Kathryn Abell of Edukonexion shares some tips ahead of her talk at the British Education Fair in Madrid taking place on 19-20 October 2015.
When applying to a UK university, the discovery that school grades alone are not enough to gain entry onto the programme of your choice can come as an unwelcome surprise. This is especially true for international students, many of whom see the words 'personal statement' for the first time when starting their university application.
But far from being a barrier, the personal statement is, in fact, one of the stepping stones to achieving your goal of studying at a UK university.
A personal statement can help you stand out
If you have selected your study programme well – that is to say, you have chosen something that you are truly excited about that matches your academic profile – then the personal statement is simply a way to communicate to admissions tutors why you are interested in the programme and what you can bring to it. And given the fact that many universities receive multiple applications for each available place, and that most do not offer an interview, your written statement is often the only way you can express your personality and say 'choose me!'.
The 'personal' in 'personal statement' suggests that you should be allowed to express yourself however you want, right? Well, to a certain extent that is true: admissions tutors want to get a picture of you, not your parents, your teachers or your best friend, so it has to be your work. However, the purpose of the statement is to persuade academic staff that they should offer you one of their highly sought-after university places; although there is no strict template for this, there are specific things you should include and certain things you should most certainly leave out.
The importance of the opening paragraph
The online Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) undergraduate application form allows a total of 4,000 characters (around 700 words), meaning that you need to craft the statement carefully. The most important part is unquestionably the opening paragraph, as it acts as an invitation to continue reading. If you are not able to catch the attention of the admissions tutor, who has hundreds of statements to assess, then it is highly unlikely they will read through to the end.
The best advice here is to avoid much-used opening lines and clichés such as 'I have wanted to be an engineer since I was a child'. This kind of thing is not the invitation readers are looking for. Instead, try using an anecdote, experience or inspirational moment: 'Although tinkering with engines had always been a childhood hobby, it was the vision of the fastest car on earth, the Bloodhound, at an exhibition in London, that roused my desire to learn everything I could about automotive engineering'. Really? Tell me more!
Of course, your opening paragraph could start in a variety of ways, but the fundamental purpose is to grab the reader’s interest.
Provide evidence of your commitment and skills
Following on from that, you have to provide evidence of your passion and commitment to your chosen programme, and highlight the specific and transferable skills you possess to study it successfully. You can do this by following the ABC rule.
Action: Include examples of what you have done, experienced or even read that have helped you in your choice of degree and boosted your knowledge of the subject area.
Benefit: By doing these things, explain what you learned or gained; in the case of a book or article, put forward an opinion.
Course: The most successful applicants ensure that the information they include is relevant to their course in order to highlight their suitability. Flower-arranging may allow you to realise your creative potential, but will it help you study astrophysics?
It is perfectly acceptable to base this ABC rule on school-based activities, as not all students have opportunities outside the classroom. However, if you can link extra-curricular pursuits to your desired programme of study, you are further highlighting your commitment. As a general rule of thumb, the information you include here should be around 80 per cent academic and 20 per cent non-academic. So, for example, as a member of the school science club – a non-curricular, academic activity – you may have developed the ability to analyse data and tackle problems logically. Taking part in a work placement falls into the same category and could have helped you develop your communication, time-management and computer skills. You get the idea.
Non-academic accomplishments may involve music, sport, travel or clubs and can lead to a variety of competencies such as team-working, leadership, language or presentation skills. A word of warning here: it is vital that you sell yourself, but arrogance or lies will result in your personal statement landing in the 'rejected' pile. Keep it honest and down-to-earth.
Provide a memorable conclusion
Once you have emphasised your keen interest and relevant qualities, you should round off the statement with a conclusion that will be remembered. There is little point putting all your effort to generate interest in the opening paragraph only for your statement to gradually fade away at the end. A good conclusion will create lasting impact and may express how studying your chosen course will allow you to pursue a particular career or achieve any other plans. It can also underline your motivation and determination.
Use a formal tone, stay relevant and be positive
As you have to pack all this information into a relatively short statement, it is essential to avoid the superfluous or, as I like to call it, the 'fluff'. If a sentence sounds pretty but doesn’t give the reader information, remove it. In addition, the tone should be formal and you should not use contractions, slang or jokes; remember, the statement will be read by academics – often leaders in their field.
Referring to books is fine but don’t resort to using famous quotes as they are overused and do not reflect your own ideas. Also, while it's good to avoid repetition, don't overdo it with the thesaurus.
Negativity has no place in a personal statement, so if you need to mention a difficult situation you have overcome, ensure you present it as a learning experience rather than giving the reader an opportunity to notice any shortcomings. Also, bear in mind that your personal statement will probably go to several universities as part of a single application, so specifically naming one university is not going to win you any favours with the others.
Get some help but never copy someone else's work
Checking grammar, spelling and flow is essential and it is perfectly OK to ask someone to do this for you. A fresh pair of eyes and a different perspective always help, and, as long as the third party does not write the content for you, their input could be of vital importance. And while you may get away with not sticking to all of the above advice, there is one thing that you absolutely must not do: copy someone else’s work. Most applications are made through UCAS, which uses sophisticated software to detect plagiarism. If you are found to have copied content from the internet, or a previous statement, your application will be cancelled immediately. Remember, it is a personal statement.
