Personal Statements – an Insider's View
James Seymour is Director of Admissions at the University of Buckingham. Here he provides some top tips for students preparing their personal statement.
Personal statements may seem formulaic but they can be critical to the decision-making process and we do read them.
This is your chance to demonstrate your enthusiasm and commitment and show us what value you can add to a university. In the vast majority of cases universities are finding ways to make you an offer, not reject you – the personal statement is your chance to make this decision easier for them!
If you’re applying for a high-demand course where there are more applicants that meet the criteria than places available, your personal statement could well be the deciding factor on whether or not you get an interview or audition.
First, you need to explain why you want a place on a course. You should:
- Explain the reason for your choice and how it fits in with your career aspirations/ideas.
- Give examples of any related academic or work experience.
- Show you know what the course will involve and mention any special subjects you are interested in.
- Demonstrate who you are as a person by listing any positions you’ve held, memberships of teams or societies and interests and hobbies.
- Show some consistency in your five UCAS choices. It may be difficult for an admissions tutor to take you seriously if your other choices are totally different. If you do have wildly diverging choices, it might be worth explaining this in the statement.
- keep it clear and concise – UCAS admissions is increasingly paperless – admissions tutors are reading your statement on screen.
Explain what you can bring to a course and try not to just list experiences, but describe how they have given you skills that will help you at university.
So, instead of simply:
I am a member of the college chess club. I also play the clarinet in the orchestra.
You could say:
I have developed my problem solving skills through playing chess for the college; this requires concentration and analytical thought.
I am used to working as part of a team as a member of the college orchestra (I play clarinet), cooperating with others to achieve a finished production.
Much has been written about what to put in a personal statement, but it is also important to consider how to prepare the statement.
- You could have excellent experiences but if they are arranged in a poorly-written statement then the impact will be reduced.
- On the other hand, a well-written personal statement with a structure that has clearly been planned and refined will not only make the information within stand out, it will demonstrate to the reader that you have an aptitude for structuring written pieces of work, a crucial skill that’s required for all university courses.
- It's worth putting the work in – you can use it for other things such as gap year applications, jobs, internships, apprenticeships and keep it on file for future applications too.
Some top do’s and don’ts include:
- Use positive words such as achieved, developed, learned, discovered, enthusiasm, commitment, energy, fascination…
- Use short, simple sentences in plain English — not contrived, not verbose or grandiose.
- Insert a personal touch if possible, but be careful with humour and vernacular/chatty approaches.
- Use evidence wherever possible to support your claims and statements.
- Plan the statement as you would an essay.
- Be clear and concise – the more concentrated the points and facts, the more powerful.
- Consider dividing the statement up into five or six paragraphs, with headings if appropriate.
- It’s an obvious point, but spelling and grammar DO matter.
- Draft and redraft – 10 drafts is by no means unusual – and ask others to proofread and provide feedback.
- Try to include your life history.
- Start with: "I’ve always wanted to be a..."
- Use gimmicks or quotations, unless they are very relevant and you deal with them in a way that shows your qualities.
- Be tempted to buy or copy a personal statement. Plagiarism software is now very sophisticated and being caught out is virtually a guarantee you won’t get a place.
Below are some real-life examples from students that we do not want to see again:
"I enjoy the theatre and used to go a couple of times a year." (Drama)
"I am a keen reader and am committed to the study of human behaviour through TV soaps!!"
"I have led a full life over the last 18 years and it is a tradition I intend to continue."
"I describe myself in the following two words: 'TO ODIN!!' the ancient Viking war cry." (Law)
"My favourite hobby is bee-keeping and I want to be an engineer."
"My interest in medicine stems from my enjoyment of Casualty and other related TV series."
"I enjoy socialising with my friends."
"I have always had a passion to study medicine, failing that, pharmacy." (A student putting pharmacy as her fifth choice after four medical school choices – pharmacy is just as popular and high status as medicine.)