Blog 🍎 School 18th September 2021

UCAS Personal Statement Tips: Hear from Top UK Universities

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James Leach

James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools

Personal statements can be really tricky to pin down. There aren’t many words, and there are so many topics students want to cover! We got insiders’ personal statement tips from two UK universities so you can help your students write really strong applications.

There are lots of personal statement tips out there, but can any be as valuable as the ones given by the people actually reading and assessing personal statements? That’s what we’ve been lucky enough to get for this article!

And really, it’s no surprise that so many people are looking for the best personal statement tips. It’s definitely one of the most daunting parts of applying to universities in the UK.

For some students, it seems like quite a challenge to distill all of their passion and aptitude into just 4000 characters. It also creates a tricky tightrope to walk of conveying their whole selves – all of their interests, abilities and characteristics – without shirking the all-important academic criteria.

That’s why this article is such an invaluable resource in helping your students write the best personal statements.

Recently, we were lucky enough to be joined on a webinar by Luciana Figueiredo, a seasoned pro from Bournemouth University. She’s read her fair share of personal statements in Bournemouth University’s admissions department!

We’ve also chatted with Grace Dickinson, an International Recruitment Manager from Teesside University, who’s shared some stellar insights.

You can listen back over the whole webinar with Luciana here, but we’ve pulled out some highlights and added gems of wisdom from Grace.

Read on for the best personal statement tips covering key topics like the difference between US and UK applications, a suggested structure for personal statements, and how to incorporate and balance extracurriculars. Plus, Luciana answered great questions from the audience, which we’ll recap here!

UCAS personal statements: essential knowledge

Before diving into her top personal statements tips during the webinar, Luciana broke down some of the basics about personal statements.

Experienced counsellors are probably familiar with their parameters, but to recap:

  • Personal statements can make or break students’ applications – they’re pivotal in universities’ decision-making
  • UCAS personal statements can be up to 4000 characters or 47 lines
  • The same personal statement is sent to all the universities students apply to through UCAS
  • Parents and advisers are welcome to assist students, but universities can spot where the student’s voice has been drowned out!

Grace gave us a very useful definition, too: “A personal statement is a profile of students’ academic interests and motivations, and is the first way university admissions staff and academics get to know students as the individuals behind the grades.” It needs to be both academic and personal!

Why UCAS Personal Statements are different from US essays

One of the first things Luciana was keen to emphasise in the webinar was that the requirements and assessments for US applications are very different to those applied in the UK. We know a lot of counsellors at international schools likely handle lots of applications to both places, so it’s a good distinction to nail down.

As you can see in the clip below, both the style and structure are quite different. Luciana sums it up neatly: “In the UK, the focus of the personal statement is on the subject the student is applying for. In the US, the universities give more emphasis to the individual, what the person is about and what they’re going to bring to the university community.”

UK Personal Statements vs USA Personal Essays

She also gave us a really handy rule you can use to make sure your students’ statements are tailored to the UK: subject-specific material should make up 80% of the essay.

Personal statement tips on extracurricular content

Although the emphasis of personal statements should definitely be on the subject of the degree, remember that there is still 20% left over for extracurricular activities. Luciana and Grace had some great personal statement tips on how to use that 20%, and the best ways to connect extracurriculars to academic interests and abilities.

But before even thinking about how to fit outside activities and interests into a personal statement, students need to make sure they’ve got useful things to write about!

We’ll delve into some of the activities students might try out next, but it’s important that they do so mindfully.

“There’s no shortage of resources and opportunities to engage in your subject out there, but don’t forget to do the most important part – reflect.”

Grace Dickinson: International Recruitment Manager, Teesside University

Grace has a great practical personal statement tip here. She suggests that students keep an ongoing ‘personal statement log’ or diary. They should note down anything they read, watch or listen to and – most importantly – what it made them think and how it relates to their subject. This will be an invaluable resource when it comes to writing the statement!

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What’s relevant in a personal statement?

So what kinds of activities should find their way into these personal statement logs? There are lots of valuable things students can get up to, but Luciana’s and Grace’s favourites are things like internships and courses which show a deep interest in the subject students are applying for.

They should illustrate the fact that students don’t need their school or teachers to mould their interests or motivate them. Their passions are fuel enough!

Grace says “​​A competitive personal statement is one that shows your subject interest through evidence and reflection, and that you are ‘university-ready’ by taking ownership of your own learning outside of the classroom.”

