“This is a must-read for students applying for Uni.” (Head of Careers, University of Warwick, October 2021)
I originally wrote this as four separate online articles for Which?. The articles were very popular and received lots of positive feedback from students, parents, teachers and advisers alike. Last year I decided to re-publish them on my blog as one integrated article and I have now updated this further with a few improvements.
My aim is to prompt applicants with some suggestions about the kind of content universities like to see in a personal statement … and what they would prefer not to see. I wrote the original articles a few years ago, but I think they still hold true.
One message I would like to add as a preface is that your personal statement will be very important for most courses at some unis and for some courses at most unis, especially if there’s strong competition for places. But equally, it’s fairly unusual for applicants to be rejected purely because of their statement, as long as they’ve approached it and prepared for it sensibly and written it with care. In that context, my advice would be to see it as an opportunity not a threat, a point which is reinforced in the quote right at the end of the article.
Article 1: 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.
I asked admissions tutors for their views on this 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 the subject.
“Be specific from line one.” (English admissions tutor)
2. Explain how you’re right for the course
Provide evidence that you fit the bill. Demonstrate how you meet the selection criteria, or show 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. This is sometimes referred to as your ‘super-curricular’ learning.
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, scientific journals, films, documentaries, videos, radio programmes, podcasts, blogs, vlogs, attending public lectures and so on.
However, try to avoid mentioning the wider reading that everyone else is also doing. For example, I’ve often seen personal statements for Economics that mention Levitt and Dubner’s book ‘Freakonomics’, but this book is so popular and well-known that it once prompted a busy university admissions tutor to say to me: “If I have to read about Freakonomics one more time, I’ll scream.” A slight exaggeration of course, but hopefully you get my drift.
4. Reflect on any relevant experience(s) …
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, work shadowing, a part-time job, volunteering, university open days or tasters, summer schools, museum or gallery visits, stage performances, cultural events, archaeological digs, visits to the local courts, travel, competitions, a maths challenge or even just a conversation with someone who does what you want to do.
“It doesn’t have to be anything fancy.” (Archaeology admissions tutor)
5. … Especially if you’re applying for a vocational subject
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:
“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)
“Whatever environment you’ve been in, what did you spot or learn from what happens there? Or what did you observe about how the qualities exhibited by professional staff helped them engage effectively with patients or service-users?” (Medicine admissions tutor)
6. Can you demonstrate transferable skills?
Yes you can! And admissions tutors will want to hear about them. For example, it could be your ability to work 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 one or two of them. Again, admissions tutors want to hear about specific examples, like:
- projects or assignments (what role did you play, what went well?)
- positions of responsibility (what did you achieve, how has it improved your self-confidence?)
- activities like sport, music or drama (what did you learn from your role, how did you work as a team?)
- activities like Young Enterprise or the Duke of Edinburgh Award (what was the biggest challenge and how did you overcome it …. or what went wrong and 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
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, a T-Level placement, or additional studies such as the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) has made you think more critically could be an effective way of doing this.
“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)
9. What’s the longer-term plan?
Mention what your longer-term goals are if you can do this in an interesting way or 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 haven’t got a specific path in mind, maybe 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. Or check out my separate article on ‘How to write a killer opening’.
Article 2: 10 more things to put in your personal statement
My original top ten of what to put in your personal statement was so popular, they asked me to write some more. So to help you ensure that your personal statement stands out, here are ten more key points that uni admissions tutors – the people who will actually be reading your statement – told me they’re really looking for.
Use paragraphs rather than one solid block of text. This will help you to organise your material and make it more readable. A statement with 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, if you do leave a line between paragraphs, they will all count towards your 47 and therefore you won’t be able to write so much.
Deciding whether to leave a line between paragraphs is therefore a matter of personal choice and it might even be a good question to ask at a uni open day, to see which they prefer. 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 them 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 no more than 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 that 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.
4. Engagement with your chosen subject
An admissions tutor wants you to stand out from the crowd, but in a good way. 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’.
Instead, show your genuine enthusiasm and engagement with your chosen subject by reflecting on what you gained or learned from the book you found in the library that changed your views, or the relevant experiences you’ve had, or a project you did, or the podcast you just heard, or the summer school or public lecture you went to. This will help you get the tutor’s attention and demonstrate that you’ve engaged with a subject in a reflective way.
