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You know what university degree you want to study; you’ve picked the right A-levels and have worked hard to achieve good grades. You’re ready to submit your university application, right? Well, not without a personal statement! Every prospective university student must complete a personal statement form as part of their UCAS university application process. But what is a personal statement? What should it include, and what should you leave out? Here’s everything you need to know about how to write a personal statement and how to really make yours stand out from the crowd:
What is a Personal Statement?
A personal statement is a brief personal summary written to help you stand out from the crowd. There are two main occasions where you will use a personal statement; when you are writing your university admissions form and when you are applying for a job. You should note that the personal statement that you use for university admissions is much more detailed and in-depth than the shorter, single-paragraph personal statement that appears at the top of your CV. The focus of this piece will be on the university admissions personal statement.
In university terms, your personal statement forms a core part of your university application. If you have the same grades in the same subjects as another applicant (which isn’t uncommon) then it is your personal statement that will determine which of you is assigned the available place. Your personal statement provides you with a unique opportunity that you should work hard to take advantage of: it is here that you can share your skills, your experiences, your passions and your unique talents. You can take the opportunity to show the admissions officers who you are outside of your grades. Of course, that means there’s a lot of pressure on one small statement: you want your personal statement to attract attention for all the right reasons.
Within your personal statement, you should outline why you have applied for a particular course, your career goals if you already have these in mind, and why you think you’ll be a good fit for the course you’ve chosen.
Why Do You Need a Personal Statement?
In short, you need a personal statement because you cannot submit a university application form without one. But your personal statement is so much more than just another box you have to tick. Your personal statement is the only part of the university application process that you have any control over, and you should see it as the only chance you will have to really impress those making the decision about whether you get the place you want or not.
Your personal statement is an opportunity for you to demonstrate why you think you would be a good student for the programme you are applying to and why the university should select your application over those of other candidates. The personal statement is an incredibly important part of the university application process and is something you should view as an opportunity rather than as a chore. The right personal statement can attract the attention of university admissions officers, and could even help you get into a university that your grades might not otherwise allow access to.
If you are applying for a course that will require an interview before a place can be offered then the personal statement you write is likely to form the basis of this interview. Therefore creating a personal statement that shows you in the best possible light will increase your chances of interview success.
Planning Your Personal Statement
Your personal statement can be either up to 4,000 characters (including spaces) or 47 lines of 95 characters (including spaces); whichever of these is shorter. Whilst you may look at an empty page wondering how you’re going to write so much; you’ll be amazed at how much you’re going to have to say about yourself! The best way to plan your personal statement at this early stage is to simply write down everything you’d like to say: you can then edit this information heavily. Personal statements are generally easier to write when you have lots of information to work with than when they are a daunting white page.
Knowing what you want to cover in your personal statement will also help during the writing process. Some questions you should answer include:
- What do you want to study, and why do you want to study it?
- What makes you a good fit for studying this subject at university? This can include reasons you’re passionate about the subject, future career goals, and any information about your experience around the subject
- What are your other interests and skills? Outline your hobbies and any sports you play. Showcase your personality and encourage the admissions officer to connect with you on a personal level.
Some students prefer to plan their personal statement with a bulleted list at the early initial stage, whilst others will use a mind map. It is also common to just sit down and start writing in a stream-of-consciousness style: don’t worry about how you start getting words on the page, just do whatever works best for you. Take your time and give the process the thought it deserves: Rome wasn’t built in a day and personal statements aren’t written in an afternoon. You might wish to consider sharing your thoughts and ideas with those closest to you: they will be able to provide additional insights and let you know whether the words you are using reflect who you are as a person.
