University Personal Statements

Your Ucas personal statement is one of the main ways universities will assess your application. It needs to be based what you’re good at, why you’re good at it, and how that makes you an ideal candidate for the course. So what exactly should you write and what should you avoid? We asked admissions tutors for their dos and don’ts.

  • Don’t waffle. “Use one sentence for the intro and conclusion. The rest of the personal statement should focus entirely on the criteria they’re looking for,” says Simon Atkinson, who interviews medical students at Bristol.
  • Do keep it simple. In some cases, personal statements are read numerous times – particularly at results when a student misses their required grades. “The admissions director needs to read them swiftly. Straightforward and confident language works best,” says Alix Delany, head of admissions at UEA.
  • Do get a proofreader. Atkinson advises making friends with your English teacher and having them check it for you. “Show it to as many people as possible – especially if you know anyone with a background in human resources.”
  • Do focus on what the university says it wants. Universities usually publish admissions statements which outline what they’re looking for in their candidates. Each uni will be looking for something a little bit different: some will focus entirely on your academic activities, others will also pay attention to your hobbies.
  • Do show that you’ll be active at university. Any personal examples of work experience, weekend jobs or school activities can be of use. Almost any hobby can be relevant in some way. Be sure to relate them to your studies. Playing an instrument, for example, shows application, stamina and the ability to study and practice, as well as teamwork if you play with other people.
  • Don’t try too hard to be funny – it doesn’t always come across well in writing. “You’re not a professional writer and the person who reads it won’t be looking for that. All they’re looking at is whether you fit their criteria,” says Atkinson.
  • Don’t bother with quotes. Julie Tucker, from the applicant services team at Falmouth University, says the statements that get an academics’ attention are less formulaic. “Avoid using well-known quotes from famous people, and avoid stating the obvious,” she says. “If you are applying to join a fashion design course, steer clear of Coco Chanel quotes. If you’re applying to study film, don’t open by saying you’ve watched films from a young age.”
  • Do use your own voice. “Personal statements are largely scored in an objective way. You need correct English, without looking like you’ve swallowed a thesaurus,” says Atkinson. “I would avoid grandiose or highly idealistic statements such as ‘from the moment I was born I was destined to cure people’. That’s the kind of thing people write. Keep it prosaic and to the point.”
  • Do be honest. For courses that interview their applicants, academic teams often use the personal statement to guide their questioning. “With that in mind, applicants shouldn’t use anything they’re not comfortable talking about in detail,” says Tucker. Dr Sam Lucy, director of admissions at Cambridge, agrees. They often refer to personal statements at interview. “We’re checking that their enthusiasm is genuine. In particular, we should get an idea of where within your subject this enthusiasm lies.”

Writing the Personal Statement

Summary:

This handout provides information about writing personal statements for academic and other positions.

Contributors:Jo Doran, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-03-07 02:18:40

The personal statement, your opportunity to sell yourself in the application process, generally falls into one of two categories:

1. The general, comprehensive personal statement:

This allows you maximum freedom in terms of what you write and is the type of statement often prepared for standard medical or law school application forms.

2. The response to very specific questions:

Often, business and graduate school applications ask specific questions, and your statement should respond specifically to the question being asked. Some business school applications favor multiple essays, typically asking for responses to three or more questions.

Questions to ask yourself before you write:

  • What's special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?
  • What details of your life (personal or family problems, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
  • When did you become interested in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
  • How have you learned about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
  • If you have worked a lot during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that work contributed to your growth?
  • What are your career goals?
  • Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
  • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?
  • What personal characteristics (for example, integrity, compassion, and/or persistence) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
  • What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
  • Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school—and more successful and effective in the profession or field than other applicants?
  • What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?

General advice

Answer the questions that are asked

  • If you are applying to several schools, you may find questions in each application that are somewhat similar.
  • Don't be tempted to use the same statement for all applications. It is important to answer each question being asked, and if slightly different answers are needed, you should write separate statements. In every case, be sure your answer fits the question being asked.

Tell a story

  • Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. One of the worst things you can do is to bore the admissions committee. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you'll be putting yourself ahead of the pack. If you distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.

Be specific

  • Don't, for example, state that you would make an excellent doctor unless you can back it up with specific reasons. Your desire to become a lawyer, engineer, or whatever should be logical, the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.

Find an angle

  • If you're like most people, your life story lacks drama, so figuring out a way to make it interesting becomes the big challenge. Finding an angle or a "hook" is vital.

Concentrate on your opening paragraph

  • The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It is here that you grab the reader's attention or lose it. This paragraph becomes the framework for the rest of the statement.

Tell what you know

  • The middle section of your essay might detail your interest and experience in your particular field, as well as some of your knowledge of the field. Too many people graduate with little or no knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the profession or field they hope to enter. Be as specific as you can in relating what you know about the field and use the language professionals use in conveying this information. Refer to experiences (work, research, etc.), classes, conversations with people in the field, books you've read, seminars you've attended, or any other source of specific information about the career you want and why you're suited to it. Since you will have to select what you include in your statement, the choices you make are often an indication of your judgment.

Don't include some subjects

  • There are certain things best left out of personal statements. For example, references to experiences or accomplishments in high school or earlier are generally not a good idea. Don't mention potentially controversial subjects (for example, controversial religious or political issues).

Do some research, if needed

  • If a school wants to know why you're applying to it rather than another school, do some research to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.

Write well and correctly

  • Be meticulous. Type and proofread your essay very carefully. Many admissions officers say that good written skills and command of correct use of language are important to them as they read these statements. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Adhere to stated word limits.

Avoid clichés

  • A medical school applicant who writes that he is good at science and wants to help other people is not exactly expressing an original thought. Stay away from often-repeated or tired statements.

For more information on writing a personal statement, see the personal statement vidcast.

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