Wednesday, September 21, 2005 | comments

This site has been created by Rob Oliver and Helen Martin to support students in writing the Personal Statement for university applications in the UK. It is based on workshops given at the International School of Amsterdam since 2001 and at Rijnlands Lyceum Oegstgeest since 2008.

Use the menu on the left or, if you have a specific question, try our 'FAQs' section which is regularly updated. Also see our list of recommended links on university entrance in the UK.

If you have a question about UCAS, the central clearing system for university applications in the UK, try the UCAS web site or ask your careers counsellor.

Other Systems

If you are applying for the US you will need to write a college essay. This is often similar to a UK personal statement but individual colleges set their own questions which might include creative writing options. This web site focuses mainly on UK applications. See the links (left) for some web sites on the US college essay.

If you are applying for a university in the Netherlands, there is a good chance that you will be required to write a personal statement or motivatiebrief. This is similar to the UK statement but may include more guided questions.


Any opinions expressed here are entirely those of the authors and reflect no affiliation to a university in the UK or elsewhere. (If you are a teacher or a careers advisor, you are welcome to use these materials freely. We would ask you, however, to fully attribute any reference made to them.)

The Personal Statement and What Universities are Looking For

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Why the 'Personal Statement'?

The personal statement is an important part of the UCAS application process for university entrance in the UK. Along with predicted grades and the school reference, it is the one of the three main factors used by universities to decide whether to invite you to interview or offer you a place. The box on the application form marked 'Personal Statement' is not just a piece of administration. It is your chance to shine as an individual in your own words in the application process.

It could, in some circumstances, make a big difference. It could be a winning factor in 'borderline situations' - situations where you are in competition with other students with the same grades as you. Or it could be a factor in getting you an interview. Even if your grades and school reference are excellent, a thoughtful and focused personal statement can only enhance your application.

Making an Impression

Although every reader (and every writer) of personal statements will be different, there are certain qualities which most admissions tutors are looking for when reading personal statements.
Your school reference will say things about you in the third person. The personal statement demonstrates who you are in the first person. However, this is not the same 'first person' as the one you may use in a personal essay in English or in an e-mail. You are writing as 'I', but it is an 'I' with a purpose: to give a positive and convincing impression of yourself as a potential university student.

The overall impression you give will not come from a single thing you write, but from all the things working together. However, when you write your statement you need to set priorities. Define the key things about you that you want readers to get even if they only give you a few seconds. These priorities should be clear early in your statement, preferably in the first paragraph, and then echo through the rest of the statement.

So what are universities looking for in a good personal statement?

We have been reading personal statements and leading workshops about them for several years. Still we can't be sure exactly what universities are looking for. In all likelihood it will vary - from place to place, subject to subject, person to person.

However, we have some ideas. There are some personal qualities that, in our experience, most admissions tutors are looking for when reading statements.

Here we list some of the key phrases which have been associated with successful personal statements:

* Academic Potential: your 'upward learning curve'; why you will be an interesting as well as a capable student; what learning means for you

* Academic Skills and Qualities: how you respond to academic challenge; motivation; ability to ask questions; self-discipline; critical thinking

* Motivation to Read the Subject(s): an individual answer to the question 'Why do you wish to study this subject?'; your interests related to the subject; evidence of research done so far (eg extended essay); some understanding about what the subject involves at a higher level; some awareness of the relevance of your subject and its future challenges, including any major ethical or political issues affecting the subject (eg ethical issues in medicine, political issues in law)

* Passion for the Subject: intellectual commitment; imagination; reading beyond the syllabus; making connections between academic work and other experiences

* Personal Skills and Qualities: why you are someone who will benefit from university; focus; initiative and leadership skills; team/interpersonal skills; confidence; ability to take responsibility; organisational skills; how you cope with new experiences; how you have faced challenges; achievements; languages; special skills in IT or other areas

* Writing and Thinking Ability: coherence and clarity in your writing; the ability to organise an argument and give examples or evidence; ability to communicate; skill in combining general and detailed comments; creativity and enjoyment in the use of language; sense of audience; engagement

* A Sense of the Future: ambitions and goals; expectations of yourself;possible career directions

* Work/Practical Experience: both voluntary and paid; what you gained from the experience as a person; how the experience gave you new perspectives; how it is related to your course or subject choice (especially medicine, veterinary science, business, law)

* Presentation: clear and error-free writing that is easy and pleasant to read.

