It’s that time of year again when students often start thinking about or even drafting their personal statement for their UCAS application. For those planning on applying to Oxbridge or for medicine or dentistry, an early start on this is likely to be necessary.
But what on earth are you supposed to write? And how do you make your personal statement have maximum impact? Some people believe that there is some magic formula or structure which will guarantee them the offers they want. There isn’t.
Remember that the people reading these statements are very intelligent and experienced and have probably read hundreds of such statements. They will not be ‘wowed’ by some fancy story-telling, anecdote, or clever structure. What they want to see is something truthful, personal, specific and aimed at the course you want to pursue.
The most important thing is to keep in sight your aim which is to convince your future supervisors of your merit and suitability for your chosen course of study.
So what are they looking for? This statement captures the essence of it:
Strong personal statements convey the applicants’ passion for and growing insight into the chosen subject and course. They also convey personal attributes such as diligence, organisational skills, and leadership qualities.
“So what?” you might say, “everyone knows that.” But the truth is that so many candidates are trying to do this that the job of the admissions officer is very difficult. Increasingly people are saying the things they think will get them the place. So instead admissions tutors have to read between the lines to find the people that are really interested in the subject, and really read outside the syllabus. This brings me to one of the most important principles to follow.
Show, don’t just say
This means that it is simply not enough to say things like “I enjoy reading the Economist.” The admissions tutor has no way of knowing that it is true and it may well by the 10th time they’ve read that line this morning. Instead you need to show that you read it (or even better some other publication) by saying “I particularly enjoyed a recent Bagehot column in the Economist newspaper which compared David Cameron with the Prime Ministers of the 19th Century. It had never occurred to me that the style of politics of the 21st century might be so similar to that over a hundred years ago.” This shows that you have read it and had your own ideas about it. It shows a passion for politics and current affairs and a desire to learn more.
It’s no accident that it’s called a ‘personal statement’. The rest of your application will be contain the more impersonal information e.g. grades, educational background, references and so on. But this is the one place where you get to as it were ‘speak directly’ to the people who may well be teaching you. And so they want it to be packed full of personal details which really tell them what sort of person you are and what you’re interested in. After all not only do your future supervisors want you to do well on the course, they also want people on their courses who are interesting, engaged, and fun to teach!
So by all means read other people’s personal statements and maybe get some ideas from that. But above all the statement needs to convey who you are, what interests you and how you approach your studies and your life more generally. Stories or information about your family, your background, your education are all potentially excellent ways of doing this. Ask yourself: is there an event or occurrence that shows something important about me and why I want to do this course? How could I use that in the statement?
I had a student who told me how once dropped into conversation that he used to bore his sister with his extensive knowledge of capital cities of the world. What he didn’t realise is that story – if told in the right way – conveys to a potential supervisor that he is someone with a thirst for knowledge! So look at your own life and experiences and think of what shows you in your best light.
Show them how you think
Most students think it’s a good idea to talk about books or articles you have read that are relevant to the course. And it’s true that it can often be useful. But many students are missing the point of it. What the tutors are looking for is people who are interested in the subject and have the capacity to study that subject in the very different environment of a university. So they’re not that interested in how many books you’ve read. Rather what they want to see is your interest in, and critical engagement with what you have read. After all it is these students that are likely to do well in the subject at university.
So for example saying “Reading Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto I could understand how nineteenth century British capitalism must have seemed unstable and unfair.” is ok but it’s a bit generic and doesn’t given any insight into your thought processes. This is much better: “When I read Marx’s Communist Manifesto I was struck by his argument that capitalism inevitably exploits workers. However it did raise for me the question of whether trade unions and legal rights could in practise prevent this exploitation. This led me to read other books on this topic such as..” This shows that you are thinking about and engaging with what you have read – vital skills for anyone studying at university.
Just a final warning – don’t try and fake it! You might be tempted to write things that you think ‘sound good’ or are what they are looking for. But there really is no point. Chances are the tutors will be smart enough to see through lies or pretence. But even if they’re not then all you will have done will be to cheat your way onto a course that probably doesn’t suit you – which won’t be any good for you in the end!
So as a summary, here are the main dos and don’ts. Good luck!
- SHOW your qualities
- Be as specific as possible
- Use real and novel examples
- Show you thinking and ideas about your subject
- Be personal
- Be different
- Just say what you want them to think
- Simply list your achievements or interests
- Duplicate info available elsewhere e.g. your subjects or grades
- Be vague or general e.g. “Adam Smith’s ideas interest me.”
- Copy other people’s ideas