That type of learning could take all sorts of forms, and naturally depends on the subjects students hope to study. Grace has some brilliant suggestions here:

  • Start simple by reading some of the materials on your course’s reading list
  • Attend universities’ summer schools, public lectures and/or subject masterclasses
  • Make the most of MOOC
  • Find related documentaries, TEDTalks, podcasts etc.
  • Undertake work experience

“Pre-COVID, universities would often run in-person events like summer schools, subject masterclasses and open days with taster sessions. Given the global pandemic, universities have moved these events online and opportunities to get a taste of what it would be like to study your chosen subject are perhaps greater than before!”

Grace Dickinson: International Recruitment Manager, Teesside University

It’s also a good idea to pin down the qualities that universities are looking for, and find ways students have demonstrated them within or beyond school.

Plus, they should talk about their underlying motivations for pursuing this field. Did they have an inspiring teacher? An early childhood experience? An event in their family or even in global politics that shifted how they think? Whatever sparked their interest, it can be a compelling story!

Top tip: Luciana and Grace both suggest that students make the most of degree programme pages and virtual university events to find out what the ideal student looks like.

Career aspirations can also have a place in personal statements. Why do students have the ambitions they do, and how will their chosen degree help them get there? Again, knowing that students are really dedicated and motivated are huge bonuses for universities!

What’s the value of extracurriculars in a personal statement?

We’ve heard so much about personal statements being academic documents first and foremost, so knowing how, when and even why to include extracurricular activities can be tricky. But understanding what exactly they’re supposed to achieve in a personal statement can help you and your students decide what to include and how to talk about it.

The most important extracurriculars and experiences to include in a personal statement are without a doubt the ones that are related to the degree – the ones we outlined above. As a result, when students are paring down what to include, these should always be prioritised. If students do still have space to mention less related activities, then the degree-related ones should usually appear earlier and in more detail.

Other good activities to include are ones in which students had a position of leadership and took significant responsibility. It’s also a really good idea to demonstrate commitment: activities which students have been regularly involved in for a long time can often be worth writing about!

Of course, there was an important question posed by the audience – probably one that’s occurred to you as you read this. No personal statement tips this year could avoid answering the question: what should students do if many activities they would usually do have been paused or cancelled due to COVID-19?

There’s no need for you or your students to panic if their extracurriculars are a little thin on the ground at the moment. According to Luciana, at the most basic level, extracurricular activities indicate effective time management. Is that make or break? Luciana said no, it normally won’t be the basis of a university’s decision. But knowing that students will be able to manage their academic demands at university alongside social and extracurricular opportunities can be a big plus on their applications.

And it’s important to remember that students can show their time management skills without organised school activities. Maybe in lockdown they had to babysit younger siblings, or lend a hand in domestic duties. Maybe they discovered a new interest, hobby or project. There are lots of ways that students keep busy and balance the demands of life and academics, and they can talk about these in their personal statements!

Grace also acknowledges that in some subjects, there’s an additional obstacle to work experience in the form of COVID-19 restrictions. But she has useful solutions!

“Sites like Springpod are offering free-to-access virtual work experience in areas such as Aerospace Engineering and Nursing. There’s also sites like FutureLearn offering MOOCs (massive open online courses), often created by a university, where you can do a short online course to get a taste of what it might be like to study your subject.”

Personal statement tips on structure 

If you’d like a skeleton for the whole statement, Luciana really delivered! You can hear in the webinar clip below the personal statement tips she provided on structure, but essentially her suggested layout is:

  • Paragraph 1
    • Name, nationality
    • Academic background and subject being applied for
    • Reasons for choosing that subject
  • Paragraph 2
    • Academic achievements (preferably related to the subject)
    • Life and work experience (again, students should stick to what’s within their field of study)
  • Paragraph 3
    • Skills and qualities that are required for the degree, and how the student demonstrates them
    • Career aspirations
  • Paragraph 4
    • Underlying motivations for wanting to pursue that field and career
    • Extracurricular activities, hobbies, interests
  • Paragraph 5
    • Conclusion

Of course, this is just a suggestion! While they might not ultimately stick to it, it’s a useful outline to get your students thinking about the kinds of topics they should be prepared to include, as well as what information should be prioritised.

Personal statement tips on beginnings and endings

As with many important documents, the beginnings and endings of personal statements can be by far the trickiest parts. Ramping up to such a decisive piece of writing – and one that’s so short – can be a real challenge. And finding a memorable and impactful way to sum up succinctly is also difficult! Luciana had some great insights though.

