Blog 🍎 School 4th July 2019

Writing a Personal Statement for UCAS: The 10 Big Mistakes Students Should Avoid

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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

Writing a UCAS Personal Statement requires a student to convey a lot of information in a short space of time. Mistakes are easy to make. Read our run down of the most common ones and how to avoid them

Writing a Personal Statement for UCAS is, in many ways, like asking a student to tell the story of their life in 4,000 characters or less. 

And if that sounds hard, it’s because it is. 

The UCAS Personal Statement is the cornerstone of a UK university application. Students need to write a genuine, authoritative and compelling account of who they are and what they want from a UK university degree. They need to quickly grab the attention of the university admissions officer reading their Personal Statement, and they need to make sure they stand out from the hundreds of other applications that will be crossing that admission officer’s desk. 

In order to do this, the Personal Statement will require a student to master form, structure and content in such a way that makes their writing stand out. 

Understandably, students might feel an inordinate amount of pressure to get their Personal Statement right first time. 

Indeed, more often than not, it’s not a case of students being lazy when writing their UCAS Personal Statements. The problem is often that students will have a lot to say and will have put a lot of thought into their Statement, but may make some simple stylistic mistakes that could cost them when they finally submit their application. 

But if these mistakes are easy to make, they’re also easy to avoid. 

So we’re going to take you through the 10 most common (and potentially costly) mistakes that a student might make in their UCAS Personal Statement, and give you some tips on how to help your students avoid them. 

Bonus Resource – To help your students avoid any major mistakes before they begin, our Personal Statement worksheet helps them to plan and write a truly compelling account of themselves. Click here to download

1. Writing a UCAS Personal Statement for a subject that isn’t the right fit 

If students have done their research carefully and considerately, then this shouldn’t be a problem. Ideally, in the year leading up to the submission of the Personal Statement, your students will have shortlisted their university and course preferences to the point where they’re applying for a subject area they’re truly passionate about. 

But this first, major mistake is the natural conclusion of a student being pressured into a subject or career path by family, parents or even school peers. Hopefully this won’t happen – but if a student is writing their UCAS Personal Statement for a subject they’re not truly passionate about, then this should set off alarm bells. It will ultimately affect the quality of the Personal Statement. 

And, most importantly, admissions staff will easily spot a Personal Statement where the student’s heart isn’t in it. 

Top tip: We at BridgeU are big fans of students finding their best-fit universities and courses (after all, it’s why we built our platform!). Students need to put a lot of time into making sure the UK course they are applying for is right for them. Starting a Personal Statement without having thoroughly researched university and course options is one of the most fundamental mistakes a student could make. 

2. Spelling & Grammar Mistakes 

This may seem like a rather obvious mistake, and one your students hopefully shouldn’t be making. 

But the tight time frames associated with a UCAS Personal Statement will make spelling and grammar mistakes more likely, especially if your students aren’t taking the time to proof-read their personal statement before submitting it. 

Spelling and grammar mistakes can really count against students, and can make their writing appear sloppy or poorly thought through. It’s an especially bad look if your students are applying for humanities or social sciences courses, or indeed any degree that requires a lot of extended writing! 

Top tip: Encourage your students to print out their Personal Statement. Whilst we know that a lot of students do more things digitally these days (and BridgeU is an online platform after all!), reading a UCAS Personal Statement back as a living, printed document can really help students hone their eye for detail! 

3. Avoid exuberant language and pointless cliches 

“My love of Physics began when I used to look up at the night sky as a child, and found it simultaneously breath-taking and awe-inspiring.” 

“I’ve been passionate about the works of William Shakespeare since seeing my first production on stage. I’m fascinated by how Shakespeare remains relevant for today.” 

Can you see what’s wrong with these two examples? 

Whilst they are very positive and well-worded statements about why a student might want to study astrophysics, or Shakespearian literature, both these Personal Statement examples tip very quickly into cliche and generalisation. 