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 the 19th century or the causes and effects of vandalism on the estate where you live might have more impact than yet another one that talks about serial killers or a TV series that everyone else watches too. Think outside the box.
6. Honesty and being yourself
Be honest and be yourself. 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 won’t want any exaggerated claims coming back to haunt you.
7. Enthusiasm and curiosity
Admissions tutors are likely to love their subject and they want to teach students who share their enthusiasm. If you can also demonstrate curiosity, that’s even better.
“Most of all we want people who are enthusiastic about the course”.
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’ 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?
- HOW have you personally coped with the academic or personal challenges caused by the pandemic?
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 a conclusion, two unis I 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.
Article 3: 10 things NOT to put in your personal statement
University admissions tutors read hundreds of personal statements from students each year. But what don’t they want to see? Here are some of the ‘pet hates’ they mentioned … and it might be best to steer well clear of them.
It’s your voice they want to hear, not Coco Chanel, Einstein, 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.
“We ignore quotes, so it’s a waste of space.”
“So many applicants 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.”
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 well:
“I would much rather read about what you learned from observing one filling than a list of all the procedures you saw.”
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’ … hopefully you get the idea. They constantly recur in personal statements and don’t really say anything.
In my own experience, and I’ve read thousands of statements over the years, the first two on that list are probably the most frequent. If you’ve written your first draft and ‘from a young age’ or ‘since I was a child’ are in the first line, ditch it and try to think of a more specific way to open your statement.
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’
If possible, try to demonstrate your passion but don’t actually use the word.
“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 Richard Branson’ 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 chosen 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
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.
Article 4: 10 more things NOT to put in your personal statement
My original 10 personal statement don’ts article was so popular that they asked me to come back with this follow-up. So here’s a fresh set of things you really shouldn’t include in your 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 your application. Grammar and spelling crimes could result in rejection, especially if you’re applying to a very competitive course.
“Law is a subject that requires precision and one spelling mistake can mean rejection.” (Law admissions tutor)
My personal favourite was the student who wrote: “I have a part-time job as a waiter at Raymond Blanc’s Brassiere”. A brassiere is a bra and the correct word should have been Brasserie, but the good news is that we spotted and corrected it! He also added an excellent sentence reflecting on the transferable skills he developed in the role and subsequently got offers from all five unis he applied to.
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 stating the obvious. 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 and maybe give them an actual example. Or alternatively, elaborate on what you’ve observed yourself about the importance of effective communication in accountancy.
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 personal 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’re taking, unless you really want to. Be selective. Statements that say ‘Maths has given me this, English has given me this and Psychology 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 told me, “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? This is another reason why ‘from a young age’ or ‘since I was a child’ tend to be ineffective.
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 do it! It’s not what an admissions tutor wants to hear. What they do want to find out is what you can offer them, or what you aspire to learn from them, not that you’re only choosing their 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 to mention them or unless you’re applying for only one.
9. Being formulaic … and letting adults interfere
“Too many statements are formulaic” is a frequent comment I’ve heard 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 wish to follow and it’s very sensible to do so. But do be imaginative as well, within reason.
That said, don’t be too weird or off-the-wall in your approach. But equally, don’t let anyone force you to be excessively conventional either and don’t be afraid to demonstrate your individuality.
It’s right to get your personal statement proof-read too but be cautious about letting other people edit it for you. If you do, the danger is that your own voice gets lost and it may end up sounding more like the 47-year-old person who edited it than the 17-year-old who wrote it. There’s a balance to be struck here, which is reflected in a couple of other quotes I’ve picked up from admissions tutors:
“The worst statements are polished but boring.”
“If an adult has helped you write it, we can tell.”
10. Finally, don’t panic!
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 I think it’s a reassuring way to conclude this article:
“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.”
You might also find it useful to check out my other two personal statement articles, which you’ll find adjacent to this one on the blog page of my website:
- How to write a killer opening: https://alanbullockcareers.com/2022/06/25/ucas-personal-statements-writing-a-killer-opening-june-2022-update/
- Applying for a mixture of courses: https://alanbullockcareers.com/2022/06/25/ucas-personal-statements-applying-for-a-mixture-of-courses-june-2022-update/
© Alan Bullock, updated 25/6/2022
My featured image is a photo I took at Swansea University’s Bay Campus.