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.
You might also be interested in:
Read more articles
The personal statement is an important part of the UCAS application. It's your chance to describe your ambitions, skills, and experience.
Our personal statement tool
You can write up to 4,000 characters of text that show you’d make a great student – so it might take a few redrafts until you’re happy with it.
This tool will help you think about what to include in your personal statement, and how to structure it. It also counts how many characters you’ve used, so it’s easy to see when you’re close to that 4,000 character limit.
Write your personal statement now
- Course descriptions mention the qualities, skills and experience it’s useful to have for each subject – take note of these to help you decide what to write about.
- Remember it’s the same personal statement for all the courses you apply to, so avoid mentioning unis and colleges by name. Most students choose similar subjects, but if you’ve chosen a variety, just write about common themes – like problem solving or creativity.
- If you've got a question about writing your personal statement, don't worry you're not alone. Check out our blogs:
What to write about
- Why you are applying – your ambitions and what interests you about the subject, course providers and higher education.
- What makes you suitable – any relevant skills, experience or achievements gained from education, work or other activities.
These are great ways to prepare for higher education.
If you do or have done any of these before, they could be ideal things to mention in your personal statement. Or you might be able to organise or start a new activity before you send your application.
International and EU students
As an international student there are a few extra things you should mention.
- Why you want to study in the UK
- Your English language skills and any English courses or tests you’ve taken
- Why you want to be an international student rather than study in your own country
Here’s where you can mention any alternative entry requirements you’ve used – like an Access course or APL – demonstrating the skills and knowledge you’ve gained through your previous experiences.
How to write it
Feel free to use our personal statement mind map and personal statement worksheet for planning your personal statement.
There’s no definite formula to follow – just take your time and follow these guidelines.
- Structure your info to reflect the skills and qualities the universities and colleges value most.
- Write in an enthusiastic, concise and natural style – nothing too complex.
- Try to stand out, but be careful with humour, quotes or anything unusual – just in case the admissions tutor doesn’t have the same sense of humour as you.
- Proofread aloud and get your teachers, advisers, and family to check – then redraft until you’re happy with it and the grammar, spelling, and punctuation are correct.
We recommend you write your personal statement first, and then copy and paste it into your online application when you’re done.
Check the 4,000 character and 47 line limits though – some word processors get different values if they don’t count tabs and paragraph spacing as individual characters.
When you do add it to your application, save it regularly as it times out after 35 minutes of inactivity.
If you're applying to study Teacher Education in Scotland, you'll need to make your application through the UCAS Undergraduate scheme. Read dedicated personal statement advice from Scottish training providers about what to include in your personal statement.
European characters and other languages
You can use some European characters in your personal details, personal statement, employment and referee details. Some of these will be substituted with UK equivalent characters. Check our Extended character sets substitutions for more details.
It’s not possible to apply in an alternative language, unless you’re applying to Welsh course providers and you’d like to make your application entirely in Welsh.
- To register in Welsh, when you go to the application service ‘Apply’, you can select ‘Cymraeg’.
- When you’re logged in to your application you can change the language to English or Welsh on the ‘Options’ page.
- The help text in Apply is available in Welsh too.
- In Apply you can choose to receive correspondence from course providers and from us in Welsh.
Sut i ymgeisio
What happens to personal statements that have been copied?
We screen all personal statements across Copycatch our Similarity Detection system – so make sure your personal statement is all your own work. Don’t copy from anyone else or from the internet and don't share your personal statement with other applicants.
If we find any similarity in your personal statement, your application will be flagged. Then we’ll email an alert to you and your university or college choices and this could have serious consequences for your application.
Want to say more?
You can only submit one personal statement – the same one for all the courses you apply to – and you can’t change it after your application has been submitted.
If you want to send any more information you can ask your university and college choices if they’ll accept further details.
- If they agree, you should send it to them, rather than us.
- After we receive your application, we’ll send you a welcome email that includes your Personal ID – quote your Personal ID along with the further information you send to the unis and colleges, so they can link it to your UCAS application.
Was this page helpful?