How are personal statements read?

When applications arrive at universities, each institution will have its own procedures for reading and assessing them. These are likely to vary not only from one university to another but from one department to another.

It is highly likely that readers of personal statements follow a set of criteria agreed by the university or the department. Admissions tutors probably read statements as part of a team, sharing their decisions. They probably read them in the context of the whole UCAS application, taking into account the student's predicted grades and school reference as well as the personal statement.

They may even follow some kind of scoring system. Dr David Dawson, Assistant sub-Dean of Admissions at Leeds University Medical School, recently said: “Each personal statement is sent to two doctors who independently score each on seven criteria which assess motivation, social awareness, responsibility and extracurricular interests, as well as taking into account [exam] results and predicted grades” (The Independent, 15 September 2005).

Drafting the Personal Statement

Friday, September 16, 2005 | comments

We encourage you to start early on your PS and do as many drafts as you need to before it is right. Ideally leave a few days between drafts.

When drafting your personal statement you usually need to make changes. The first words you get down on paper will probably not be those you send off. You will add, delete, re-arrange, combine pieces of information, and alter the language to make it more concise and readable.

Universities appreciate PSs which are thoughful and well organised. Usually a PS which has been worked through several drafts transmits positive signals. It shows careful connections, a thread of interest running through the whole text (like an argument in an essay), good language choices, and attention to detail. These are all highly valued at university level.

Although your PS will probably be read by more then one person, the amount of time given to your writing by each reader is not likely to be long, maybe one or two minutes on average. So you need to make sure that you communicate in a concise, coherent and interesting way.

When revising, what should you look for?

* be specific but selective: give examples, use details, provide evidence
* emphasise the most important things: don't get bogged down in excessive detail about one thing

* relate what you say as much as possible to your course choice
* create a thread of interest throughout your statement about your academic motivation
* use as many experiences as possible to show that you are ready for university-level study
* avoid telling long stories or anecdotes
* don't just list experiences, but say what you have learned from them
* convey enthusiasm
* write clearly, using short sentences in combination with longer ones
* avoid cliches
* don't overload or have too many paragraphs (aim for five/six paragraphs)

A Thread of Interest

Top priority in a PS is your academic motivation - why you want to study the subject. This is the first thing the universities want to know. An admissions tutor recently told us that he expects at least 50% of a good PS to be about the student's interest in the subject and readiness to study it at an academic level.

Try to create a thread of interest running throughout the statement related to your academic choice. Find ways to connect your experiences (CAS, extra-curricular, out of school interests) to your central motivation. Also, make full use of research experiences like the extended essay.

Drafting your statement: some ‘before’ and ‘after’ examples

These examples all come from the drafts of personal statements written by students in previous years. After each example we give our comments. We are looking at how students used written language to make their statements more focused, interesting and relevant.

Example One

Draft One:
I want to study medicine because of my growing interest in science and how it can help people and improve the quality of life.

Draft Two:
My interest in medicine grows out of two motivations in my life. Firstly, my love of science, which has become stronger as I have tackled more advanced research, for example an IB extended essay on cancer screening techniques. Secondly, my desire to contribute to an improved quality of life, particularly regarding personal health.

Draft Three:
My interest in medicine grows out of two motivations: a love of science, and a desire to contribute to better public health care. My IB research project on cancer screening techniques has made me aware of the some of the issues, both medical and ethical, in public health programmes, but also the importance of people and their emotions in health issues. The combination of these two factors – the power and potential of medical science, together with the complex human issues involved – have made me pursue medicine as a career.

Rob's comments: This is an important part of a PS - the motivation statement. The changes made by this student make her statement more focused on medicine, but also more rooted in her own experience. It has more detail. A whole paragraph grows out of one sentence. The main change is that she identifies two aspects of her motivation and finds a way to present them (using the 'Firstly/Secondly' technique) and add brief examples. She then improves further by connecting the two aspects. She adds a 'summary' sentence (using a colon) and a connecting sentence (using a dash and words like 'combination' and 'together'). The effect is to make the statement more personal and more professional. She has really thought about the role of medicine in the world. At the same time the student comes across as someone keen to learn. Note how the IB extended essay is used. The actual topic is mentioned ('cancer screening techniques') but it is connected to the broader topic of medicine.

