Friday, 14 September 2012

Personal statements: Universities tell you what they want

The personal statement. Three words that get uttered, muttered and give one cause to shudder more than any other part of the UCAS application form. Admittedly, a blank screen and the job of selling yourself to your university and college choices in no more than 4,000 characters and 47 lines can seem a daunting one but it should also be an exciting one.

This is your opportunity to make your application stand out. In amongst all the dates, grades and contact details is a massive chunk of the application that you can dedicate to showing your character, your passion, your interests and personality. In short, you can show them what makes you such a good candidate for your chosen course and why you should be offered a place. Some students will find it hard to talk positively and glowingly about themselves - that's natural - but it's something that should be overcome and then embraced.

But what's my view worth? Hopefully five years' experience of working at UCAS will be of some value but there's no escaping that my views will be but a few more drops into the vast ocean of advice and offers of assistance (some useful, some not so much) you'll be getting from various parties right now. And all this advice, especially when some of it can be conflicting, can be confusing when you're setting out. In the end though, you have to ask yourself who'll be reading the personal statements. The answer, quite obviously, is your universities.

So, to help provide some clarity on this, we thought it best to go direct to them and ask what they're looking for! Bear in mind that each writer will have their own individual preferences just as much as they'll share some of the same views. Ultimately though, remember that it should be your own personal work. You will find countless good tips and advice from here on in but you need to decide what works best for you by the time you start writing it.

Dr Roseanna Cross - Head of Undergraduate Admissions, University of Bristol

At Bristol, we pay a great deal of attention to the personal statement, as it provides important indications of ability, motivation and potential.  We will look for evidence of your interest in the subject and make sure that this aligns with the kind of programme we offer. We will also take account of your extra-curricular interests and achievements, where these provide evidence of skills that will be relevant to the programme.
The detailed criteria for each of our programmes are published on our website in our Admissions Statements.

We also explain the selection process in our Entry Profiles.  When it comes to writing your personal statement, you should make sure that it aligns with the selection criteria for the programme.  Everything in your personal statement should aim to show that you have the skills and qualities we are looking for, and convince us to offer you a place on the programme.  If it doesn't do this, then leave it out.

Before you write your statement, it's essential to understand why you want to study a particular subject. Whatever the reason, make sure your passion and enthusiasm comes across. Don't just tell us that you like something, show us that you do. What is it that interests you specifically? Why does it interest you? What have you done to pursue that interest?

Similarly, when writing about relevant experience and achievements, make sure that you give concrete examples of the skills and qualities that they demonstrate. Don't be tempted to expand the truth, as it will catch you out in the long run!

Finally, make sure that you have allowed enough time to check your work before you submit your application.  It's useful to ask friends and family to help check the statement, but be careful that they don't try and force you to write it in the way they think it should be written.  It is important that you write it in your own style rather than trying to conform to what someone else thinks is right, as there is no model way to write a personal statement.  When it comes to spelling, however, there is only one 'right' way.

Sean Threlfall - Student Recruitment and International Development Division, University of Manchester

You should consider your personal statement as important as gaining the relevant entry qualifications for your chosen course. It’s the only chance you get to express your personality alongside your academic abilities.
A successful personal statement usually opens with positive intent and demonstrates a clear enthusiasm for the course in question. A common query from students is often on what to include in their personal statement. The answer is a simple one, if it’s relevant to your chosen course then include it and if it’s not then leave it out. 

Quotes can be a useful way of demonstrating what has inspired you, whether that’s an author of a book you’ve read or a famous philosopher.  However, ensure the quote is relevant to a certain aspect of your particular course.  It’s also a good idea to write in the first person, this provides evidence of an individual personal statement and helps once again to portray your enthusiasm for the course you’re applying for.

If there’s one key point to remember when writing your personal statement, remember the letters ABC! Activity, Benefit, Course!  Universities want to see examples of the transferable skills you have obtained and how you plan to develop these skills at university.  So, this is where ABC comes into play:

Maybe you’ve volunteered in your local charity shop or played in a sports team 

What are the transferable skills you’ve acquired by doing this activity? For example, leadership, communication or self-motivation skills.

So you’ve done the activity and reaped the benefits, how does this relate to the course you’re applying for?
      Good communication skills are vital for many university courses especially during group work. You also need a lot of self-motivation in order to succeed on any undergraduate degree programme.

Equally as important is a strong conclusion. Bear in mind, this is the last couple of lines in which you have to impress the admissions tutor. So make it count! Try to summarise your personal statement in a few lines and finish with a positive outlook on your future.

So remember, when writing your personal statement keep the writing style personal and use ABC where relevant!

Richard Emborg - Director of Student Recruitment & Admissions, Durham University

A personal statement is an opportunity for you to demonstrate why you think you would be a good student for the programme you’re applying to, what you can contribute to the university and why the university should select your application over other equally excellent candidates. With many students applying to the University with very strong academic results and predictions, the personal statement is crucial in helping admissions tutors identify students with the greatest merit and potential.