Get your ideas down in a mind-map first
Finally, I will leave you with my top tip. If you understand all the theory behind the personal statement and have an abundance of ideas floating in your head, but are staring blankly at your computer screen, take a pen and paper and make a simple mind map. Jot down all your experiences, activities, skills, attributes and perhaps even include books you have read or even current items that interest you in the news. Then look for how these link to your course and highlight the most significant elements using arrows, colours and even doodles. Capturing thoughts on paper and making logical deductions from an image can give structure to your ideas.
Register for our British Education Fair in Madrid, taking place on 19-20 October 2015, for a chance to talk directly to staff from 40 UK universities, vocational colleges and English language schools.
Get more advice from our Education UK site on your UCAS application and writing your statement.
You might also be interested in:
Read more articles
Here's an analogy every student of English will grasp: "Think of your personal statement as a very short, short story. It has to have a beginning and an end and a character that we care about.
"For the purposes of this story, you are that character. What makes you tick?" Sheffield English lecturer Jonathan Ellis recommends that's the approach you take when you start writing your personal statement.
But in telling your story, don't let your imagination run riot. Listen to the note of caution sounded by the academics who read the personal statements submitted by sixth-formers trying to get on to their English courses. You need to play it safe, they say.
The quietly thoughtful, honest statement will go a lot further than one puffed up with flamboyant claims and razzmatazz.
Professor Martin Coyle, admissions tutor for English at Cardiff University, says students who strain too hard for effect often sound hollow. An interest in the minor figures in Jane Austen's novels is more likely to interest an admissions tutor than a statement written in blank verse, he says.
"They should also be looking forward to university – to anything from analysing grammar in detail, to learning old English, to studying post-modern American poetry," says Professor Coyle.
Does he object to students with a "passion" for their subject. Not really, he says. "If they're not passionate at 17, they're never going to be passionate!"
But Dr Hilary Hinds, an admissions tutor from the English department at Lancaster University, finds cliches such as "passionate about literature" and "I've loved books for as long as I can remember" dull and predictable. "Demonstrate it rather than claim it," she says.
Lancaster University offers English with creative writing, a course that gives applicants a little more scope to be imaginative in their personal statements, says Dr Hinds.
But it is more important to provide evidence of creative writing experience, such as submitting work to a poetry magazine or editing a school magazine.
Dr Hinds advises students to avoid reeling off a list of their A-level reading. "Give me some kind of contextual, analytical or historical angle that shows you are actively engaging with course texts."
School-leavers fresh to an English degree have to brace themselves for a hefty reading list, and evidence of extensive reading in your personal statement will convince tutors you can handle it.
Dr Richard Storer, admissions tutor for English at Leeds Trinity, recommends students read and discuss as much as they can outside of the A-level curriculum. "Books from pre-1900 will catch the eye – that shows more of a readiness to take on a challenge," he says.
His personal bugbear is the opening quote from Plato, Nelson Mandela or Oscar Wilde that may or may not reflect the applicant's philosophy on life. "Quite often they don't seem to have actually looked at the quote or understood it."
Such misplaced pretension is not going to impress Oxbridge either. Steve Watts, chair of the Cambridge admissions forum, says he's never happy to receive personal statements in badly written verse. "There's standing out from the crowd – fine. But there's also making a show of yourself – not so fine," he says.
"The worst thing you can do is to declare how much you love Tolstoy, say, when you're only at page five of War and Peace. You can guarantee we'll ask you about something from the middle or end."
What should you include in your statement? Ucas guidance recommends applicants state their career aspirations, reasons for choosing the course, academic interests, relevant experience and other interests. Is that applicable to an English degree?
Well, the trick is to keep it relevant. A Duke of Edinburgh expedition to the Lake District might seem tangential but it is interesting if it inspires you to read Dorothy Wordsworth's journals. A supermarket Saturday job doesn't develop your powers of literary criticism – but it does show you can get up early and take responsibility for yourself.
English tutors at the University of Cambridge don't really expect work experience – unless its something that enhances how you think about literature, says Watts.
He also says he'd be surprised if many candidates knew their career aspirations at the personal statement stage. Other interests, however, are important: "Reading, theatre-going, film-watching, creative writing, making drama could all be called hobbies but are also part of the business of critical engagement which most English degrees are all about."
Tutors are assessing your potential, not what you have already achieved. They are aware that some students have a better chance of gathering impressive life experiences than others.
Research conducted last year by Dr Steve Jones of Manchester University found that personal statements from independent school applicants were generally better written and listed more prestigious experiences than those from state school applicants.
"Admissions tutors are increasingly conscious of how past advantage can affect the statements submitted," says Dr Jones, "Academic capital is more important than cultural capital – so it's great if you can play the flute, but we'll be more impressed if you show a deep understanding of your discipline and the kind of content you'll encounter on your chosen courses."
He also advises erring on the side of caution when it comes to style. "Don't be under-formal or over-formal, don't crack jokes, and don't use up your word count with pretentious quotes," he says.
There are subtler and more effective ways of bringing your personal statements to life. "The best personal statements," says Sheffield's Ellis, "have their own story to tell – perhaps beginning with the first book you finished in one sitting or the first book you re-read.
"Do you care about authors or genres? Novels or poems? There's no right answer.
"We certainly don't look favourably on personal statements that don't mention a single book. Alas, there are many of these every year.
And of course, every tutor makes it clear that impeccable spelling and grammar are paramount, particularly for English applications. The advice is to check and check again, then get parents, teachers and friends to check.
A misplaced apostrophe can be really off-putting to admissions tutors, and you don't want to give them an easy reason to turn you down.