The Ultimate UCAS Personal Statement Guide - Dr David Salt - ebook
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“A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step…”As you may have already experienced, hardest part of a big project is the first step. It’s easy to plan to start something, but when it actually comes to writing the first words, what do you do? As you stare at the blank page in front of you, how can you fill it?Published by the UKs Leading University Admissions Company, The Ultimate UCAS Personal Statement Guide is the most comprehensive personal statement book available. It contains detailed expert advice for every stage of the writing process; from starting the opening sentence to making the finishing touches.It also includes 100 Successful UCAS Personal Statements for all major subjects - so you can see what the admissions tutors at your university like (and don’ t like!).With contributions and advice from over 25 Specialist Tutors, this is a MUST-BUY for those looking to secure their dream university place.

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The Ultimate UCAS

Personal Statement Guide

Copyright © 2017 UniAdmissions. All rights reserved.

ISBN 978-0-9932311-8-6

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information retrieval system without prior written permission of the publisher. This publication may not be used in conjunction with or to support any commercial undertaking without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Published by RAR Medical Services Limited

www.uniadmissions.co.uk

[email protected]

Tel: 0208 068 0438

UCAS is a registered trademark and was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this book. The authors and publisher are not affiliated with UCAS.

This book is neither created nor endorsed by any universities. The authors and publisher claim no affiliation with any university. The information offered in this book is purely advisory and any advice given should be taken within this context. As such, the publishers and authors accept no liability whatsoever for the outcome of any applicant’s university applications or for any other loss. Although every precaution has been taken in the preparation of this book, the publisher and author assume no responsibility for errors or omissions of any kind. Neither is any liability assumed for damages resulting from the use of information contained herein. This does not affect your statutory rights.

The Ultimate UCAS

Personal Statement Guide

Dr. Rohan Agarwal

Dr. David Salt

About the Authors

Rohan is the Director of Operations at UniAdmissions and is responsible for its technical and commercial arms. He graduated from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and is a fully qualified doctor. Over the last five years, he has tutored hundreds of successful Oxbridge and Medical applicants. He has also authored ten books on admissions tests and interviews. 

Rohan has taught physiology to undergraduates and interviewed medical school applicants for Cambridge. He has published research on bone physiology and writes education articles for the Independent and Huffington Post. In his spare time, Rohan enjoys playing the piano and table tennis.

David is Director of Services at UniAdmissions, taking the lead in product development and customer service. David read medical sciences at Gonville and Caius College Cambridge, graduating in 2012, completed his clinical studies in the Cambridge Clinical School and now works as a medical doctor.

David is an experienced tutor, having helped students with all aspects of the university applications process. He has authored five books to help with university applications and has edited four more. Away from work, David enjoys cycling, outdoor pursuits and good food.

About the Authors

Introduction

The Basics

What do Admissions Tutors look for?

Application Timeline

Getting Started

Structuring Your Statement

The Introduction

The Main Body

The Conclusion

Extra Reading

Extra-Curricular

Work Experience

Oxbridge

Mature + Graduate Applicants

Deferred Entry + Gap Years

Re-applying

Applying for Different Subjects

The Reference

Standing Out from the Crowd

Interviews

Example Personal Statements:

Sciences

Medicine

Veterinary Sciences & Dentistry

Biological Sciences

Chemistry

Physical Sciences

Earth Sciences

Engineering

Computer Sciences

Maths

Example Personal Statements:

Humanities

Law

Classics

Chinese Studies

Archaeology

Psychology

Music

English

Modern Languages

History

Philosophy

Economics

Politics, Philosophy & Economics

Final Advice

Your Free Book

UKCAT Intensive Course

TSA Intensive Course

LNAT Intensive Course

Oxbridge Interview Course

Introduction

Good university courses are competitive. After a few years of lower application rates, the 2016 entry cycle received a record-breaking 592,290 applications through UCAS.

With so many aiming high for the university place they dream of, you need to find a way to distinguish yourself from other applicants – a way you can demonstrate your superior skills, motivation, and potential.

Although the personal statement is just one component of the applications process, for the vast majority of applicants it is the only component that provides the admissions tutor with information about the real you. Only the small proportion of courses that require an interview offer an additional opportunity to shine. The personal statement is your opportunity to show your reasons for choosing your subject, your motivation, and the personal skills that will help you succeed in your field in the future. The importance of the personal statement should never be underestimated.

This book first guides you through the process of writing your personal statement. The first section gives top tips and advice to help you show yourself in the best possible light whilst avoiding common pitfalls. There are then 100 successful personal statements from recent applicants. Each of these comes with a commentary showing you the strongest and weaker points of the statement, helping you hone the structure and content of your own. These personal statements cover all major subjects so you should find statements in your chosen subject here. But also read personal statements from similar subject areas – whilst the focus of the content will be different, the ways these successful applicants display their skills, interests and motivation can give you valuable ideas to incorporate into your own statement.

So, what are you waiting for?

The Basics

Your Personal Statement

Applying to university is both an exciting and confusing time. You will make a decision that will decide the next 3-6 years and potentially your entire life. Your personal statement is your chance to show the universities you apply to who you really are. The rest of the application is faceless statistics – the personal statement gives the admissions tutor the opportunity to look beyond those statistics and focus on the real you, the person they may spend at least three years teaching their subject to.

You may hear some people telling you there is a certain right and wrong way to write a personal statement, but this is a myth. One of the reasons we produced this book is to show you the vastly different styles that successful personal statements have. Yes, there are rules of thumb that can help you along the way, but never lose sight of the fact that this is your opportunity to tell your story.

