If your students have chosen to study in UK, this means that any application must, with a few exceptions, be written and sent through the UCAS system. An important component of a student’s application, along with their academic record and predicted grades, is the personal statement.
The personal statement is a student’s chance to talk about why they want to study for a particular degree, course or subject discipline.
As they set about planning and writing a personal statement, students need to think about how they can demonstrate the drive, ambition, relevant skills and notable achievements which make them a suitable candidate for the universities they have chosen to apply to.
As important deadlines for UK university applications grow closer, we at BridgeU have put together a guide, outlining some of the strategies and techniques to help your students to write a personal statement which is honest, positive, engaging and truly individual.
What are the big challenges students should be aware of before writing their personal statement?
As they begin to plan their personal statement, students may feel intimidated. It’s not easy to summarise your academic interests and personal ambitions, especially when you’re competing for a place on a course which is popular or has demanding entry requirements. In particular, students will likely come up against any or all of the following challenges:
Unfortunately, the personal statement (and other aspects of university preparation) comes during the busiest year of the student’s academic life so far. Students, and indeed teachers and counsellors, must undertake the planning and writing of the personal statement whilst juggling other commitments, classes and deadlines, not to mention revision and open day visits!
Because there is already a lot of academic pressure on students in their final year of secondary school, finding the time and headspace for the personal statement can be hard, and can mean it gets pushed to the last minute. The risks of leaving it to the last minute are fairly obvious – the application will seem rushed and the necessary thought and planning won’t go into making the personal statement the best it can be.
The character limit which UCAS sets for the personal statement is very strict – up to 4,000 characters of text. This means that students have to express themselves in a clear and concise way; it’s also important that they don’t feel the need to fill the available space needlessly. Planning and redrafting of a personal statement is essential.
Making it stand out
This is arguably the greatest challenge facing students – making sure that their statement sets them apart from everyone else who is competing for a place on any given course; in 2017 alone, UCAS received applications from 699,850 students. In addition, UCAS uses its own dedicated team and purpose built software to check every application for plagiarism, so it’s crucial that students craft a truly original personal statement which is entirely their own work.
How should students plan their UCAS personal statement?
In order to ensure that a personal statement is delivered on time and to an appropriate standard, it’s essential to plan thoroughly before writing it. Here are some questions you can ask your students before they start writing.
How can they demonstrate a formative interest in their subject?
It may sound obvious but, in order for any UCAS personal statement to have the necessary structure and clarity, students need to think hard about why they want to study their chosen subject. Ask them to think about their responses to the following questions:
What inspired you to study your chosen subject?
Was there a formative moment when your perspective on this subject changed, or when you decided you wanted to study this subject in more detail?
Example answer: My interest in philosophy was awakened when I questioned my childhood religious beliefs; reading Blackburn’s “Think”, convinced me to scrutinise my assumptions about the world, and to ensure I could justify my beliefs.
Can you point to any role models, leading thinkers, or notable literature which has in turn affected your thinking and/or inspired you?
Example answer: The search for a theory of everything currently being conducted by physicists is of particular interest to me and in “The Grand Design” Hawking proposes a collection of string theories, dubbed M-theory, as the explanation of why the universe is the way it is.
Asking your students to think about the “why” behind their chosen subject discipline is a useful first step in helping them to organise their overall statement. Next, they need to be able to demonstrate evidence of their suitability for a course or degree.
How have they demonstrated the skills and aptitudes necessary for their chosen course?
Encourage students to think about times where they have demonstrated the necessary skills to really stand out. It’s helpful to think about times when they have utilised these skills both inside and outside the classroom. Ask students to consider their responses to the following questions.
Can you demonstrate critical and independent thinking around your chosen subject discipline?
Example answer: Currently I am studying Maths and Economics in addition to Geography. Economics has been a valuable tool, providing the nuts and bolts to economic processes, and my geography has provided a spatial and temporal element.
Are you able to demonstrate skills and competencies which will be necessary for university study? These include qualities such as teamwork, time management and the ability to organise workload responsibly.
Example answer: This year I was selected to be captain of the 1st XV rugby team and Captain of Swimming which will allow me to further develop my leadership, teamwork and organisational skills.
How have their extracurricular activities helped prepare them for university?
Students may believe that their interests outside the classroom aren’t relevant to their university application. So encourage them to think about how their other interests can demonstrate the subject-related skills that universities are looking for in an application. Ask students to think about any of the following activities, and how they might be related back to the subject they are applying for.
- Clubs/societies, or volunteering work which they can use to illustrate attributes such as teamwork, an interest in community service and the ability to manage their time proactively.
- Have they been elected/nominated as a team captain, or the head of a particular club or society, which highlights leadership skills and an ability to project manage?
- Can they point to any awards or prizes they may have won, whether it’s taking up a musical instrument, playing a sport, or participating in theatre/performing arts?
- Have they achieved grades or qualifications as part of their extracurricular activities? These can only help to demonstrate aptitude and hard work.
Writing a UCAS personal statement
If sufficient planning has gone into the personal statement, then your students should be ready to go!
However, as we discussed earlier on, a statement which is really going to stand out in the eyes of a university admissions tutor needs to be as clear and concise as possible. This means that, while they are writing their personal statement, students can benefit from these simple writing tips.
Know your audience
It can be easy for students to forget that the person reading a personal statement is invariably an expert in their field. This is why an ability to convey passion and think critically about their chosen subject is essential for a personal statement to stand out. Admissions tutors will also look for students who can structure their writing (more on this below).
Remember that many students are competing for places on a university degree against fierce competition. And don’t forget that UCAS has the means to spot plagiarism. So students need to create a truly honest and individual account of who they are, what they have achieved and, perhaps most importantly, why they are driven to study this particular subject.
Tell a story
The personal statement needs to offer a compelling narrative, and that means making sure that a student’s writing is well-structured, and that every sentence and paragraph is serving the statement’s ultimate purpose – to convince a university that your student deserves a place on their subject of choice.
With that in mind, here’s a loose outline of what a well-structured personal statement would look like.
This is the chance for an applying student to really grab an admission tutor’s attention. Students need to demonstrate both a personal passion for their subject, and explain why they have an aptitude for it. This section is where students should begin to discuss any major influences or inspirations.
Second Half/Main Body of the Statement
The second half of the statement should use evidence and further examples which build on any arguments which students have made at the beginning. Students should theme subsequent paragraphs around the different reasons why they are the best candidate for this degree or course. This section should discuss how their academic interest in the subject has blossomed, and also mention any relevant extra-curricular activities which can help their application.
Remember that a concluding paragraph needs to reiterate passion, drive and aptitude for a chosen subject. But students can’t repeat themselves. They need to finish as they began – tying together all the arguments and evidence they’ve used in their personal statement to give a clear and punchy narrative for why this course is the best fit for them.
Final Submission: Hints & Tips
By now, students should have the first draft of a personal statement which is coherent, concise and reflects their passion for their subject. Here’s a final checklist of things to do before the deadline.
- Encourage them to read and re-read their personal statement, checking for errors, and making improvements where necessary.
- Always offer feedback which is honest, but positive as they perfect their personal statement.
- Make sure the personal statement is a true reflection of who they are, and what they seek to gain from studying their chosen subject.
- Ensure they stick to any and all deadlines!