Helen’s comments: Reference to ethical issues strikes a good note – honesty and understanding of ethics are important in applying for medicine. This student moves from generalization and cliché in Draft One to more specific weaving together of experience and motivation in Draft Three. Draft One could have been written by almost any applicant; in Draft Three, the student is emerging as an individual – the reader gets a clearer picture of her suitability for medicine. Passion (“a love of science”) is stated (but remember that it needs to be proved by evidence elsewhere in the personal statement). By Draft Three, it is evident that this student has put thought into her suitability for medicine and what its study involves. The increasing precision of thought is matched by increasing fluency of expression. If you are applying for medicine, it is worth thinking about what Dr David Dawson, Assistant sub-Dean of Admissions, Leeds University Medical School, recently said: “Each personal statement is sent to two doctors who independently score each on seven criteria which assess motivation, social awareness, responsibility and extracurricular interests, as well as taking into account [exam] results and predicted grades” (The Independent, 15 September 2005).

Example Two

Draft One:
I am very committed to environmental issues and campaigns. I feel strongly that we should take more care of our local environment.

Draft Two:
I am an active member of Greenpeace and have taken part in local environmental projects. My involvement with this group has shown me the value of people working together to bring about change. In 2003 I took part in a local action to drain and restore a disused canal.

Rob's comments: This is about a student's environmental interests. The first version is full of enthusiasm ('very committed', 'feel strongly') but short on detail. The changes add detail and make the student come across as more active and reflective. Rather than the vague 'we', the statement is now about 'people working together' and gives a specific example of change through local action. Note how the pronoun 'I' is replaced by 'My involvement' in the second sentence of version 2. It is worth finding ways to make sure that not every sentence of your PS begins with 'I'!

Helen's comments: Stating something doesn’t make it true. Admissions tutors are looking for evidence. By Draft Two, the student is beginning to give some proof. I’d want to read something on why this student believes in the need for change and in the importance of environmental projects – in other words, I’d want to see some passion and commitment, particularly if course choice is involved.

Example Three

Draft One:
I speak English and Russian. I think being bilingual has helped me a lot.

Draft Two:
Being fluent in two languages helps me to see the world through different perspectives. Teaching a friend my native language, Russian, helped me to see the value of this.

Rob's comments: Being bilingual is definitely something to put in your PS. But you need to make something out of it. The reader may be automatically impressed. But they may also think 'So what? What have you learned from that?' In this example the experience is made more reflective. The student shows how being bilingual has helped him as a learner and an international student. He also draws in another experience - teaching- which gives the bilingual identity another dimension. Note again how the pronoun 'I' can be changed - he uses 'Being fluent in two languages' instead of 'I speak'. Further additions could be made. This whole experience could perhaps echo the student's academic motivation, expressed earlier in the statement.

Helen's comments: By Draft Two, this applicant is beginning to address how and why bilingualism is an important aspect of his/her experience. As it stands, Draft Two leaves me wondering what the different perspectives are and why the student thinks they are valuable: In writing the personal statement, you don’t want to leave your reader with unanswered questions. As Rob says, it might be better to make bilingualism echo/support another point (e.g. motivation, reasons for course choice, links with chosen course/career…). Although the English are not known for their language skills, it’s worth remembering that 61 languages are being taught in Britain and children in England speak 300 languages. Being bilingual is not remarkable on its own.

Example Four

Draft One:
Being in an international school has shown me the importance of other cultures and made me more tolerant as a person.

Draft Two:
Being in an international school has shown me how differences between cultures can be turned into strengths by debate. My experience as part of the school debating team working with other students from many countries helped me to see this.

Rob's comments: This is a typical example of a cliche - a set of ready-made phrases taken off the shelf and telling us nothing about the individual person. They are rather common in personal statements. The second version shows the person reflecting on her experience in a way which is more individual. She connects two aspects of her life - the international student and the debater. More additions could perhaps be made . Could, for example, this focus on debate and cultures now be related to the student's subject choice?