How does the Process Work?

University applications are made through the online UCAS system. You can apply to up to 5 universities (4 for Medicine). After receiving the outcomes of all applications, you make a confirmed (i.e. first) and reserve choice. Entry to a university is only confirmed upon achievement of the conditions set out in the conditional offer. It is very important to remember that thesame application will be sent to all of your choices. It is, therefore, a good idea to apply for similar courses rather than courses which are vastly different from one another. It will be very hard to complete an application for Chemistry, English, Art, Geography, and Engineering. However, applying for Chemistry and Biochemistry would be much more straightforward.

Other than exam marks, GCSE grades and teacher references, the only part of the application which you have direct control over is your personal statement. This is your chance to convince the reader (i.e. admissions tutor) to give you a place at their university. Although it’s not a job interview, it is important to treat the personal statement with the respect it deserves. Many universities do not require applicants to attend interviews, in which case the personal statement is the applicant’s only chance to show the admissions tutor who you really are.

Deadlines

The final deadline is the 15th January. For medicine, dentistry, Oxford and Cambridge, be aware of an earlier deadline of 15th October – if you don’t get your application in on time it won’t be considered. Remember that schools often have an earlier internal deadline so they can ensure punctuality and sort out their references in time. Different schools have different procedures, so it is very important that you know what the timescale is at your school before the end of your AS year. Internal deadlines for the 15th October deadline can be as early as the beginning of September, which is only a couple of weeks after the summer break.

Early submissions are advised because universities beginoffering places as soon as they receive applications. This is very important as those who submit their application before the final the 15th January deadline can be offered places before Christmas! Therefore, it is in your best interest to submit your application as early as possible – even if you’re not applying for medicine or Oxbridge.

In addition, early submission frees up your time to concentrate on any admissions tests or interviews you may need to prepare for, and also your A2 studies.

What are the requirements?

➢Maximum 4000 characters

➢Maximum 47 lines

➢Submitted by the deadline

What do Admissions Tutors look for?

Academic ability

This is the most obvious. Every university will have different entrance requirements for the same course titles, so make sure that you are aware of these. Some universities may have extra requirements, e.g. applicants for English at UCL require a minimum GCSE in a foreign language other than in English. It is your responsibility to ensure that you meet the entry criteria for the course that you’re applying to.

I have the grades; will I be accepted?

In short - not necessarily. Both are important. The grades are a foundation that tells the university your academic credentials are good enough to cope with the demands of the course. So achieving the entrance grades required is considered to be the basic requirement for successful applicants. The personal statement gives additional information, allowing the admissions tutor to assess your If an applicant’s personal statement isn’t strong enough but they meet the minimum grade criteria, they may still be rejected.

Extra-curricular activities

Unlike in the US, the main factor in the UK for deciding between candidates for university places is their academic suitability for the course to which they have applied, and little else. Whilst extra-curricular activities can be a positive thing, it is a common mistake for students to dedicate too much of their personal statement to these. There is, however, an important place for subject-related extra-curricular activities in a personal statement, i.e. work experience.

Passion for your subject

This is the most important part of a personal statement. This is what makes your statement personal to you and is where you can truly be yourself, so do not hold back! Whether you’ve dreamt of being a doctor since birth or a historian since learning to read, if you are truly passionate about your chosen subject this will be shine through in the personal statement.

It is not necessary for you to have wanted to do a particular subject for your entire life. In fact, it is entirely possible to choose a subject because you found a course that really appealed to you on a university open day. Whatever the case, you should find reasons to justify your decision to pursue a course that will cost a lot of time and money. If the personal statement does not convince the reader that you’re committed to the academic pursuit of your chosen subject, then you’ll likely be rejected.

It is important to remember that you are applying for undergraduate admission, not a job. Whilst it is not a bad thing to have an idea of potential career paths beyond university, writing a personal statement that bypasses the academic nature of university courses will be judged negatively.

Application Timeline

Researching Courses

This includes both online research and attending university open days. Whilst some of you reading this guide will already know exactly which course you want to apply for, many will not have decided. Course research is still very important even if you’re certain. This is because the ‘same’ courses can vary significantly between universities. As only one personal statement is sent to all universities that you apply to, it is important that you write in a way that addresses the different needs of each university.

If you cannot make it to university open days (e.g. international applicants), you can usually email a department and request a tour. If you allow plenty of time for this, quite often universities are happy to do this. Be proactive – do not sit around and expect universities to come to you and ask for your application! The worst possible thing you can do is appear to be applying to a course which you don’t understand or haven’t researched.

You’re highly recommended to research the course content of courses that you interested in. Every university will produce a prospectus, which is available printed and online. Take some time to compare modules between universities. This will help to not only choose the 4/5 universities which you apply for, but also be aware of exactly what it is that you are applying for.

Start Brainstorming

At this stage, you will have narrowed down your subject interests and should be certain of which subject/s to apply for. For applications which will include universities offering single and general subject areas such as individual Engineering disciplines/Sciences and general Engineering/Natural Sciences etc., it is important to plan a personal statement that reflects this.

A good way to start a thought process that will eventually lead to a personal statement is by simply listing all of your ideas, why you are interested in your course, and the pros and cons between different universities. If there are particular modules which capture your interest that are common across several of your university choices, do not be afraid to include this in your personal statement. This will not only show that you have a real interest in your chosen subject, but also that you have taken the time to do some research.