Personal statements are used to help make a number of admissions decisions: including whether to invite an applicant to an interview, make an offer, accept an applicant who’s narrowly missed the conditions of their offer, and at Durham even what college an applicant made an offer will be allocated to.  Investing time into making sure your personal statement is as strong as it can be is therefore time well spent.

Whilst there's no template we can give you for your personal statement – it should be personal to you -we do recommend that you answer three main questions in your personal statement in the following order and priority:

1)         Why do you want to study this subject?
2)         What makes you someone particularly suitable to study the subject?
3)         How will you contribute to the course and the university community and what makes you an       interesting and unique individual?

At Durham University we particularly value personal statements that combine both an academic focus and consideration of your non-academic attributes and achievements. Other universities may be more interested purely in your academic achievements and potential.

Stating any paid or voluntary work that you have done is a good idea if you can relate it to the programme you’re applying for and/or to show your potential to contribute to the University community as a whole. The same is true for achievements in sport, music and the arts and involvement in any national or international competitions, including academic ones. Extra-curricular activities can provide proof of successful time management skills and a strong work ethic.

Remember to draft and re-draft your personal statement. Watch out for spelling mistakes (spellcheckers are not a guarantee) and missing or repeated words: doing this shows your commitment to the application and attention to detail. An admissions tutor will be impressed by the use of good English; a personal statement needs to be well written, in straightforward English, and laid out carefully. If you try too hard to impress with clever language you’ll normally make your statement harder to read and your reasons for wanting to study a particular programme less clear.

It can help to have someone else to look over your statement, to provide another opinion and to look for anything you may have missed, but don’t lose your uniqueness by allowing others to write the statement for you or by copying what others have written. UCAS run similarity detection checks and report to universities if any similarities between personal statements are identified, which could result in an offer not being made.

Make sure the personal statement is accurate. It is an academic statement for an academic programme of study so choose an appropriate tone. Attempts at humour are best avoided, as it doesn’t always translate well in writing. Be enthusiastic and promote yourself. Do your research about the courses you want to apply to so you use your five UCAS choices wisely and your personal statement is tailored towards them.

Alix Delany - Assistant Head of Admissions, University of East Anglia

After many years of reading personal statements and writing one myself (a long time ago) I know that this can seem daunting so here are my 3 tips to writing a good statement. 

Be Bold
More often than not we’re modest about our achievements.  Don’t be!  You don’t necessarily have to pack the personal statement full of them.  What I like to see is some well thought out examples and most importantly how they might relate to the subject you’d like to read at university.  Ensure that you have clearly reflected on the skills and knowledge gained from the chosen experiences.  Concrete examples rather than a ‘wish’ or a ‘dream’ to study a subject will get you noticed. 

Universities are reading a lot of personal statements and so I really like the first few lines to clearly outline the intended area of study and the reason why.  The end of your personal statement should also reinforce this.  Although you are working in a restricted space I find it helpful when students use paragraphs so that the statement flows well and it’s easy to identify key points.  If you’re going to be interviewed for a course, the interviewer will read the statement beforehand and may even refer to it during the interview so a well-structured statement is imperative.

It’s very difficult to know who’s going to read your personal statement.  Indeed it’s likely that a number of people in each university will and they’ll have their own interpretation of what you’re saying.  Show your personal statement to as many people as you can and ask them if the key messages are coming through loud and clear.  See if they can ‘paint a picture’ of you from the words written down and use their feedback to refine the statement.

In my view a personal statement is your chance to promote yourself and the contribution you can make to a university.  Look on it as a positive experience, giving you the opportunity to talk about the next steps in your life and career.


Kamiah Overaa said...

I found this video from the University of Birmingham particularly helpful when I was applying & writing my PS:

Magdalena said...

great idea to post about that. really helped me. thanks :)

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jennifer castillo said...

Hello I got a question.
I'm waiting since February the answer from ucas to acept me or not. That's usual ?
How long thanks usually to contact with you after make the reference?

UCAS said...

Hi Jennifer Castillo. If you have sent your application to us by the 15th January deadline we advise institutions to make decisions by the end of March, however they have until early May if needed. Keys dates can be found here:

mr tea said...

Have applied and been accepted for an MSc, but have now found a more suitable course. It may sound daft, but must I use the same personal statement and references? Thanks

UCAS said...

Hi mr tea. Have you applied for your Msc course using the undergraduate application service?

mr tea said...

No, just printed out an application form from the university website and had an interview and was accepted.
Didn't know if I could make a second statement with a slightly different bias...

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Alice Harris said...

Great article, thanks! Maybe you'll find this link also useful:
Personally I think that while knowing what universities want it's also important to think outside the box and write something unique that will be noticed.

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