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Writing your Personal Statement

By Russell Tillson

Why the Personal Statement is so important

Section 10 of the UCAS form requires you to compile a Personal Statement in support of your application to your chosen universities and colleges. Some of its content is quite likely to become a subject of discussion at any interview, and in any event it will be read very carefully by the admissions selectors in each university department. You should be working on a draft of your Personal Statement at the earliest opportunity, so do not leave it until a day or so before the deadline for submitting your UCAS form, since it is far too important to be put to one side. The Personal Statement represents a golden opportunity to stake your claim and to advertise your strengths and qualities; this has never been more important than in the current round of applications. Some clear thinking and honest self-questioning now could save you a great deal of heartache and expense later on. If you are submitting a handwritten form, the statement should still be typed or word processed on a computer (a minimum size font of 12 is strongly recommended), and UCAS provides stick-on sheets for this purpose. It should also be extremely carefully set out, with use made, where appropriate, of sub-headings and underlining, so that it really stands out, and thus demands to be read. It is probably a mistake to believe that the longer the statement the better; some of the most effective submissions do not exceed 300 words, and very carefully chosen words at that. UCAS advises that 53 lines of text and 72 characters per line will fit into the box, using Courier New font at 12pt. It is probably best to write in complete sentences, while lists should be avoided at all costs, as should any content that is misleading, fictitious or trivial. You must also make sure that your English is very clear, and that the Statement contains no errors of grammar, spelling or punctuation. Throughout the process you should seek guidance from your teachers and university applications advisers. You should also try to liaise with the teacher who will writing your Open Reference, with a view to avoiding unnecessary duplication of material, as well as ‘sharing’ the description and assessment of your qualities between the two documents. There are some very encouraging things that you can’t say (for fear of being accused of arrogance) but that he or she most definitely can! Try also to find examples of Personal Statements written by students who have previously applied to courses in your subject.

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Advice on compiling personal statements

Effective Personal Statements are likely to offer about three separate paragraphs, and with a little space left between them. The principal aim (and by a mile) is to get across your enthusiasm for selecting your chosen subject(s); hence most, probably two-thirds, of the statement will identify and reflect upon your academic interests. As a hard and fast rule specific examples are always far more convincing than very general statements, and so do not begin by stating ‘I want to read economics at university because I am very interested in it’. Your interest is taken for granted; what selectors and interviewers want to know is what steps you have taken to foster and to develop that interest, and not simply in AS/A Level classes. You should therefore start by outlining clearly the reasons for selecting your subject. Explain exactly what it is that excites you about it, and make explicit reference to very specific examples of topics, issues, personal research, reading outside the A Level specification, practical work, projects, coursework or fieldwork. In the case of joint honours degrees you will need to do this for each of the subjects, trying where possible to identify links between them. If you are not studying your proposed subject at school, explain clearly what has attracted you to it, indicate any research into it that you have done, and try to show how it might link with one or more of your current A Level subjects. If you have chosen a diverse range of courses at different institutions (and this is ultimately not good strategy) then you will need to provide clear reasons to justify this.

You might go on to provide details of your academic achievements, such as scholarships, performance in AS Level examinations, prizes awarded and any participation in external competitions. You might here also want to give some brief indication of your career aspirations, if you currently have any, and, where possible, establish links between your degree course choice and your career choice, though (except where there is a necessary link between degree subject choice and career) be careful not to put too much emphasis on any suggestion that your choice of courses is simply a means to a career end. Any relevant work experience should also be mentioned here, placing the stress on how you benefited and what exactly you learned. This is particularly important for applicants in medicine, veterinary medicine and law. If you plan to take a gap year, outline the reasoning behind your decision, and give some indication of what you have planned or are in the process of planning. Refer to any sponsorship for which you have applied. Any activity that is enabling you to develop one or more of your skills is particularly worth mentioning in this context. Indeed, you should include in your statement any information that demonstrates that you have acquired (and are using) particular skills, including any associated with information technology, teamwork, leadership, problem solving, communication, and service to the wider community. Remember that most courses now have Entry Profiles, and it is essential that you study and consider these before putting pen to paper, since you will need to provide specific examples in your statement of the particular skills, qualities and attributes that are sought.

In the final section of your statement you have an opportunity to describe your personal strengths, qualities and interests, and thus to impress the interviewers and selectors with your likely contribution to university and college life. It is important here that you get over the fact that you have seized the more rewarding opportunities that have come your way. Include examples of activities and interests that demonstrate your leadership or teamwork capacity, your enterprise or originality, your sensitivity to the needs of others and contribution to a community, or your determination to stick at a task. Select three or four prominent (and preferably contrasting) activities which bring out these qualities; they certainly do not have to be confined to school-based activities, and might well encompass sporting, musical, artistic or dramatic talents and achievements. Voluntary or charity work, team membership, direction of a play, responsibilities at school, performing in concerts or organising a rock group, and fascinating or unusual hobbies are simply a few of the possibilities. Try to offer evidence that you can work independently, that you can manage time effectively, and that you have a clear sense of priorities. Resist the obvious temptation to include long lists of sporting teams you have played in (since the age of seven!), foreign countries you have visited and activities in which your participation is no better than marginal or occasional. Remember that the aim of the statement is to establish that you are an interesting individual in your own right, with your own priorities, values and agenda, and therefore someone who will clearly benefit both from the course and from university life; this should be summarised in a short, though decisive concluding sentence.