Complete First Draft

This will not be the final personal statement that you submit. In all likelihood, your personal statement will go through multiple revisions and re-drafts before it is ready for submission. In most cases, the final statement is wildly different from the first draft.

The purpose of completing a rough draft early is so that you can spot major errors early. It is easy to go off on a tangent when writing a personal statement, with such things not being made obvious until somebody else reads it. The first draft will show the applicant which areas need more attention, what is missing, and what needs to be removed altogether.

Re-Draft

This will probably be the first time you receive any real feedback on your personal statement. Obvious errors will be spotted and any outrageous claims that sound good in your head, but are unclear or dubious, will be obvious to the reader at this stage. It is important to take advice from family and friends, however, with a pinch of salt. Remember that the admissions tutor will be a stranger and not familiar with the applicant’s personality.

Complete Final Draft

This will not be the final product, and until now, you probably won’t have had much real criticism. However, a complete draft with an introduction, main body, and conclusion is important as you can then build on this towards the final personal statement.

Expert Check

This should be completed by the time you return for your final year at school/college. Once the final year has started, it is wise to get as many experts (teachers and external tutors) to read through the final draft personal statement as possible.

Again, you should take all advice with a pinch of salt. At the end of the day, this is your UCAS application and although your teachers’ opinions are valuable, they are not the same as that of the admissions tutors. In schools that see many Oxbridge/Medical applications, many teachers believe there is a correct ‘format’ to personal statements and may look at your statement like a ‘number’ in the sea of applications that are processed by the school. There is no ‘format’ to successful personal statements, as each statement should be personal to you.

At schools that do not see many Oxbridge/Medical applications, the opposite may be true. Many applicants are coerced into applying to universities and for courses which their teachers judge them likely to be accepted for. It is your responsibility to ensure that the decisions you make are your own, and you have the conviction to follow through with your decisions.

Final Checks

Armed with a rough draft and advice from friends, family, and teachers, you should be ready to complete your final personal statement.

Submit to School

Ideally, you will have some time off before submitting your statement for the internal UCAS deadline. This is important because it’ll allow you to look at your final personal statement with a fresh perspective before submitting it. You’ll also be able to spot any errors that you initially missed. You should submit your personal statement and UCAS application to your school on time for the internal deadline. This ensures that your school has enough time to complete your references.

Submit to UCAS

That’s it! Take some time off from university applications for a few days, have some rest, and remember that you still have A levels/IB exams to get through (and potentially admissions tests + interviews)!

Getting Started

The personal statement is an amalgamation of all your hard work throughout both secondary school and your other extra-curricular activities. It is right to be apprehensive about starting your application and so here are a few tips to get you started…

General Rules

If you meet the minimum academic requirements, then it is with the personal statement that your application to university will be made or broken. With many applicants applying with identical GCSE and A-level results (if you’re a gap year student), the personal statement is your chance to really stand out and let your personality shine through. As such, there is no concrete formula to follow when writing the personal statement and indeed every statement is different in its own right. Therefore, throughout this chapter, you will find many principles for you to adopt and interpret as you see fit whilst considering a few of these introductory general rules.

Firstly: space is extremely limited; as previously mentioned, a maximum of 4000 characters in 47 lines. Note that this includes line breaks - so perhaps consider, instead, using indentation to denote a new paragraph if you would normally use a line break. Before even beginning the personal statement, utilise all available space on the UCAS form. For example, do not waste characters listing exam results when they can be entered in the corresponding fields in the qualifications section of the UCAS form.

Secondly: always remember it is easier to reduce the word count than increase it with meaningful content when editing. Be aware that it is not practical to perfect your personal statement in just one sitting. Instead, write multiple drafts starting with one substantially exceeding the word limit but containing all your ideas. As such, starting early is key to avoiding later time pressure as you approach the deadline. Remember, this is your opportunity to put onto paper what makes you the best and a cut above the rest – you should enjoy writing the personal statement!

Lastly and most importantly: your statement is just one of hundreds that a tutor will read. Tutors are only human after all and their interpretation of your personal statement can be influenced by many things. So get on their good side and always be sympathetic to the reader, make things plain and easy to read, avoid contentious subjects, and never target your personal statement at one particular university (unless you’re only applying there!).

When Should I Start?

TODAY!

I know it might sound like a cliché, but the earlier you start, the easier you make it. Starting early helps you in four key ways:

1)The most important reason to start early is that it is the best way to analyse your application. Many students start writing their personal statement then realise, for example, that they haven’t done enough research or work experience, or that their extra reading isn’t focused enough. By starting early, you give yourself the chance to change this. Over the summer, catch up on your weak areas to give yourself plenty to say in the final version.

2)You give yourself more time for revisions. You can improve your personal statement by showing it to as many people as possible to get their feedback. Starting earlier gives you more time for this.

3)Steadier pace. Starting early gives you the flexibility of working at a steadier pace – perhaps just an hour or so per week. If you start later, you will have to spend much longer on it, probably some full days, reducing the time you have for the rest of your work and importantly for unwinding, too.

4)Prompt submission. Although the official deadline is the 15th January for most courses, it is often the case that courses will allocate some places before this. By submitting early, you make sure you don’t miss out on any opportunities.

What people think is best:

What is actually best:

Doing your Research

The two most important things you need to establish are: What course? + What University?

If you’re unsure where to begin, like most things in life, success with the personal statement begins with preparation and research.