The crux of it is quite simple. Students should try to tap into authenticity and inspiration, and carefully balance the two.

What does that mean in practice? Well, while it’s a good idea for students to bring in figures and ideas that have spurred their interest, they shouldn’t let their own voices be drowned out.

Luciana recalls her experiences of reading personal statements in which – as is natural – students were really keen to impress their readers. They therefore chose to begin their statements with “a very grand introduction” which mentions “Martin Luther King, or Gandhi, or other big names in history and things they have said.”

While admissions reps are certainly keen to know what moves students, and are impressed with their being well-read, these introductions can easily become too long and give too many words away to the students’ idols rather than keeping the focus on themselves and the course they want to study. That should be their starting point: what do they want to study and why?

For Luciana, beginning with somebody else’s words isn’t the best move, but she has found effective examples of students using that approach for their ending.

“I personally like when students conclude their statement with a saying from an author, that relates to the story they’ve told me [within their statement].” That story is who that student is, their academic and career goals, and what motivates them.

Another good personal statement tip to avoid what Luciana admits has become something of a cliche is to get a bit more specific with the people students choose to reference. Instead of huge names like the ones she mentioned, students should consider referencing big names within their field. What are some recently published works in their subject that students found really interesting and engaging?

Bonus points if the academic works at one of the institutions they’re applying to!

Again, whoever they reference students need to focus on their reaction to the work. The main thing to avoid is getting lost in somebody else’s words, ideas or story. It’s a personal statement after all!

For students who don’t want to bring in outside voices, other compelling conclusions can be:

  • Their expectations of the course/university life/their long-term aspirations
  • An ending to a personal story they’ve alluded to
  • A simple summing up of what they’ve written

Checklist of essential personal statement topics

Once your students have drafted their personal statement, you’ll probably want to help them make sure they’ve hit every key criterion universities are on the look-out for.

Grace and Luciana both had great advice here. You can hear Luciana’s suggestions more in-depth below, but essentially their tips combined create this checklist:

  • Reasons for applying for the course
  • How the course will benefit students in the future/help them reach their goals
  • Academic achievements and how they relate to their course
  • Life and work experiences related to the field of study
  • Relevant skills and qualities that make them suitable for the course
  • Career aspirations
  • Motivations
  • Relevant extracurricular activities, hobbies etc.
  • Ways they have engaged with their chosen subject and how they’ve reflected on them

Your personal statement questions answered

Those of us who attended the webinar got incredibly lucky; Luciana was really generous with her time and wisdom in answering questions counsellors had. Here are a few highlights.

What about students who are applying to different subject programmes?

As you probably know, UCAS allows students to apply to 5 different degree programmes (not necessarily 5 different universities!). For example, one student might apply for two political science degrees, one communications degree, and two film studies degrees. How can they write one personal statement that shows all of the qualities, experiences and passions each of these departments is looking for?

Luciana’s answer is essentially that they can’t – and they shouldn’t try to. Instead, they should write a more general statement that conveys their achievements, aptitudes and qualities broadly. Then, they should create tailored personal statements for each subject area (and/or each university if they want to mention specific staff, facilities, location etc), and send these to universities directly.

Some universities have applicant portals students can upload supporting documents to, while for others students might simply email the tailored statement to the department directly.

Should students explain why they’ve chosen to apply to universities in the UK?

Students have a lot of amazing options all around the world when it comes to applying for higher education. Should they use some of their 4000 characters to explain why they’ve decided on the UK?

Here, Luciana doesn’t have a black and white answer; it’s a decision that students should make on an individual basis. For some, their destination has direct and compelling academic implications – which often tie in with their reasons for wanting to study that subject at all.

Luciana gives the example of the different laws that might operate in certain countries which affect the resources students can access in courses like, for example, forensic archaeology.

If there is a concrete reason like this for choosing the UK, explaining it can help to convey students’ interests and motivations. If it’s more general, then it probably shouldn’t eat up their limited character count!

Don’t miss out on more great insights and conversations!

While we hope this recap has been useful, there’s nothing like being there on the day. It’s an incomparable opportunity to ask the questions you and your students most need answered, and share any comments, thoughts or advice you have with your fellow counsellors.

Remember, you can sign up for any of our webinars – they’re free to attend, and always led by savvy and friendly pros. Check out all of our upcoming events and register your place here.

You can also look back over our previous webinars and check out other free resources here. There’s lots of great stuff to catch up on!

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