writing a personal statement: a guide

It’s that time of year again. All across the country, Year 13s (or ‘upper sixth’) are raging in frustration at the complex inadequacy of the UCAS system as they attempt to apply for university, and many, I am sure, are beginning to stress about that seemingly insurmountable task of writing a personal statement.

This time last year I had, in a fleeting moment of desperation to answer that nagging what if... in the back of my mind, decided to apply to Cambridge University (you can read about the whole process here). Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) applicants, along with those applying for music conservatoires and veterinary and medical courses, are required to complete their online applications earlier than everyone else – by mid-October – so that the necessary interviews can be organised. Thus, at the end of September last year I found myself with a mere fortnight to not only complete my entire application form, but also write the dreaded personal statement.

Luckily, I was provided with a huge amount of support both at home and in school, and I found that once I forced myself to sit down and actually write the thing, it was far more simple than I’d imagined. The tricky thing is getting your head around how you’re supposed to write it, as opposed to the content it’s supposed to include. So, here’s my quick how-to guide for a personal statement.

1 – Know your subject.
Ask yourself these questions:
– Why do you want to study your subject?
– Why is your subject important to you?
– What have you read/seen/done outside of school to support your passion for your subject?
– Where will a study of this subject take you in the future?

Jot your answers down – they might form the basis of the next step, your plan.

2 – Make a plan.

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I’m pretty sure I spent longer on my plan for my statement than I did actually writing it. Mine took the form of an enormous colour-coded spider diagram, but yours can be anything you like. The important thing is to not sit staring at a blank word document for hours. Instead, get creative and put all your ideas down on real-life paper first. It doesn’t have to be neat (in fact, I’d argue that it shouldn’t be) – just scribble down anything and everything you feel might be relevant.

If you’re stuck for somewhere to begin, start by answering those questions above.They can form the basic structure of your statement. A good guide for this would be:

– brief introduction – a basic outline of why you want to study your subject
academic and intellectual curiosity – prove that your subject matters to you by providing evidence of additional reading etc that you have done outside of your school studies as well as during them
– related interests – what other tasks or activities have you participated in which relate to your subject?
– extra-curricular activities – what do you do outside of school which proves you are a well-rounded individual?*
– conclusion – bring the piece back to the introduction. Where will your study take you? Why should the university take you?

*Oxbridge are less concerned with this, so if you’re applying there it’s best to make this paragraph shorter. Make sure to include it though, as the other universities you apply to will be interested in how else you will be able to benefit their establishment.

3 – Write a draft.
Now it’s time to sit down and write. Do this on a word document, rather than on the UCAS site itself as your session will time out. Spend a lot of time on your opening and closing sentences – these will be your first and last impressions to the admissions staff so it is crucial to get these right. Try to link absolutely every point you make back to your course in some way. If you’re struggling elsewhere, try working out the first sentence of each paragraph and see where it takes you. Make sure you get in everything from your plan you think is critical – and try not to go too far over the 4000-character word limit!

4 – Have someone else read it.
It is absolutely critical that somebody who understands the personal statement process reads your statement. By this I mean a teacher or other staff member, or a university student who has gone through the same process. Your statement can be a fantastic piece of writing, but if it doesn’t tick the personal statement checklist you need to know – so make sure whoever reads it understands how a statement is supposed to read.

5 – Re-draft and send.
Make sure you take on the advice given to you. Your teacher wants you to get into university and their advice on your personal statement will be invaluable – so make sure you follow it! If you feel the need, go back to them with your second draft, and your third and fourth if you wish. Then, copy and paste your statement into your UCAS form. Make sure it fits and it’s not so long that your last words or sentences are missing. If they are, go back to your word document and cut down again – get advice on this if you need. Once this is done, you’re ready to go – if the rest of your UCAS form is filled in, press send!

If you feel you need more detailed advice, there are plenty of places to go. I’d recommend The Student Room which has masses of resources for personal statement-writing including a ‘statement builder’ and a library of personal statements written by students in the past.

I will also post my own statement which may be most helpful to those looking to study English, though its basic structure can be followed for almost any subject.

In the meantime – the best of luck to all students! Don’t stress; just plan, and remember to ask for as much help as you need.

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  1. 30/09/2014 / 1:56 pm

    Good tips indeed Lucy, and the ‘spider diagram’ is a work of art in itself. I can imagine Tracey Emin selling her ‘version’ for a tidy sum!
    Best wishes, Pete.

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