How to write a convincing Personal Statement (UK)
The personal statement is the part of the UCAS application that many prospective students find most nerve-wracking. It’s just a brief introduction of yourself and your interests. Follow the steps in this guide and you’ll be well on your way to success.
Does it even matter?
Will the universities even read it, or is just a trivial UCAS requirement that people stress unnecessarily about? Our experience is that some universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, place an emphasis on the pre-interview tests and use the personal statement primarily as an inspiration for interview questions. Universities that rely on fewer inputs may place a greater emphasis on the statement, because it helps to signal your interest in the subject and your command of English.
Don’t leave the personal statement to the last minute. In his book “On Writing”, Stephen King recommends budding authors to leave their manuscript in a drawer for at least six weeks before they edit it.
“With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development. And listen–if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself. Screw-ups happen to the best of us.”
Six weeks is a bit excessive for something as short as a one-page reflection on your interests, but we recommend that you allow yourself enough time to let the statement sit in your drawer for about two weeks before having a second look. With the deadline for Oxford, Cambridge, medicine, and veterinary medicine on the 15th of October, aim to have the first draft done before the 1st of October.
From the other point of view, don’t start your statement too early. You’ll end up going through 20 drafts with minor differences that no one but you will appreciate. If you live by Parkinson’s Law, you’ll recall that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”: If you have two weeks to complete an assignment, you’ll manage in two weeks. If it’s due tonight, then by some mystical force of nature, you’ll get it done in a matter of hours. The point is not to leave the statement for the last minute, but to realise that you can produce a high-quality statement in a short period time through the power – and fear – of the clear and imminent of deadline.
Before you start writing, get a blank piece of paper to flesh out some ideas as to what you want to include in your statement. The UCAS “mindmap” can be a good place to start, although with the minor edit that work history is not relevant for the academically focused universities, so don’t worry about it, unless it has some relevance to the subject you’re applying for.
In particular, focus on the material you’ve studied outside school that’s relevant to the course you’re applying for: Books, articles, documentaries, and the like. If you’re wondering “what kind of books?”, don’t think it has to be heavy-duty academic textbooks. If you’re applying for economics, don’t list Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” but something simple and inviting that you’ve enjoyed: Tim Harford’s “The Undercover Economist”, Levitt & Dubner’s “Freakonomics”, or an article you read in the Economist. Don’t judge too much in this process: Just dump everything onto the paper.
Start with a strong opening sentence. No cliches like “I’ve always wanted to study biochemistry” (no, you haven’t), a quotes like “Stephen Hawking once said ‘Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.'”, or a sweeping statement like “Philosophy is the study of choice” (it isn’t)
In the first paragraph, explain your interest in the subject. Maybe you’ve studied physics for most of your secondary education and only recently acquired an interest in English literature?
Then, as soon as it makes sense in your statement, start providing evidence for your interest. You’ll often hear the advice “Show, don’t tell” and it’s worth being repeated many times. It’s the difference between walking up to someone on the street and telling them “I am a rock star” versus showing up on a stage with a guitar and actually being a rock star — only one will truly impress.
Don’t say that you’ve read a book by Bernanke or Krugman and that you liked it or that it resonated with you. Point to specific arguments that you liked or disagreed with: “Krugman argues that X, which I found curious because I read in the Economist that Y, which made me think that … “, implicitly showing that you care about these issues and can think in those terms.
You’re also welcome to draw on specific examples from your school work, as long as you can show that it’s something you’ve given extra thought.
As a rule of thumb, you want to provide a minimum of two examples of your interest in the course. It’s okay to put down clicheed examples — the pop books you’ll find in an airport — as long as you include some original thoughts in your commentary.
Aim to keep at least 80% of the statement focused on the academic aspects and no more than 20% on so-called extracurricular activities. The 20% would, ideally, show that you have skills that are indirectly useful for studying, such as good time mangement skills.
Finish strong, but don’t feel the need to wrap up (“In summary, I’ve read X, Y, and Z”)
Tips and tricks
- The statement can only be 4000 characters or 47 lines of text (including spaces and blank lines). This is roughly 600 words long, so keep the content relevant and the style short and simple.
- Don’t copy from other’s statements. UCAS uses plagiariasm software and can be quite diabolical in turning down applications based on this. A 2011 Telegraph article shows, with some humour, why you really would want to keep it original.
- Avoid big and fancy words: Put your statement through the Hemingway web app and force yourself to write as minimalistically as possible.
- Don’t write anything cringy. No deeply personal stories — keep it relevant
Marcus Henglein, 18 May 2016