is that it becomes more formulaic and your own voice gets lost. It may also end up sounding more like the 48-year-old person who edited it than the 17-year-old who wrote it.
A senior academic at Oxford put another twist on this when he said: “the worst statements are polished but boring”.
10. …And finally, avoid getting stressed about it
Stay calm. It’s difficult not to perceive your statement as a scary obstacle, but admissions tutors want you to view it as an opportunity to demonstrate your enthusiasm for the course, along with any insights or experiences that show you are a good prospective uni student.
A geography admissions tutor at a Russell Group university explained it like this and it’s quite a good way to conclude these four articles:
“The reason students come here is because they’re fascinated by the subject. So we just want you to demonstrate this in your statement, along with an extra-curricular dimension that provides a bit of evidence to show that (for example) you work well in a team.”
If you’re applying to uni but want to apply for different courses, rather than five similar ones, check out my ‘mixture of courses’ article for some tips on how to approach this:
© Alan Bullock, 18/10/2021