The most obvious and useful first port of call is your teachers at school on the subjects that you enjoy. Not only will they have detailed knowledge of general course requirements; but if they have taught you for a few years, they will also know a lot about you. In many ways, teachers like this offer the most valuable information as they can describe the course in the context of your personality and be fairly sure of whether you are suitable for the course or not. Progressing from teachers, discuss your options with your parents and continue onto university open days. Whereby the next problem arises: which universities do I apply for?

Your choice of university is entirely personal and similar to your course choice; it needs to be somewhere that you are going to enjoy studying. Remember that where you end up will form a substantial part of your life. This could mean going to a university with a rich, active nightlife or one with strict academic prowess or perhaps one that dominates in the sporting world. In reality, each university offers its own unique experience and hence the best approach is to attend as many open days as feasibly possible. By doing this, you will have the opportunity to meet some of your potential tutors, talk to current students (who offer the most honest information), and of course, tour the facilities.

The best way to prevent future stress is to start researching courses and universities early i.e. 12 months before you apply through UCAS. There is a plethora of information that is freely available online, and if you want something physical to read, you can request free prospectuses from most UK universities. It is important to remember that until you actually submit your UCAS application, you are in control. Universities are actively competing against one another for your application! When initially browsing, a good place to start is by simply listing courses and universities which interest you, and two pros and cons for each. You can then use this to shortlist to a handful of universities that you should then attend open days for.

There are no right choices when it comes to university choices, however, there are plenty of wrong choices. You must make sure that the reasons behind your eventual choice are the right ones and that you do not act on impulse. Whilst your personal statement should not be directed at any particular one of your universities, it should certainly be tailored to the course you are applying for.

With a course in mind and universities shortlisted, your preparation can begin in earnest. Start by ordering university prospectuses or logging onto the university’s subject-specific websites. You should be trying to find the application requirements. Once located, there will be a range of information from academic demands including work experience to personal attributes. Firstly, at this point, be realistic with the GCSE results you have already achieved and your predicted A-level grades. Also, note that some courses require a minimum number of hours of work experience – this should have been conducted through the summer after GCSE examinations and into your AS year. Work experience is not something to lie about as the university will certainly seek references to confirm your attendance. If these do not meet the minimum academic requirements, a tutor will most likely not even bother reading your personal statement, so don’t waste a choice.

If you meet all the minimum academic requirements, then focus on the other extra-curricular aspects. Many prospectuses contain descriptions of ideal candidates with lists of desired personal attributes. Make a list of these for all the universities you are considering applying to. Compile a further list of your own personal attributes along with evidence that supports this claim. Then proceed to pair the points on your personal list with the corresponding requirements from your potential universities.

It is important to consider extra-curricular requirements from all your potential universities in the interest of forming a rounded personal statement applicable to all institutions. This is a useful technique because one university may not require the same personal attributes as another. Therefore, by discussing these attributes in your statement, you can demonstrate a level of ingenuity and personal reflection on the requirements of the course beyond what is listed in the prospectus.

Always remember that the role of the personal statement is to show that you meet course requirements by using your own personal experiences as evidence.

Taking your First Steps

A journey of one thousand miles starts with a single step...

As you may have already experienced, the hardest step of a big project is the first step. It’s easy to plan to start something, but when it actually comes to writing the first words, what do you do? As you stare at the 47-line blank page in front of you, how can you fill it? You wonder if you’ve even done that many things in life. You think of something, but realise it probably isn’t good enough, delete it, and start over again. Sound familiar?

There is another way. The reason it is hard is because you judge your thoughts against the imagined finished product. So don’t begin by writing full, perfectly polished sentences. Don’t be a perfectionist. Begin with lists, spider diagrams, ideas, rambling. Just put some ideas onto paper and write as much as possible – it’s easy to trim down afterwards if it’s too long, and generally doing it this way gives the best content. Aim to improve gradually from start to finish in little steps each time.

The Brainstorm

If writing prose is too daunting, start by using our brainstorm template. Write down just three bullet-points for each of the 12 questions below and in only twenty minutes you’ll be well on your way!

The Writing Process

What is the Purpose of your Statement?

An important question to ask yourself before you begin drafting your personal statement is: “how will the universities I have applied to use my personal statement?”. This can dramatically change how you write your personal statement. For the majority of courses, i.e. courses that don’t interview, your personal statement is directly bidding for a place on the course. If this applies to you then you are in luck as these are the simplest to write. Just be aware that this is then your only opportunity to say what you want to say and space is much more of a commodity. In this instance, consider writing your reference with your teachers – more will be discussed on this later.

If, on the other hand, you are applying to a course that calls candidates in for an interview, writing your personal statement requires a little more thought and tactics. The first thing to establish is the role of the personal statement in the context of the interview. At this point, it is well worth going through the application procedures in prospectuses and on university websites.

The first option is that the personal statement is solely used for interview selection and discounted thereafter. In this case, the interviewer is going to want to discuss material that isn’t included in your personal statement. As such, a tactical decision has to be made to withhold certain information in order to discuss at the interview. Of course, this is a difficult balance to strike; put too little into your personal statement and you won’t get an interview; whereas if you put too much into the personal statement, you will lack original material to discuss within the interview. It is always better to tend towards putting a lot of effort into your personal statement to make sure of receiving an interview. Then, for the interview itself, read up on prominent topics within the academic field at the time in order to introduce new content for discussion at the interview. However, do be wary of discussing things that you know relatively little about – the interviewers are likely to be experts in the field after all!

