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Personal statements: what to do and what to avoid

Personal statements give students the opportunity to stand out to admissions officers. Here's how to make the most of them.


According to a recent report, the top three qualities UK universities look for in prospective students are: a positive attitude towards study; a passion for the chosen course and subject; and an ability to think and work independently.  

It’s therefore important that university applicants demonstrate these qualities within the strict word-limit of their personal statement.

With just 4000 characters to play with on UCAS, we look at what to include and what to avoid.

Be yourself

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with students working on their statements with teachers, asking the opinion of a friend, or speaking to their parents about the content of their statement, the final piece should be their own. We all express ourselves in an individual way, so letting someone else take over or advise on specific wording is not a good idea and with 89% of university admissions officers concerned that students are “not able to think or learn independently,” it’s important that students demonstrate they are ready for university study.

“You can often tell when someone else’s hand has been upon a statement,” agrees Susie King, Head of Admissions at Middlesex University, London. “You need to know it’s the applicant – they have limited space so it’s better that we hear from them.”

Give your reasons

Students should spend some time thinking about the degree they’re applying to – what appeals to them about the subject, where they hope it might lead, the kind of skills they hope to develop whilst studying – and make sure they communicate this clearly in their statement. With 70% of admissions officers reporting that students don’t appear to appreciate what their course will involve, this is of particular importance.

“We want to know why the applicant is interested in that particular programme of study and what they are hoping to get out of the university experience – not just in terms of career prospects, but in their involvement in university life. Universities are communities: we want to know how you’re going to engage in our community and enhance it by joining us,” explains King.

Focus on learning

UK universities are mainly interested in a student’s learning experience and motivation to study a particular subject – unlike student applications for US universities, which should encompass a wide range of extra-curricular activities.   

“The statement needs to be a good balance between their current academic study and how that has influenced an applicant’s decision about what to study at university. In addition, universities are interested about how students learn, not just the subject matter. Has the student found it challenging to work in a group, what has this experience taught them? If that situation were to happen again what would they do?” explains King.

Of course, if experience outside of the classroom has helped you to develop skills that will aid your studies at university it should be included. But think carefully about your extra-curricular activities before you put them in, making sure they are relevant and will enhance your application.  

“If you’ve been chair of the Children in Need fundraising committee for your school and you organised committee meetings and you had to negotiate and influence the head teacher, then absolutely tell us about that. But if you’ve sold cakes for charity, this is probably space that could be better used,” explains King.

Give real-life examples

Of course, learning happens both in and outside the classroom; and subject choice can often be influenced by outside interests. If a student has seen how their subject is used and applied in everyday life, this can be a good point to make in their application.  

“Don’t just tell us what you’ve been studying – explain what about the course has engaged you, enthused you. And how you’ve seen that in play in the outside world. For example, on a recent application, a student who was applying for a computing course was able to say: ‘Because I’m doing my computing course, I notice when I’m playing games how the programming has worked…’ linking what he’d learned in the classroom to everyday experiences and how that made him more aware of the impact of his subject in the real-world,” explains King.

Accuracy is key

Remember that this statement is the “first impression that the Admissions Tutors will have of your writing style, so it is important that the writing is edited and proofread very carefully,” advises Admission Consultant, Pragya Agawal. “The tone should always be formal.  And of course, personal statements should be written using correct grammar and punctuation.”

Things to avoid

  • Humour

“The trouble with using humour is that it’s quite often lost in translation,” explains King.  “It’s hard to demonstrate your personality within a 4000 character limit, but focusing on your experience and what you have personally gained through study is a better way of ensuring your statement has individuality.”

  • Throwaway quotations

Inspiring quotations abound on the internet, and can sometimes strike a chord. However, students should try to keep their personal statement free from cliched quotes. “We see an awful lot of people starting with quotations – Muhammad Ali or Lord Sugar in particular. I don’t really want you to use up your character limit to tell me a quotation I could read myself.  You have limited space, so tell me about you!” says King.

“However, within the personal statement, if in your subject or outside you’ve really loved a particular book and it’s taught you certain things, it’s OK to include that information – something that relates to you on a more personal level or has directly come from your studies,” she adds.

  • Naming institutions

Also, be wary of including the name of an institution within an application. “The same statement will be sent to all of your university choices, so you have to be careful about naming other universities,” explains King. “If you mentioned that you have studied at UCL on a summer programme, for example, that’s fine.  But saying “I really dream at studying of Kings College, London” – unless you’re only applying to Kings College London, don’t include that.”

Top tips to give students for a great statement:

  • Keep it personal – your wording, and your “take” on subject and learning will ensure your statement is authentic and individual.
  • Focus on your subject, and explain how you have seen it at work both in and outside the classroom.
  • Think about yourself as a learner, what you hope to gain from university life – and what you may be able to give back.
  • By all means include examples of extra-curricular activities, but only if they truly enhance your application.

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