Helen's comments: There are the seeds of some good points in Draft Two. Universities are looking for students who will contribute, academically and socially, to their institutions. “Cultural understanding” and debating skills are desirable, but it is better to SHOW these aspects rather than to state them. Embed the message you want to convey. As Rob says, perhaps the student could relate language skills to another aspect, e.g. course choice, career thoughts, or personal qualities desirable in the chosen field. It is also worth asking if this student wants to foreground “cultural awareness” or something else. The answer depends in part on subject choice – everything you say has to be relevant. The debating skills could be part of a larger point about, for example, commitment to school activities, another desirable quality, or about learning to create convincing arguments, vital in university writing.

Demonstrating academic qualities and potential

How can you show you are on an upward learning curve? That you will be an interesting student to teach? Admissions tutors and staff expect you to show awareness of your academic ability and promise without being arrogant. How can you do this?

We hope the following examples from the drafts of personal statements written by students in previous years will help you to write about your academic qualities and potential in a convincing way.

In some examples, academic qualities overlap with other aspects of the students' experience; this is effective weaving together of key aspects and provides a connecting thread to the personal statement. After each example, we give our comments.

Example Five

Draft One
The International School of X’s emphasis is centred on independent learning and interdisciplinary awareness, which, as a consequence, has taught me to recognise the nature of a problem, devise a strategy for its solution, make an assessment of progress, as well as constructively evaluate the outcome – important for the study of economics and philosophy.

Draft Two
The International School of X’s emphasis on independent learning and interdisciplinary awareness has taught me to recognize the nature of a problem, devise a strategy for its solution, make an assessment of progress, as well as constructively evaluate the outcome. This approach has provided me with tools to tackle unfamiliar problems through a variety of different knowledge areas. In reading Economics as well as Philosophy texts, such as Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, I have come to understand that this aptitude is essential for their study.

ISX’s emphasis however, has more significantly allowed me to become responsible for my own learning. It has taught me to question the manner in which I learn best, and subsequently has allowed me to satisfy independently my curiosity for knowledge beyond the assigned curriculum.

Draft Three
The International Baccalaureate’s Diploma Years Programme emphasises independent learning and interdisciplinary awareness. These past two years especially have taught me to recognize the nature of a problem, devise a strategy for its solution, make an assessment of progress, as well as constructively evaluate the outcome. This rigorous approach to learning has provided me with tools to tackle unfamiliar problems through a variety of different knowledge areas. In reading Economics as well as Philosophy texts, such as Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, I have come to understand that this interdisciplinary awareness is essential for their effective study.

Developing this awareness into an aptitude has allowed me to independently address my curiosity for knowledge beyond the assigned curriculum. This in turn may well be a contributing factor as to why I often fall naturally into leadership positions on committees and team projects. Living in several countries, including Greece and the UK, has made me trilingual, but has also taught me to integrate myself both intellectually and socially in an intercultural setting, without compromising my own values.

Helen’s comments: Notice how this student has expanded the topic of interdisciplinary awareness to include an example and link it to choice of courses (especially important for joint honours). One paragraph becomes two, the second focused on the aptitude acquired and on how it has affected his experience in other areas (leadership skills, language ability and adaptability). He mentions a particular book on Philosophy and going beyond the curriculum – both show a motivated learner. He could well be asked questions on these aspects at interview. Notice also how the focus on the school becomes a focus on the IB programme, which is known to prepare students well for university. The link between the paragraphs makes for a coherent piece of writing. This student has synthesized aspects of his learning experience and presents himself as someone who will not only benefit from but also contribute to the university. A final note: admissions staff know the IB is “rigorous”, so there is no need to say it is.

Example Six

Draft One
Veterinary medicine is a profession that has sparked an interest in me from a young age. This was initially awakened by regular visits to a wildlife animal shelter where I ended up performing my first period of work experience. Later in high school I was able to explore more, including a research project on horse doping for Chemistry and an oral on animal rights for Spanish. Furthermore, my love of chemistry and Biology has been ardently stimulated by the challenging IB course that I follow, allowing me to develop my curiosity and understanding of the continuous learning involved in science.