Alternatively, the personal statement can represent a central component of the interview. Many institutions adopt an interview protocol whereby the interviewers run through the personal statement from start to finish, questioning the candidate on specific points. This technique has many benefits for the interviewer as it allows them to assess the presence of any fraudulent claims (it is very hard to lie to a tutor face-to-face when they start asking for specifics!), it gives the interview clear structure but also allows the interviewer to bring pre-planned questions on specific personal statement points.

However, from the candidate’s point of view, this can lead to an oppressive, accusative, and intense interview. There are, however, techniques to take control back into your own hands like, for example, “planting” questions within your personal statement. This can be achieved in many ways, including unexplained points, ambiguous statements or just withholding information that can be added to previously mentioned points. In many ways, this protocol is easier to prepare for.

Finding the Right Balance

The balance of a personal statement can have a significant effect on the overall message it delivers. Whilst there are no strict rules, there are a few rules of thumb that can help you strike the right balance between all the important sections.

It’s important that you focus primarily on academic matters. This means you need to tell a story – the story of how you developed sufficient interest in your chosen subject that you want to study it to degree level. If you are applying to study something you have studied in school like maths or geography, your story needs to start with the reasons you began to enjoy this subject. If it’s a new subject such as medicine or engineering, you should explain the core academic subjects you enjoy and how this has led you towards your chosen subject area. Then move on to talk about how you have investigated the subject, any extra work and projects, and how you have shown your aptitude for it. You may choose to include any work experience that you have done in this part; you may wish to give a perspective of any careers that interest you that this subject will help you achieve, taking care to support any opinions with reasons.

Extra-curricular activities are a great way of supporting your skills, however, you need to be careful that this is the supporting act and not the headliner. It is generally recommended to spend no more than a quarter of the personal statement discussing extra-curricular activities, leaving the other three-quarters for discussing academic matters.

The following template gives a suggestion how to balance the different sections:

Structuring Your Statement

This may sound obvious, but it’s important to get right as a good structure enhances the clarity of the content. Personal statements are not monologues of your life nor are they a giant list of your achievements. They are instead a formal piece of prose written with the aim of helping you secure a place at university.

The Introduction

The Opening Sentence

Rightly or wrongly, it is highly likely that your personal statement will be remembered by its opening sentence. It must be something short, sharp, insightful, and catch the reader’s attention. Remember that admissions tutors will read several hundred personal statements and often their first impression is made by your opening sentence which is why it needs to be eye-catching enough to make the tutor sit and pay particular attention to what you have written. It does indeed set the standard for the rest of the personal statement.

If this seems a daunting prospect (as it should!), then here are a few pointers to get you started:

➢Avoid using overused words like “passionate”, “deeply fascinating”, and “devotion”

➢Avoid using clichéd quotes like the infamous Coco Chanel’s “fashion is not something that exists in dresses only”

➢If you are going to use a quote, then put some effort into researching an obscure yet particularly powerful one – don’t forget to include a reference

➢Draw on your own personal experiences to produce something both original and eye-catching.

In many ways, it is best that you save writing your opening statement till last; that way, you can assess the tone of the rest of your work but also write something that will not be repeated elsewhere.

If you are really stuck with where to begin, try writing down a memory and then explain how it has affected your relationship with your subject.

Whilst the opening statement is important, it is not something to stress about. Although a strong opening statement can make the personal statement; a bad one rarely breaks it.

Why Your Subject?

The introduction should answer the most important question of all – why do you want to study your subject?

Why do YOU want to study your subject?

The introduction does not need to be very long. It is generally a good idea to open the statement with something that sets the context of your application. For example, someone who is applying to study History may open: ‘History is all around us’, rather than ‘I have always been interested in History because’. By the end of the introduction, the reader should know:

➢What subject you are applying for.

➢What motivated you to apply for that subject.

It is essential to show your genuine reasons and motivation. The first thing to consider is whether you genuinely want to study your subject at university. You need to be certain that your motivation comes from yourself and not from external sources such as teachers or family.

Try to avoid clichés; some people will say they’ve always wanted to study [subject] ever since they were born – but of course this simply isn’t true and, therefore, it isn’t helpful. The admissions tutor wants to see a simple and honest story about your journey, helping them assess how carefully you have considered your choice and how suitable a choice it is. The exact phrase: “from a young age, I have always been interested in” was used more than 300 times in personal statements in 2013 (data published by UCAS), and substituting “young” for “early” gave an additional 292 statements – these phrases can quickly become boring for admissions tutors to read!

There are certain things that raise red flags - phrases that will count against you if you write them. These include: saying that you want to study your subject for money, fame or because of other people telling you to, etc.

The Main Body

In the rest of your text, your aim should be to demonstrate your suitability for the course by exemplifying your knowledge of the course structure and its requirements through personal experience. Again, there are no rigorous guidelines on how to do this and it is very much down to your own writing style. Whereas some prefer a strict structure, others go for a more synoptic approach, but always remember to be consistent in order to achieve a flowing, easy to read personal statement.

This point ties in closely with writing style. You want one that the tutor will find pleasing to read; and as everyone prefers different styles, the only way to assess yours accurately is to show your drafts to as many people as possible. That includes teachers, parents, friends, siblings, grandparents – the more, the better - don’t be afraid to show it around!

