How to write a good personal statement

Neil. Moralee / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

Be personal

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

Recommended reading for Economics students

♔ Georgie R / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Economics AS students have now finished their exams and the pro-active among them will be starting to look ahead to next year and their applications to university.  At this time of the year I am often asked for recommendations for wider reading.

Whenever I am asked this I think there are two main aspects of Economics that make it a fascinating subject to teach but also which students should be aware of when considering it as a choice of degree subject.  The first is that  it is a varied and controversial subject with a number of continuing disagreements (for instance over the nature of capitalism).   The second is that the subject overlaps with a number of other subjects including Politics, Philosophy, History, Psychology, Finance, Mathematics, and Statistics, to name just a few.

So here are 5 choices for the ambitious student which attempt to reflect these ideas.

The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx.  Seemingly obscure, or out-of-date this is still one of the best and most insightful critiques of capitalism ever written.  The language is occasionally off-putting to students but written with a rare combination of passion and clarity.

The Affluent Society, JK Galbraith.  For most of human history the problem confronting human beings has been one of scarcity.  But for some countries, the new challenges are the problems associated with affluence and abundance.  Galbraith – always one of the best economic writers – highlights the problems of waste and misallocation of resources present in our own societies.

Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman.  The Anti-Marx!  Friedman defends capitalism against its attackers and argues that it’s the basis for all important freedoms.  Not only that but it should be extended while government involvement should be reduced.

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, David Landes.  A historical overview of the success of capitalism in generating wealth and development.  Fascinating historical insights informing a pro-market outlook.

Mathematics for Economics and Finance, M. Anthony and N. Biggs.  The use of mathematics in economics is frequently unnecessary and off-putting but it’s an unavoidable part of the subject.  Anthony and Biggs make it very accessible, while always explaining the purpose of the models used (as well as their limitations).

2012 Outlook

Here we go.  Time to nail my colours to the mast and guess forecast what this year has in store.  I’ve noticed two major temptations when doing this:  a)  to predict something ‘interesting’ or unexpected because it’s fun and the converse b) to assume everything remains basically the same.  The truth is inevitably the messy place in between.  This time I have 10 predictions, 7 economic and 3 political.  My outlook is that overall the UK economy will weaken further making it harder to cut the budget deficit and requiring yet more stimulus bt the Bank of England.  In politics, I predict a worsening of the position of Labour relative to the Conservatives. We shall see!

Continue reading “2012 Outlook”

Review of 2011

Having looked back over my posts over the last year I didn’t manage to post as often as I intended but I am pretty happy with what I wrote.  I guess I’m going to try and stick to ‘quality over quantity’ this year if I can although once again I will try and post more regularly.  

It’s that time of year again when I look back at the predictions I made last year and see how I did.  Overall it’s a decent record. On the economy I got 4/6.  On politics I got 4/6 too. Although maybe I am too generous with my half marks?!  So what should I learn?  I got the big picture right –  a weakening economy, and a government still supported to carry out painful reforms because they are accepted as necessary.  

What I didn’t sufficiently appreciate that this year would be when many of the spending cuts started to be felt and when inflation would undermine consumer confidence, leading to much lower growth than expected. Once again UK inflation proved to be higher and stay higher longer than most people, including I, expected.  I probably also underestimated the ability of the government to set the agenda and the relative incompetence of the Labour party as an opposition.

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2011 outlook

It’s nearly three weeks into January so it’s time to lay out a few predictions for what 2011 holds in store. I did this for 2010 and I didn’t do particularly well. It would be tempting to just say ‘it’s all too complicated’ and sit on the fence. But I like to do it because it forces me to think hard about issues it would be easier to avoid. Also, reviewing what you get right, and more importantly wrong, is a very good learning process. What I learnt from last year’s mixed record was that I tend to be too pessimistic and also that there is a lot of momentum out there – so the most likely thing is that current trends continue.

So here goes.

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Review of 2010 – UPDATED!

I have just updated this in the light of recent news that the UK economy contracted at the end of 2010 – it makes my record look a bit better!

A year ago I made some predictions about what would happen during 2010 and it’s now time to see how I did, and more importantly to see what I can learn from the experience. Overall it’s a rather patchy record but not one I think I need be ashamed of! Here is the break-down.

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Advice for students who missed their grades

This year there are a lot of disappointed students out there who did not make their first choice university because they didn’t quite get the required grades. Others may have exceeded their expectations and are reconsidering their options. Many are wondering whether it’s worth taking a year out, perhaps resitting some modules, and reapplying next year. But how to decide what to do? I get asked about this situation a lot so I thought I would put together some thoughts on the matter.

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Blogging as a way of learning, teaching

This is my first entry on my first proper website, so there’s bound to be a few teething problems, but here goes.

Anyway, the idea behind this blog is that it will provide a way for me to communicate with existing and potential students as well as other people interested in the ideas involved. My aim is that this site becomes a lively forum for the discussion and debate of economics, politics, philosophy (and maybe a bit of maths!) being learnt at A-level and degree level. I also hope it will become a means by which students can help me understand things better as well as help each other achieve the grades they desire.