What makes a good personal statement?
As university applications open, many students will be looking ahead or may have even already decided on their CAO choices prior the closing date of the 1st of February 2017. But those hoping to study in the UK will also be looking at the UCAS application system. One of the main differences with UCAS is the requirement for a Personal Statement or PS as part of the application. The PS is a vital part of the application process and students should not underestimate the importance of getting it right before the earlier closing date of the 15th of January 2017.
I am currently working in a registered Cambridge international school in China. The majority of students are applying to UK universities through UCAS. I’ve looked at around 140 Grade 12 personal statements and have seen some really good and some really bad ones!
Video: Personal statements – Finding a formula (UCAS)
So, what makes a good personal statement?
From my experience, someone who shows genuine interest, has some work experience and can discuss and show proof of research such as a reading outside of school makes for a strong PS.
A good structure to your PS is important and of course it needs to be well written. This can really help when trying to convince the reader you're right for the course, which is the ultimate goal.
Let’s break it down into different sections.
Your PS needs to have a strong introduction:
Ask yourself: Why do you want to study the course? What interests you about the subject area? What aspirations do you have? Your introduction is an important part. You need to grab the reader’s attention.
Be clear about what you’re interested in studying and why. That’s the number one rule.
Try not to start with “Ever since I was 8 years old I wanted to be a doctor”, or a weak quote. This strategy is overused. It might be difficult to give your background in the subject without mentioning your age. If you feel you need to, just don’t be clichéd about it.
Here is where you show proof of your knowledge, skills, academic ability and experience, i.e the evidence! Divide it into two parts academic and work experience/volunteer work.
In the academic section:
Discuss academic achievements/subjects studied. Ask yourself: What academic skills and knowledge do you have that will prepare you to succeed in your chosen subject?
What subjects are you doing now? Any skill transferable to what you want to study?
Any particular school projects that come to mind? Any achievements/ awards?
And of course, make sure you show proof of readings.
This should be the longest section of your PS. Depending on where you are applying for it can vary. 60% to 80% of your PS should be academic.
Within this section, while it is okay to show off in-depth knowledge, avoid extended, in-depth discussions of an idea. Keep it brief enough and more of a prompt to start a discussion perhaps at an interview.
In terms of the Work experience/employment/volunteering:
Write about any skills that you have gained from work experience, employment and/or volunteering opportunities and how these experiences prepare you for university study.
If you don’t have anything that relates to the subject you are applying for and you have time… go get some! It’s impressive when a student is applying for accounting and interned at an accounting firm for a few weeks. Remember students with work experience in the related area is who you’re up against.
Not only does it help you with the competition, the fact that you have gained real life experience in the area and are still interested in the subject is going to show the reader that you really are interested in this subject. Which, remember is the overall goal.
If your work experience or volunteer work does not relate to the particular course you are applying for, make the skills as transferable to the course as much as possible.
Mention any other achievements, extra-curricular activities or hobbies that demonstrate you have the relevant skills for the course you are applying to.
This can say a lot about you even though you might not think so – it shows the reader something about you and could even make you stand out. What do you have to offer the university outside of the classroom?
For internationals, including Irish students if you’re applying to the UK, they like to see why you want to study in the UK and if you actually have a good reason.
And finally the final paragraph should convince the reader again you are suitable for the course. Finish with a brief summary, like the introduction, its extremely important. This is your last chance. Why should you be offered a place?
What to avoid
- Don’t be negative! There’s simply no time. Avoid saying things like I’m not good at this, I really struggle with that etc., how will this convince the reader of your suitability? Exactly, it won’t.
- Story telling: The personal statement is not intended to be an event-by-event summary of your life. Rather, focus only on those aspects of your experience that are directly relevant to the position you're seeking.
- Overly complex language - Keep it simple and easy to read.
- Focusing on other people.
- Avoid discussions of money – Many students focus on their goal of making money for the reason why they chose the course. This is not a strong reason, it doesn’t show your interest in the topic directly.
- Spelling or grammatical errors –and remove the slang!
- Humour (the readers humour might not be the same as yours).
- Start your PS early.
- Get it proof read – a few times.
- Remember you’re applying for the university course – not the job or related careers. It’s useful to mention aspirations and goals if you have them but just remember it’s the course you are applying for not the job.
- Use Grammarly.com - I also suggest using Grammarly.com - this online app is free and will help with essay structure, spelling and grammar.
- Be careful of your word count. Check here.
- Look at examples – Cambridge has a database of examples based on subject here: However, DO NOT COPY!
At the end of the day the most important thing to stress is your interest in the subject, your knowledge and what makes you suitable. Make this as clear as possible.
Simply follow the UCAS structure, it’s easily explained and sums up what a personal statement needs.
The author of this article, Roisin Traynor is a Guidance Counsellor, teacher and a careers writer and blogger. She is currently teaching at an international school in China, having previously worked in the Middle East and Ireland.