Despite the lack of a standardised writing method, there is, of course, a list of standard content to include. In general, you are trying to convey your academic, professional, and personal suitability for the course to the tutor. This needs to be reiterated whilst demonstrating clear, exemplified knowledge of the course structure and its demands. The biggest problem then in achieving these goals, with all the other candidates also trying to convey the same information, is in producing an original personal statement and remaining unique.

More practically, it is a good idea to split the main body into two or three paragraphs in order to avoid writing one big boring monologue.

Part One: This should cover why you are suited for your subject. This will include your main academic interests, future ambitions (related to the chosen degree), and what makes the course right for you. It is a good idea for you to read up the course syllabuses and find something that catches your interest above others. If you have read anything outside of the A-level/IB syllabus related to your chosen course which has inspired you, then this is the place to mention it. You should make sure that you avoid writing empty statements by backing everything up with facts. For example, someone applying to study History may write:

“‘Reminisces of a Revolutionary War’ by Ernesto Che Guevara provided a unique insight into the struggle against inequality in mid-20th century Latin America. Che’s transformation from a doctor into a guerrilla leader completed his intellectual transition from an individual with a sense of duty to help others, into a soldier of totalitarian Marxism. Such transformations have influenced the modern world, and draw parallels with the world today. For this reason, understanding history is the key to understanding both the present and the future.”

This shows that the applicant has read the book ‘Reminisces of a Revolutionary War’ by Ernesto Che Guevara, and truly believes in the importance that History has to the world today. This is much better than:

‘I read Reminisces of a Revolutionary War by Ernesto Che Guevara. Studying History will allow me to understand the present and future by comparing to the past.’

Part Two: This section should still be about why you’re suited to your chosen course. However, it can be less focused on academic topics. If you’ve had to overcome any significant challenges in life and wish to include these in your personal statement, this is normally the best place to do so. Similarly, any work experience or relevant prizes & competitions should be included here. However, it is important to remember not to simply list things. Ensure that you follow through by describing in detail what you have learned from any experiences mentioned.

Part Three: This is the smallest part of the main body and is all about extra-curricular activities. It is easy to get carried away in this section and make outrageous claims, e.g. claim to be a mountain climber if all you have ever climbed is a hill at the end your street etc. Lying is not worth the risk given that your interviewer may share the same hobby that you claim to be an expert in. So, don’t be caught out!

Avoid making empty statements by backing things up with facts. For example: ‘I enjoy reading, playing sports and watching TV’, is a poor sentence and tells the reader nothing. The applicant enjoys reading, so what? Which sports? Doesn’t everyone like watching TV? If the applicant is in a sports team or plays a particular sport recreationally with friends, then they should name the sport and describe what their role is. Likewise, the applicant should actually describe how their hobbies relate to them as a person and ideally their subject.

What to avoid

Whilst the points discussed previously can be interpreted and used as you see fit in order to produce your own unique personal statement; there are categorically certain things that you should avoid:

➢Long complicated sentences

➢Lack of reflection

➢Listing things

➢Irrelevant/out of date examples – keep things recent

➢Negative connotations – always put a positive spin on everything

➢Generic/stereotypical statements

➢Gimmicks

➢Controversy in whatever form it may come

➢Repetition

➢Drawing out one example for far too long

➢Inappropriate examples

What to Include

Still a little stumped? Well, here are a few must-haves in no particular order to get you started:

➢Sports and other hobbies – these are particularly important for vocational courses like medicine, dentistry and law as they offer a form of stress relief amidst a course of intense studying whilst also demonstrating a degree of life experience and well-roundedness. By all means, discuss international honours, notable publications or even recent stage productions. Remember to reflect on these experiences, offering explanations of how they have changed your attitude towards life or how they required particular dedication and commitment.

➢Musical instruments – Again, an excellent form of stress relief but also a great example of manual dexterity if your course requires this. Do not be afraid to mention your favourite musical works for that personal touch, but also any grades you have obtained, thus, demonstrating commitment and a mature attitude that can be transferred to any field of study.

➢Work experience(s) – Don’t bother wasting characters by citing references or contacts from your work experience, but rather discuss situations that you were presented with. Describe any situations where you showed particular maturity/professionalism and explain what you learnt from that experience. It is always advisable to discuss how your work experience affected your view of the subject field, either reinforcing or deterring you from your choice.

➢Personal interests within the field of study – This is a really good opportunity to show off your own genuine interest within the subject field. Try to mention a recent article or paper; one that isn’t too contentious but is still not that well-known to show depth of reading. Reflect on what you have read, offering your own opinions, but be warned, you will almost certainly be called upon this at the interview if you have one.

➢Personal attributes – exemplify these through your own personal experiences and opinions. As mentioned previously, many courses will list “desired” personal attributes in their prospectus - you must include these as a minimum in your personal statement. Try to add others of your own choice that you think are relevant to the subject in order to achieve originality – here are a few to inspire you:

oHonesty

oCommunication skills

oTeamwork

oDecision making

oAwareness of limitations

oRespect

oMorality

oAbility to learn

oLeadership

oIntegrity

➢Awards – be they national or just departmental school awards, it is always worth trying to mention any awards you have received since about the age of 15/16. A brief description of what they entailed and what you learnt from the experience can add a valuable few lines to your personal statement. Providing proof of long-term dedication and prowess.

Together, discussion of all these points can demonstrate reasoned consideration for the course you have applied for. This is particularly appealing for a tutor to read as it shows a higher level of thinking by giving your own reflection on the course requirements.