Draft Two
Veterinary medicine is a profession that has sparked an interest in me from a young age. It was initially awakened by regular visits to a wildlife animal hospital where I ended up performing my first period of work experience. Later in high school I was able to explore more, including a research project on horse doping for chemistry and a Spanish-language report on animal rights. Furthermore my love of Chemistry and Biology has been stimulated by the challenging IB course that I follow in which I have carried out much individual research. I have also had the opportunity to develop my curiosity and understanding of the continuous and inspirational learning involved in science. An example is my extended essay which I am currently drawing together in which I discuss pharmacology and physiology of humans and animals, as well as some of the dilemmas surrounding vivisection in today’s drug industry.

Helen’s comments: Writing about the Extended Essay, especially if it is on a subject connected to your course choice, can strengthen your application. It is important, though, not just to say what the EE is about, but to show what you have learned from the experience. This student is connecting course choice to the subjects she enjoys and to her work experience; in the next draft, she needs to show why she enjoys these subjects rather than loading them with adjectives (“challenging”, “inspirational”, etc.), and to give details of what she got out of her work experience. She will probably reorder the information in order to make the content more convincing: does it strengthen or weaken the personal statement to write about two projects before the subjects? Could the work experience be developed into a paragraph that follows one on academic subjects? What has she learned from the EE experience? This student would be well advised to take a close look at the language: there are some colloquial expressions; there are unnecessary words and phrases.

Example Seven

Draft One
I have always been fascinated by the physical sciences. My interest has developed in the last few years. When I was 10, I was the proud owner of a chemistry set that transformed a room into my own laboratory. At the age of 12, I had won top place in [name of country’s] Universities School Science tests. By age 15 I was reading one of Stephen Hawking’s research papers. Now I’m taking a challenging course of IB Higher Level Physics and Chemistry, and realizing how far I am from truly understanding such papers.

Draft Two
My fascination with the physical sciences has grown and solidified in the last few years, but it is not new. Even at the age of 10 I was the proud owner of a chemistry set that transformed a small room into my very own laboratory; at age 12 I had won top place in [name of country’s] Universities School Science tests; by age 15 I was struggling to understand one of Stephen Hawking’s research papers, which at the time I worked out was a discourse on 'where black holes go'. Now I’m taking a challenging course of IB Higher Level Physics and Chemistry, and realizing how far I am from truly understanding such papers. One year from now I hope I’ll be on track to discovering these answers.

Helen’s comments: This student succeeds in demonstrating both achievement and modesty. He shows a consistent interest in the sciences and has a clear sense of what he wants from university. The frequent use of “I” in the first draft has decreased as the student uses alternative phrasing (e.g. “My fascination with…”). The first sentence of the second draft introduces and sums up the paragraph. The focus moves from narration of a series of events to skills and attitudes, partly achieved through using semi colons rather than simple sentences. The last sentence takes both writer and reader forward – it is important to show that you have considered what university study involves. The student’s upward learning curve is clear, and his ironic touch (the comment about black holes) suggests a sense of humour.


It is crucial that your PS contains no errors of spelling and punctuation when you send it off. At the final stages of writing you should take special care over this. Ask others to read the statement for you and do not rely on a computer spellcheck to pick up everything.

Pay special attention to:
* Spelling, especially of key words related to the subject choice, titles and names
* Typos ('form' instead of 'from' etc)
* Punctuation, especially use of commas
* Apostrophes

Make sure also that your PS does not contain lengthy paragraphs which can be offputting for a reader. If you have a big chunky paragraph, try to edit the language or break it up.

At the same time, don't use lots of short paragraphs as your text could come across as fragmented and disorganised.

Getting Ideas for your Personal Statement

Thursday, September 15, 2005 | comments

The PS is an important document because it is your main opportunity during the university application process to shine as an individual in your own words. However, finding those words is not always easy. You may not know exactly what you want to do. You may be in two (or three!) minds about courses. You may feel that your achievements or interests are not relevant to your course choice. Or you may feel that you do not know what to select from a large number of possible topics.

Here are some things you can do to get your writing started. It is important that you get something down on paper, however rough, so that you have some material to work on and revise when you turn your mind to the statement proper and start gearing your thoughts to the audience.

1. Patch Writing
At the start, when you are getting ideas, don't try to write the whole statement in one go. It is usually better to write random bits or 'patches' of your statement and then find ways to 'stitch' them together. Your most effective sentences, and the ones most true to your motivations, may only come after you have done lots of initial free writing. Use notes, bullet points, abbreviations and images rather than full sentences to get your ideas down on paper. When you have filled a page, leave it for a day or two. When you return to your work, look for ways of connecting your ideas. Look for parallels, repeated words, similarities in content. These may be the beginnings of paragraphs in your statement.

