The personal statement is a crucial part of university applications in the UK. It’s your chance to show what makes you unique, besides your birth name and UCAS ID. In just 4,000 characters you have to convince your chosen university that you are the best applicant, and that they should make you an offer immediately. These 4,000 characters are your only chance, so your personal statement needs to be good. Really good. Here are some tips on how to write a truly outstanding piece.
1. Make a draft without a character counter.
When I started writing, I thought it would be a good idea to start with the character counter turned on, so I wouldn’t go over the 4,000 limit. First mistake… After 3,500 characters I started panicking because I was only halfway through my story. So I turned off the character counter and continued writing. At the end I had 7,000 characters instead of 4,000, but I had written down everything I wanted to say, and I only had to delete some words and compress it. That’s far easier than inserting more ideas while keeping it under 4,000 characters at the same time. By the way, the final version was 3,999 characters!
2. Take your time.
Do not rush it. A superb personal statement will not be ready in a couple of hours. Or even a couple of days. It took me more than a month to complete the version I finally sent in. Sometimes it’s worth taking a break for a few days, then coming back to it afresh.
3. Find the perfect words and expressions.
It sounds more professional and elegant if you use ‘accomplish’ rather than ‘do’, or ‘presume’ rather than ‘think’. As an international applicant, it was even more difficult since English is not my native language, but there are some useful translation and synonym programs on the internet to help with this. I used Google Translate primarily, which includes a great deal of synonyms if you translate words from English to another language. But this synonym thing should be carefully performed, as using too many fancy words could make your statement sound overdone and difficult to read.
4. Concentrate on your strengths.
In these 4,000 characters you are trying to sell yourself to the university. A perfect product proposer is all about how great that thing is, and it’s the same with your personal statement. You should write about your experiences, your knowledge and your future plans. You should NOT write, “I wanted to learn Spanish but I gave it up after a week” or “I am not very good at maths, but I think this is understandable since I hate it so much.”
5. Find the perfect opening sentence.
Starting with something funny, interesting, unusual or surprising will give a good first impression. But do not try to squeeze something funny out of your brain; that is useless. The perfect opening sentence will just hit you in a random moment, when you have already worked hours and hours on your personal statement. So, just wait and do not overthink it.
6. Make it your own work, voice and ideas.
I suggest that you should not read any other personal statements before writing the first few drafts of yours. It will simply give you a false idea. You are most definitely unique, and it is worthless to follow some set rules or patterns, or someone else’s ideas. After all, this is about you, not somebody else.
7. Be honest.
Do not write that you are fluent in Spanish if you can only say “I love you” in Spanish. Do not write that you are good at problem-solving if your sole example is a trick of carrying five bottles in one hand. If you are good, you are good the way you are. There is no need to create a false image, and indeed the truth will always come out sooner or later.
8. Get someone to proofread your statement.
Your parents, your teachers, your friends, your enemies… The more people you show it to, the more feedback you will get, and the better the final version will be. Of course, some advice will be better and some less so, but it is easier to ask many people first, and differentiate later.
9. Read it out loud many times.
It helped me a lot when I read my personal statement out to my family and friends. When you are writing it sentence by sentence, you might not realize that there is no cohesion between your paragraphs. But when you read it out, all the vague parts will magically appear, so you can correct them.
10. Once you submit your university application, stop reading it!
I’d recommend not reading it for a few months once you’ve sent it in. You might feel it’s not as good as you thought previously, but this is normal. Waiting to hear from universities is the worst part of the whole process (even worse than completing the application form…). After you get the offer you wanted (which you will surely get, I know!), you will know that your application was just perfect the way you sent it.
To sum up, be yourself and write honestly about your experiences. Use your own voice, because that is who you are, and the universities are interested in you, not an ideal text based on a “how to write a personal statement” article…
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However, as Williams says, don’t go overboard. “The mistake people make is to mention too many clubs,” he says, “it makes us question how dedicated you’ll be to your study or work. Pick some key extra-curricular activities and think about the skills they give you and feed that into what you are doing.
“Avoid the vacuous statement,” he adds, “the statement that seems to say a lot, but actually says nothing at all, for example ‘I am a people person; committed to doing my best at every opportunity’.”
Stock phrases should be avoided at all costs, and applicants should also be careful not to exaggerate their achievements. Be warned; if you are invited to interview, you should expect to be quizzed on what you have said in your statement. White lies won’t impress anyone and can become pretty obvious pretty quickly under pressure.
Applicants should also avoid copying anyone else’s statement or taking inspiration from the internet, says Balnaves. Ucas uses a program called Copycatch to identify similarities in statements and notifies the universities if it picks up anything suspicious.
Balnaves also urges students to review their statements for spelling and grammar and to apply in good time. “We probably get about 10 per cent of our applications in the last week,” he says, “but it’s best to give yourself some breathing space. The best advice you can get is from a family member or a teacher, read it aloud to them so you haven't missed any crucial bits.
“Write about what makes you unique," he continues, "only you know your unique selling points. Ask yourself ‘what makes me different, what will I bring to the university and what will I get out of it?’”
It’s important to remember that not only will your personal statement be used in the initial process of making an offer, it could also be used at the end of the application cycle if you miss the grade requirements.
As Hunt says: “The personal statement is something tutors will use to remind themselves why they made you the offer in the first place if things don’t go to plan - they might give you the benefit of the doubt.”
With this in mind, it’s worth putting in the extra effort now, to give yourself every chance of success.
Dos and Don’ts of personal statement writing
DO check for spelling and grammar - get your parents to double check and then check again
DO link your extra-curricular pursuits with your course choice
DO show your teachers a draft first – so you will know what to change in plenty of time
DON’T leave it until the last minute – try to submit the application before Christmas
DON’T use suggested synonyms unless you’re sure what they mean
DON’T be tempted to exaggerate what you’ve done
DON’T talk about specific universities, only talk about the subject