The Conclusion

The conclusion of your personal statement should be more about leaving a good final impression than conferring any actual information. If you have something useful to say about your interest and desire to study your subject, you shouldn’t be waiting until the very end to say it!

Admissions tutors will read hundreds of personal statements every year, and after about the fifth one, they all start looking very much the same. You should try to make your statement different so it stands out amongst the rest. As the conclusion is the last thing the admissions tutor will read, it can leave a lasting influence (good or bad!). The purpose of a conclusion is to tie up the entire statement in two or three sentences.

A good conclusion should not include any new information, as this should be in the main body. However, you also need to avoid repeating what you have said earlier in your personal statement. This would be both a waste of characters and frustration for the tutor. Instead, it is better to put into context what you have already written and, therefore, make an effort to keep your conclusion relatively short – no more than four lines.

The conclusion is a good opportunity to draw on all the themes you have introduced throughout your personal statement to form a final overall character image to leave the tutor with. Unless there is anything especially extraordinary or outrageous in the main body of your personal statement, the tutor is likely to remember you by your introduction and conclusion. The conclusion, therefore, is a good place to leave an inspiring final sentence for the tutor.

Some students will make a mention in here about their career plans, picking up on something they have observed in work experience or have encountered during reading. This can be a good strategy as it shows you’re using your current knowledge to guide your future aspirations. If you do this, try to do so with an open mind, suggesting areas of interest but being careful not to imply you are less interested in others. You have to spend a long time at university and your interests are likely to change depending on your experiences. Thus, admissions tutors need to be certain your interest extends into all areas. Secondly, don’t sound too fixed about your plans. There is a lot more to see before you can make an informed career choice, so by all means, show your particular interests but avoid sounding as though you are closing any options off.

It is important to avoid sounding too arrogant here and over-selling yourself. Instead, adopt a phrase looking forward in time – perhaps expressing your excitement and enthusiasm in meeting the demands of your course requirements, or looking even further ahead, the demands of your career. E.g. ‘driven by my love of medicine, I am sure that I will be a successful doctor and take full advantage of all opportunities should this application be successful’, rather than ‘I think I should be accepted because I am very enthusiastic and will work hard’. The sentiment behind both of these statements is positive, however, the second sounds juvenile compared to the first.

Depending on the situation, it may be possible to end a personal statement with a famous quote or saying. If you decide to do this, ensure that you don’t quote anything outrageous or controversial!

Extra Reading

Reading beyond what you would need to for your school studies is a great way to show genuine enthusiasm; a good personal statement will include at least some discussion of extra reading.

It also has the added benefit of suggesting your areas of particular interest which can help guide the interview discussion to your strongest topics.

Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of thinking a long list of books will impress – this isn’t the point. The idea is youshow what you have learned from each of the books and how it has influenced your decision to study your chosen course. This shows that you haven’t just looked at the pages of the book as you’ve turned them over, but rather that you have understood and thought about them. When discussing your learning, try to make specific points rather than generic ones.

For example, a weaker statement might say: “I read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which helped me understand the way by which decisions are made”

Whereas a stronger statement may say: “I particularly enjoyed Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which made me realise the importance of shortcuts in making quick and accurate decisions.”

Extra-Curricular

It is important to show you are a balanced person and not someone whose only focus is work. Extra-curricular activities can really strengthen your personal statement by showcasing your skills. Remember that there is no intrinsic value in playing county-level rugby or having a diploma in acting – you will not win a place on excellence in these fields. The value comes from the skills your activities teach you. Regardless of whether you’re outstanding at what you do or you just do it casually, remember to reflect on what you’ve gained from doing what you do. There will always be something good to say and it may be more valuable than you think.

There are three important ways that extra-curricular activities can strengthen your application:

1)You should use your extra-curricular activities to highlight skills that will helpwith your degree. You play football – talk about how this has helped your teamwork; you play chess – surely this has improved your problem-solving? By linking what you do to the skills you’ve developed, you take a great opportunity to show the admissions tutor just how well-rounded you are. By showing how you have developed these critical skills, you can demonstrate that you’re a strong applicant.

2)Interests outside work give you a way to relax. University studies can be stressful, and admissions tutors have a duty of care towards students. By accepting someone who knows how to relax, they are ensuring you’ll strike the right balance between studies and relaxation, keeping yourself fresh and healthy through difficult times.

3)Showing that you have enough time for extra-curricular activities can support your academic capabilities. If you are the member of an orchestra, a sports team, and you keep a rock collection, you were clearly not pushed to the absolute limit to get the top grades you achieved. For a student without other interests, it might suggest to the admissions tutor they are struggling to keep up with the current workload and may not be able to cope with the additional demands of a higher education.

Work Experience

Work experience is a great way to demonstrate your commitment to your subject. For many vocational courses like medicine, dentistry, law, and veterinary sciences, work experience must form a core component of the personal statement. Studying such courses is a significant life decision and the course tutors want to see that candidates have made an informed decision on their career path. It is, of course, useful to conduct work experience for other courses simply for your own information and to see what you enjoy.

Why Work Experience?

Universities value work experience so highly because it shows you have a number of essential traits:

Work experience shows you’re informed. So you’re deciding what you want to do for the rest of your working life. How do you know you’ll like it? Rather than choosing your subject simply due to the media or stories you hear from others, the best way to convince the admissions tutor you know what the job actually entails is to go and experience it for yourself. Getting as much varied work experience as possible to show that you have a realistic understanding of the profession better than any words can. If you have good work experience, admissions tutors are confident you’re choosing your subject for the right reasons.

