A university personal statement (or statement of purpose) is an essay you write about yourself when applying to University that describes your ambitions, skills and experience.
Your predicted or already received A level grades are the first thing a university will usually look at when considering your application. But as more and more students are getting higher grades, many institutions throughout the UK are starting to use secondary admissions criteria. These can include GCSE or other exam results, academic references, UCAS points and – you got it – personal statements.
Writing a personal statement is never easy – even if you’ve written one before. But there’s no need to panic: we’ve put together the following step-by-step guide to make the whole process easier for you.
1. Prepare early
Many people get overwhelmed or find themselves stuck when putting together their personal statement, largely due to the fact they don’t have much to write about. (Sadly, all that time playing GTA IV will give you no valuable real-life skills.)
But by preparing early and building the relevant skills and experience, you’ll have lots of material to use when the time comes to craft the perfect statement:
- Get involved at school: I don’t just mean studying and attending classes – it goes way beyond that. Speak to your teachers and find out what you can do to add value to your UCAS application, like hosting events, joining a club, becoming a student council representative, writing for the school magazine and mentoring younger students – anything that will make you a stronger applicant.
- Pick up new skills: This doesn’t necessarily mean venturing too far from your current skills and interests, but expanding your knowledge can be extremely beneficial. For example, if you’re going to apply for a web design course, you could learn how to use design software like Photoshop or get to grips with UX best practices.
- Volunteer: Are there any issues or causes you’re particularly passionate about? Start looking for volunteering opportunities at local schools, hospitals, churches or charities that match your interests and are relevant to your chosen field. Having some volunteer experience not only helps support your application but also increases your employability in the long run.
- Learn about your chosen field: Let’s say you have a love for dinosaurs and want to become a palaeontologist. It’s a good idea to start following different specialist blogs, websites and social media channels in your spare time (if you don’t already) to keep up with industry news and get a leg up on the competition.
- Attend events: Going to a convention or a university open day is an excellent opportunity to meet admissions tutors and find out what they look for in personal statements.
2. Get all the information you need
You need to create an outline of all the important information you would like to mention in your personal statement. This will essentially be a giant list of your skills, accomplishments and goals, and while it might seem a tedious and time-consuming task, it will help you plan your statement in a clear and effective manner.
What should your statement include?
- Why you’re applying
- Why the subject interests you
- Why you’re suitable for the course
- Skills and accredited achievements
- Other achievements and attributes that make you stand out
- Work experience
- Hobbies, interests and social activities
- Academic and career goals
Other things to include:
- If you’re an international/EU student: Why do you want to study in the UK? Why do you think you can successfully complete a course taught in English?
- If you’re a mature student: What have you done since leaving education? Did you pursue a career, what have you accomplished?
- If you’ve taken a gap year: What have you been up to during that time? Was it spent wisely?
Remember that creating an outline of your statement will help you organise your thoughts and present your story effectively.
3. Structure it properly
You should start writing your statement about a month before you need to submit it. This will give you plenty of time to put the final touches in place and avoid missing the looming deadline. Although there’s no actual word limit, UCAS’s personal statement tool gives you a maximum of 4,000 characters or 47 lines (including spacing) to work with, which translates to – roughly – 500 words.
Here’s how to structure your statement:
- Introduction: I can’t emphasise enough the importance of a strong opening. Your introduction should be written in a way that grabs the reader’s attention right from the very first sentence. Starting your statement with ‘Hi, my name is John Smith and I’m writing this letter in the hopes of being accepted at the University of Oxford’ is out of the question. Try and begin telling your story in a way that will keep admissions tutors hooked till the very end. Remember to use language that captivates.
- Body: In the next three to four paragraphs, you should work on the most important bits from the list you compiled in Step 2. It should highlight what you’ve done in relation to the subject you’re applying for (that isn’t already on your UCAS application form), any work experience, relevant school activities and any personal interests that demonstrate you’re a responsible and reliable person.
- Conclusion: Your conclusion should be snappy – that is to say, should not end with something so abrupt and uninteresting like ‘Thank you for taking the time to read my statement’. Try to finish your statement with a more memorable ending while summing up how your skills and enthusiasm make you suitable for the course and emphasising your commitment to the course.
4. Add the final touches
You’re almost done, but remember to:
- Get feedback: Ask people you trust like your family, friends, teachers and advisers to read your statement and tell you what they think. Perhaps they can spot a potentially embarrassing spelling mistake you missed or they may have suggestions you haven’t considered.
- Proofread it: There’s nothing worse than a personal statement riddled with spelling and grammar mistakes (especially if you’re applying for an English language and literature course). Make a point to check and double-check your statement for errors and typos, put it through a spell checker like Grammarly and get an extra pair of eyes to go over it.
- Send it: And you’re done! You can sit back and relax now (and start hoping and praying for offers). A word to the wise, though: make sure your statement is picture-perfect as you won’t be able to make any changes once it’s been submitted. If there are changes that need to be made, you’ll have to directly contact the universities you’ve applied to ask them if they’d be willing to accept a new draft.
Before you go and start writing your personal statement, make sure you take a look at some final tips.
- Be enthusiastic: Your statement should have an upbeat tone and demonstrate your unique personality. Having said that, however, avoid trying to be funny as the admissions officer reading your application may not share the same humour as you.
- Don’t plagiarise: You will get caught. UCAS uses plagiarism detection software and screens applications for fraud.
- Don’t name names: Unless you’re applying to only one university, make sure your statement does not include names of universities. Your aim is to make the universities you’re applying to feel special but if you mention names (and, dare I say it, show preference to a specific uni), you won’t get very far with your application.
- Avoid clichés: Starting your statement with ‘Ever since I was a little boy/girl, I’ve been passionate about…’ is so passé. It’s been done many times before you. Try to be a little more creative! Equally important is avoiding the use of rhetorical questions such as ‘So, why am I applying for this course?’
- Don’t be formulaic: It might seem like a good idea to use a template to craft your statement, especially if you’re struggling, but you risk sounding robotic and not standing out. Just be yourself and tell your story in an interesting and compelling way.
- Be honest: Don’t exaggerate or flat-out lie about your ambitions, accomplishments and plans – admissions committees can smell inconsistencies and dishonesty from a mile away!
Have you ever written a personal statement? Do you have any tips and tricks you’d like to share with school leavers who’ve started writing personal statements for their UCAS applications? Join the conversation down below and let us know!
Meanwhile, don’t forget to check out our comprehensive guide to planning for the future if you’re still in school and confused about your options.
This article was originally published in October 2014.