Make sure that you leave enough time to plan your personal statement: very few people do their best work hours before a deadline! The personal statement deadlines for 2023 university admissions depend on which course you want to study and which university you want to attend. These deadlines are:
- 15 October 2022 for students who wish to attend an Oxbridge university (either Oxford or Cambridge) as well as students applying for medicine, veterinary and dentistry courses
- 25 January 2023 for all remaining universities and undergraduate courses. It is after this date that universities will begin to read applications and allocate places on courses, so if you have a specific university or university course in mind this is a hard deadline for your application
- 30 June 2023 if you don’t want to apply for university until after you have received your exam results and wish instead to apply for university through the clearing process. It’s important to note that if you do apply through the clearing process then some courses or universities may not be available to you, as they may already be full of earlier applicants
Explain Your Experience
Not everything you have ever said or done needs to be included in your personal statement: your parents may be proud of your 100-metre swimming badge, but this experience isn’t relevant to your course and doesn’t need to be mentioned! Equally, your GCSE grades will already be detailed elsewhere in your application, so there’s no need to waste valuable space in your personal statement outlining these. Instead you should think outside the box and share relevant experience that will make you stand out from the crowd: have you completed any direct work experience in your chosen career field? Work experience in a care home or hospital will show your commitment if you’re applying for a medicine or nursing course, whilst work experience at your local newspaper will demonstrate you have what it takes to complete a journalism course, for example.
If you’re interested in a less vocational course then work experience might be harder to come by, but there are other ways you can demonstrate your commitment to your chosen course. Joining your school or college debating society may be beneficial if you want to be an English major, whilst playing on the football team would be relevant to a sports science degree. The key is to demonstrate that you really love the subject that you are applying for and that this passion extends into your social life or your life outside of academia.
The key when outlining your experience is to include more than just a summary of why you picked your A-levels. Other aspects of your experience that you should consider include:
- What experience do you have outside of school or college that demonstrates your commitment to your chosen course or career path? If you don’t have any relevant extra-curricular activities, perhaps you have attended public lectures or been to exhibits at your local gallery/event space on the subject
- Have you completed any work experience? Valuable work experience places are hard to find, but they have a huge amount of value on your personal statement
- What experience have you gained from your current studies? What areas of the subject have you enjoyed most? What aspect of the subject made you want to continue and study it at degree level?
- What other hobbies do you enjoy, and how have these shaped you as a person? Will you continue these at university level and why? Be selective though: be careful not to outline every hobby you have, cherry-picking only the most relevant ones
Show off Your Achievements
Your personal statement is not the place to be coy about what you have achieved: sell yourself! You should avoid false modesty, however, you should also avoid hyperbole. Be clear and honest about your achievements, writing in a professional and straightforward manner. Selling yourself isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone: in fact, false modesty is often considered to be a stereotypically British trait. But it’s time to put your bashfulness aside.
If you’re really struggling to assess what your greatest qualities and achievements are then you should round up a few friends, family members, or even your teachers and ask for their objective support. They will be able to give you a unique and informed perspective that you can go on to use as the basis of your personal statement.
As well as outlining your achievements, you should also use your personal statement as a place to reflect on those achievements: how have they helped you grow? How have they impacted your life, your attitude, and your goals? Many students make the mistake of using their personal statement as a laundry list of accomplishments, but what you have learnt from your experience and your achievements is just as important. Let this level of self-awareness shine from your piece.
How Long Should a Personal Statement Be?
As we’ve already mentioned above, the maximum length that your personal statement should be is either up to 4,000 characters (including spaces) or 47 lines of 95 characters (including spaces); whichever of these is shorter. The line count is likely to be your biggest concern, as when you add line breaks between your paragraphs (and you should, to make your personal statement easy to read) this will limit your word usage further. But should you be planning to fill all of this space, or do university admissions officers like personal statements that are short and to the point?
When you’re putting your personal statement together, common advice is not to think about the word count at all, at least initially. Just write what you feel is important, and then you can edit and polish your piece with the word count in mind at a later stage. The most important thing is that your personal statement clearly reflects why you’ve applied for your chosen course, why you’re the perfect applicant for the course, and what makes you so unique. Cut any sentences that aren’t adding value or aren’t contributing to answering these vital questions.
A good rule of thumb is to dedicate 60% of your content to focus on your suitability for your chosen course, 30% of your content to outline any relevant work experience or hobbies that may add value, and the final 10% to share your career aspirations. If you think you can fit this into a relatively short word count then there’s no need to use every available word of the limit, although if you are applying to study an essay subject you should aim to present a longer personal statement in order to showcase your essay writing skills.
The length of your personal statement is less important than ensuring that it addresses the important questions about your suitability for the course, is free from errors or spelling mistakes, and is written in a way that will engage and attract attention for all the right reasons. Writing a personal statement isn’t easy, but it is the final hurdle that stands between you and your chosen university course. Give it the time, attention and respect that it deserves.