Work experience shows you’re committed. Arranging work experience can be hard – you may need to approach multiple people and organisations before you get a yes. Therefore, if you have a good portfolio of work experience, it shows you have been proactive. It shows you have gone to effort for the sole purpose of spending your free time in a caring environment. This shows drive and commitment – impressive qualities that will help you gain that valuable place!

Arranging Work Experience

Arranging work experience can be hard. If you’re finding it difficult to get exactly what you want, please don’t be disheartened. You are facing the same difficulty that tens of thousands of students before you have faced.

With work experience, you’re recommended to start early. The earlier you start making approaches to people, the more likely it is you’ll get a yes in time. It is not really practical to start seeking work experience until after you turn 16 due to age restrictions within the workplace – especially where confidential information is concerned! So, conduct your work experience during the summer after your GCSE examinations and throughout your AS year. This can be achieved through private arrangements you yourself make but it is always worth consulting your school’s careers officer as well.

Remember that any part-time/summer paid jobs also count as work experience and definitely worth mentioning as they show an additional degree of maturity and professionalism. In addition, if you are able to keep up a small regular commitment over a period of months it really helps to show dedication.

During the work experience itself, it is wise to keep a notebook or a diary with a brief description of each day, particularly noting down what events happened and, importantly, what you learnt from them. Whilst there is a designated section of the UCAS form for work experience details, the personal statement itself must be used to not only describe your experiences but also to reflect on them.

Make sure to discuss:

➢How did certain situations affect you personally?

➢How did the experience alter your perspective on the subject field?

➢Were there particular occasions where you fulfilled any of the requirements listed within prospectuses?

➢Most importantly, how did your experience(s) confirm your desire to pursue the field of study into higher education?

Oxbridge

There’s nothing fundamentally different about Oxford and Cambridge to other universities, but there are certain things you need to be aware of when applying.

Oxford and Cambridge are very traditional universities. The style of teaching is very heavily based upon lectures, small group tutorials and practicals in science with your self-directed learning squeezed in between them and in the evenings. You will learn topics in a great level of detail – not only facts but the history of research that led to the discoveries, the contrasting thoughts and ideas of academics and the reasons why theories are thought to be true. Expect lots of essays (even in sciences), assignments and deadlines. This education trains you to be a great thinker – but it is hard and you should be fully aware of that before committing.

Because you submit the same personal statement to all your choices, you must make sure your statement is applicable to all universities. So you can’t talk about Oxbridge in it, but you can lay a few simple foundations. It is a good idea to make some mention of extra academic reading, or if you’re applying for sciences, a lab project in your personal statement. This certainly won’t put another university off, but it gives Oxford or Cambridge a hint that you have a natural curiosity for your subject. You really don’t need to be too strong with this: a little hint is all you need. The interviews are generally very subject-oriented and it will give all the opportunity the admissions tutors need to see how you respond to problems. At Oxbridge, the main criteria for admissions selection are: academic performance, admissions test performance, and interview performance. The personal statement is a significantly smaller consideration and so you need not to be too worried about it.

In addition, Cambridge sends out an extra questionnaire called the SAQ (Supplementary Application Questionnaire) once they receive your UCAS form. Included in this, is space for a specific 1,200-character personal statement, which goes only to Cambridge and is your opportunity to tell the admissions tutor any extra things you would like Cambridge to know. Consider using this to highlight why you feel the scientific focus of the Cambridge course would be good for you. There isn’t an equivalent for Oxford.

Mature + Graduate Applicants

If you’re applying as a mature student or as a graduate, talking about your previous work and career is important.

If you have been working for a number of years, then a large chunk of your relevant life story will be due to your employment. You should describe your previous career path, the moment you thought about a change, how you investigated your subject as a career, and why you now believe it is the right path for you.

Coming from a professional background, the skills you have learned in the workplace will be significant and will begin to overtake extra-curricular activities as a way of demonstrating core attributes such as time-management, communication, and team working. In addition, you may have undertaken professional learning in your job such as reading books or attending courses – be sure to draw upon this to support your application.

Admissions tutors are not looking to see how similar your current job is to your degree. They are looking for the general skills you have learned that will help make you a good student and research/experience outside of work to confirm your interest.

Deferred Entry + Gap Years

It is always advisable to apply to university during your A2 year – at the very least, it is a useful experience and you can always apply again next year if you are unsuccessful. In attending university a year later, you are a year older, bringing more maturity and life experience.

If you are planning to take a gap year, always apply whilst in A-level year unless there is a reason you would not be able to gain a place (e.g. grades/predictions too low, you need to sit more exams). Applying for deferred entry allows you to go on your gap year, safe in the knowledge that you have secured a place upon your return. If things then don’t go to plan, you have time to improve your application and a second chance in which to apply to different universities.

You’ll need to tweak your statement slightly if you’re applying for deferred entry. You will need to demonstrate to the tutor that you are filling your gap year with meaningful experiences in order to help you grow as a person. Therefore, discuss your gap year plans in a brief paragraph, describing what you hope to achieve, what life skills you hope to learn, and how these are both transferable and applicable to your course. In addition, a year of deferred entry gives you the opportunity to work and save in order to fund your progress through what is a very expensive time at university.

This is a good opportunity once again to show your commitment. If your gap year plans include any volunteering work, use this to support your vocation of public service. If you have already made plans, it shows that you’re organised.