We’re not suggesting you shouldn’t encourage your students to use positive language when writing a UCAS Personal Statement, but this positive language needs to be backed up with clear, specific examples and rigorous analysis. 

Remember – the key to an excellent Personal Statement is showing, not telling. 

So why is Shakespeare still relevant to today? What specific examples could a student writing about a 16th century author use to demonstrate their relevance to the 21st century? 

Likewise, proclaiming a love for the wonders of the night sky is all well and good, but why did it make our example student want to study Physics? 

Top tip: Encourage students to set a limit on the number of adjectives or descriptive phrases they use in their writing. It’s important to remember a Personal Statement has to accomplish a lot in a relatively short number of words. If students over-use words like ‘passionate’, ‘breathtaking’ and ‘awe-inspiring’ they’re just going to end up repeating themselves. 

4. Endlessly listing extracurricular activities

Extracurricular activities are a vital part of any Personal Statement. If used in the right way, they can help a student to stand out, and seem like a more well-rounded person. Extracurriculars can also help to showcase valuable soft skills that universities value in their students. 

But there’s no point using extracurriculars like a grocery list. Students endlessly describing their extracurriculars will mean nothing if they don’t link them back to the overall narrative of the Personal Statement. 

Again, it’s about showing, not telling. Saying ‘I have captained my school football team for three years’ means nothing if the writer doesn’t explain this activity within the context of the Personal Statement. 

Top tip: When planning their Personal Statement, students need to think about the extracurricular activities that can demonstrate soft skills. What did they learn from doing this particular extracurricular activity? Do they think it will set them apart in their overall application? If the answer is no, then it’s best not putting it in. 

5. Over-using quotes or taking them out of context

Remember what we said about exuberant language and cliches? 

It’s the same with the use of quotes. 

Quotes can be a powerful tool to back up any argument, be it in a UCAS Personal Statement or any other kind of essay. 

But quotes used clumsily can often have the opposite effect, and make the writer of a Personal Statement seem pretentious or just quoting for the sake of it. 

Many students may feel tempted to open their Personal Statement with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. A student who is submitting an application for psychology may feel it necessary to begin their Personal Statement with a quote from Sigmund Freud. 

The trouble is that many UK university admissions tutors have probably seen the same quotes again and again. Again, if quotes aren’t used in context, or don’t serve the overall narrative of the Personal Statement, then it may be worth not putting them in. 

It’s also important to remember that universities want to hear from the student, not Sigmund Freud! If in doubt, a student writing a Personal Statement should use their own thoughts and insights, not someone else’s. 

Top tip: Encourage students to use less well-known quotes in their Personal Statement. Quotes from less well-known, specialist thinkers within a subject discipline are more likely to show that a student is widely read and has a deep and rich knowledge of the subject they’re applying for. 

6. Telling the reader something they already know 

Demonstrating subject knowledge and background reading is vital for a UCAS Personal Statement. But this must fit in with the student’s overall story of why they want to study that particular degree. 

What students shouldn’t do is explain academic or scientific theories at length, or regurgitate existing arguments that have already been made by other writers in their chosen field of study. 

Students writing a UCAS Personal Statement need to operate from the assumption that the person reading it is probably an expert in their field. It’s only worth students talking about their wider reading, or their take on another piece of academic writing, if they can demonstrate its relevance to them. 

Top tip: Students should avoid going into depth about other academic or scientific theories unless they have a bearing on the student’s own worldview, and can tell the reader something about why they want to study for that particular course. 

Video: Tips from UCAS on starting a Personal Statement

7. Not paying attention to word/character limits 

It’s pretty hard to literally ignore the word/character limit for the UCAS Personal Statement, as there will come a point where students will simply run out of space. 

But some students can fail to pay attention to word/character limits to the extent that they don’t plan the form and structure of their UCAS Personal Statement properly. 

