Like most students, I was completely stumped when writing my university personal statement – I couldn’t even decide on a subject, nevermind write thousands of characters about myself and said subject!
But eventually – after a last-minute change of course – I’d finally got something I was happy with, and that I felt reflected my personality. In the end, I received all 5 of my offers, all from Russel Group and/or Top 10 universities. So I’ve decided to write this article to help any of you who feel stuck with writing your own personal statement, whether you still need to start it or are just adding the final touches.
Plan (Yes, really!)
Before you even open a Word document, stop. Pick up a pen and paper, and make a bullet-point list of everything you want to include. Even if you only have 3 or 4 things, this initial list can help you structure your statement before you’ve even started.
Try writing it chronologically, with the first 2/3 being academic, and the final 1/3 being extra-curricular (roughly). Here’s what I started with:
- Intro – why do I want to do this subject?
- A-level studies link to course
- Wider reading
- Extra-curricular – music & writing
- Why you should choose me
This list goes into no depth at all, but it’s a perfect exercise to get your brain in gear!
The introduction is probably the trickiest bit, and you need to start with a bang. Some ideas for opening sentences:
- Humanities – if you’re applying for English, History, Philosophy or a similar subject, start with what sparked your passion for this: was it a book you read, a documentary you watched, or your study of the subject at GCSE/A Level? I’d recommend mentioning some wider reading that you’ve done, so if you’re a fan of Beauvoir or Wilde, let the reader know!
- Science/Maths/Engineering/Technology – if you’re applying for a STEM course, let the reader know why you’re a good candidate for this course: have you got strong numeracy skills from a part-time job? Did you do work experience with Rolls Royce and realise that this was your calling in life? Make sure you show your dedication to the subject, as this field is very competitive!
- Social Sciences – subjects like Sociology, Criminology and Psychology can be so personal: did you have a crime-related experience that led to a fascination for murder, or are you acutely aware of how your identity shapes your path in life? Linking your life experiences to the subject you want to pursue can help you stand out from the crowd, and will make your personal statement, well, personal.
- Creative Arts – if you’re applying for a career in performance, such as Music, Drama or Theatre, definitely mention any previous shows you’ve done: this demonstrates your love of the subject, particularly if you’re a regular performer. For Art students, talk about where you get your influences from – are you inspired by Carpaccio, Matisse, or Emin? What inspires your work; is it emotions, people, experiences?
The ‘academic section’ of your personal statement will account for about 2/3 of the overall piece, so you want to get in as much as you can. However, don’t make the mistake of mentioning every single little thing you’ve done: you need to be picky, and make sure you develop your points. There’s no point in writing about something if you can’t explain why it makes you suitable for your chosen course.
Firstly, write about your A-Levels, and how they all link to your course. For example, if you’re applying for English Literature, and did A-Level Psychology, you could mention your interest in psychoanalytic criticism and some wider reading on Freud. On the other hand, if you’re applying for Medicine, and studied a foreign language at A-Level, this would certainly help you to communicate with patients.
Secondly, I cannot express the importance of wider reading/research! You want to show that you’ve not just done the bare minimum of studying your subject at college – show them that you’re prepared to be an independent learner at university. Mention relevant books, articles, documentaries or even films.
To give you an idea of what sources you can use, here are some examples of wider research that I mentioned in my Sociology personal statement:
- The Beauty Myth (non-fiction book about gender)
- A Very English Scandal (dramatised mini-documentary series about the Jeremy Thorpe affair)
- Autoboyography (yes, I managed to make Young Adult fiction relevant! This is a novel with themes of sexuality, religion and culture)
Just as important as wider reading, are wider activities. This includes work experience, lectures or conferences that you’ve attended, and anything else that you’ve done which is applicable to your course. I’d recommend scattering these throughout your personal statement, instead of all in the same paragraph.
Occupying around 1/3 of your character count, this section is not to be looked down upon, particularly if you’re applying to Russell Group universities that like to see a well-rounded student.
In this section, mention any other cool things that you do – whether you participate in team sports, play an instrument, have a blog, lead a dance class, volunteer, or craft. You get the gist.
Students often fall into the trap of listing all the things they do, and they forget to explain them. Instead of listing all the recitals you’ve done, talk about what you’ve gained from performing (e.g. organisational skills, confidence, shows commitment). At the end of the day, this statement is about selling yourself, so don’t sell yourself short!
A concluding few sentences will help round off your personal statement nicely. Like in an essay, you want to reiterate all the points you’ve made, and explain why you’re a perfect candidate for your chosen degree.
A good way to do this is by talking about not only what you’ve already achieved, but what you WANT to achieve. What do you want to learn more about at university? Which topics would you like to conduct research on? How will this degree help you follow your desired career path? It’s key to remember that universities are looking for potential more than anything.
If you’re feeling confident, maybe end your personal statement with a relevant quote, but don’t go over the top. Something short and sweet and, importantly, something that reflects you.
Finally, to all of you, good luck with your applications!