Planning the overall structure and flow of the Personal Statement before writing it is absolutely essential if students are to make the most of the space that UCAS allocates. Half finished thoughts and hastily written conclusions will do more harm than good when someone reads the Personal Statement. 

Top tip: Run one class/workshop with students where they brainstorm and plan the overall structure of their UCAS Personal Statement. Break the components of a good personal statement down into chunks, and get students thinking about the optimal structure for making their Personal Statements as good as they can be! 

8. Unnecessary origin stories 

Everyone loves an origin story (why else would film studios keep remaking Spiderman?). But origin stories in UCAS Personal Statements can sometimes be a waste of time (this is in sharp contrast to an application like the Common App in the USA), where they love to hear a student’s origin story)

Remember our physics student from Tip no.3 who loved to gaze at the night sky? Childhood anecdotes are great, and can certainly add character to a student’s application. But they’re not always necessary to showcase a student’s devotion to their chosen subject. 

In fact, it’s fair to say that admissions tutors at UK universities are more interested in an applicant’s more recent contributions or achievements in their chosen field of study than snippets of their biography. 

Yet it remains the case that students sometimes feel the need to profess their lifelong devotion to a subject they’re hoping to study at university. It’s really not necessary. 

In fact UCAS themselves once published a list of the most commonly used opening lines in a Personal Statement. Three of the most frequent openings were 

“I have always been interested in…” (used 927 times)

“For as long as I can remember I have…” (used 1,451 times) 

“From a young age I have always been interested in/fascinated by…” (used 1,779 times) 

Not only does drawing on childhood memories risk losing sight of more relevant information, it’s also something that lots of universities have seen before. 

9. Making things up 

We hope that none of your students would ever lie in their Personal Statement. But if someone feels the pressure to stand out from the crowd and really impress a university, then it could happen. 

Even small, believable exaggerations could come back to haunt a student if they were hypothetically invited to an interview further down the road. It could be as small as pretending to have read a particular book, or quoting/discussing a piece of research in their chosen subject field and not having fully engaged with it. 

Top tip: When it comes to putting anything untruthful in a Personal Statement, we can only offer you one piece of advice to give to your students. 

Don’t do it! It’s not worth it, students will probably get found out and there’s likely plenty of achievements and skills that students can talk about in their Personal Statement. They just need to think long and hard about what it is! 

10. Being controversial or contrarian for the sake of it 

Being controversial or argumentative can seem like a good way to sit up and get the reader’s attention – but it’s not worth a student doing it unless they’ve really got the evidence and the argument to back it up. 

For example, arguing against a famous essay or piece of research in a student’s chosen subject might seem like a good way to score some brownie points. But why does a student take issue with this particular piece of research? And is it really wise to try and tackle it in the space of a 4,000 character Personal Statement. 

Top tip: Students should definitely be independent and analytical when discussing their degree subject in their Personal Statement – after all, it’s the most surefire way to stand out. But taking a contrarian position, or trying to make an explosive new contribution to academic discourse in the course of one Personal Statement probably isn’t a good idea. 

Writing a Personal Statement for UCAS – final tips to avoid mistakes

What do these mistakes all have in common? 

The answer is they are the natural consequence of students forgetting some of the core principles of UCAS Personal Statement writing. 

  • Students need to ensure their Personal Statements are well-structured and well-planned – so as to avoid spelling mistakes and/or falling foul of the character limit. 
  • Students need to keep their Personal Statements as unique to them as possible – this means staying truthful to their own ambitions and worldview, and avoiding generalisations or cliches. 
  • A good Personal Statement needs to be rooted in strong analysis and writing that makes good use of evidence and specific examples to back up an argument. 
  • A standout Personal Statement needs to be compelling account of a student’s suitability for a course with a good story at the heart of it – it needs to show, not tell. 

Our Personal Statement template is a great resource if you want to help your students plan and write a truly individual Personal Statement, and avoid some of the mistakes we’ve listed here. Download it below! 

Bonus Resource!

How to write a Personal Statement Worksheet & Template

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