2. Be Interviewed
Ask someone you know and trust to interview you and make notes on your answers. Get them to ask you about specific things - your interests, experiences, favourite subjects, extended essay topic, favourite authors - rather than ask direct questions like 'What would you like to study at university?' Then ask your interviewer to provide feedback on you. What do they consider to be your enthusiasms, your strengths, your weaknesses?

3. Writing Prompts
If you find free and patch writing difficult, you may find writing from prompts more effective. Again, avoid trying to answer the big questions ('I want to study ___________ because _____________') if you know that you are not clear about your choices at this stage.

You might find out more about yourself and your motivations by responding to prompts which require you to state something factual and then back it up with an explanation:

* I am good at ____________ because ____________
* My most powerful learning experience was ____________________ because ________________
* My extended essay on ________________ has taught me _______________
* Everyone should learn to _______________ because __________________
* The good thing about studying ________________ is that it shows you ________________
* Studying _____________ is relevant because _______________________
* An issue in the world now that I feel strongly about is ________________ because ____________________
* My favourite subject is ________________ and two things I like about it are ___________and _________________

4. Research
Reading university prospectuses and browsing web sites may spark good words and ideas for the PS. Read course descriptions closely - you may see something that immediately makes you think 'That is what I like doing!' or 'That connects with what I am doing now!' Or you might find accounts given by current or former students, often used in propsectuses and on websites, will give you useful insights into university life and study. Doing this kind of research is particularly important if you are planning to read a subject such as law or political science which is not taught at IB level.

FAQs: UCAS Personal Statements

Monday, September 12, 2005 | comments

Do you have a specific question about UCAS personal statements? Here we give our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about writing the personal statement.

How long does a personal statement have to be?

The online UCAS application form gives you a box or 'fixed field' for the personal statement (PS). The field allows for about 4000 typed characters, including spaces. A typical length for a PS is between 450 and 550 words. It is usually better to think in terms of paragraphs rather than word count. A good PS has about five paragraphs. See the post on this blog on outlining a PS for suggestions on how to organise your paragraphs.

Can I handwrite my statement?

Yes. But the vast majority of PSs are now sent online. Use 12 point and Times New Roman font. Use of colour and highlighting devices like bold and underlining are not encouraged.

Can I send additional material as an attachment?

Some universities will explicitly ask to see examples of your work or a portfolio. But this is usually done at a later stage in the application process, often before an interview. If you wish to send something - not too long! - to support your application it is better to contact the university in advance to make sure that they will accept it. If you have a project or portfolio which you are particularly keen to include in your application, the best course of action is to write about it in your PS and ask if it can be mentioned in your school's reference.

Can I use graphics in my PS?

Not advised! It is common knowledge that universities view the PS as an example of your writing as well as a statement about yourself. There is limited space for graphical material.

Can I link to my website or blog?

If you have relevant work (art work, photography, writing) published on a website or a blog, mention the URL in your PS but do not use the web site to replace the PS. Remember that if you do mention a web address you should make sure that the site is easily accessible, represents your own work (unless otherwise stated), and is properly edited. If you are applying for computer science or similar and you have designed websites, giving a URL address as an example in your PS can be an advantage. However, there is no guarantee that admissions tutors will look at it.

Can I use bullet points?

As your PS is read partly as an example of your prose writing, it is best to avoid abbreviated forms like bullet points. If you need to give a list of items, keep it short (three items max) and use a sentence form rather than a list, making good use of words like 'includes' and verb forms like 'ranges'. Eg. 'My experience of theatre outside school ranges from performing roles in community productions to directing small plays at a local youth club'. You should try to highlight details to give a quick but accurate picture of yourself rather than tell everything.

Do I need to say what subjects I am studying?

No. This information will be clear from the predicted grades elsewhere on your application form. Concentrate on subjects - or better, learning experiences - which are relevant to your application.

Do I need to explain the IB curriculum?

No. The IB is sufficiently well known and respected. You do not need to use a phrase like 'the rigorous IB programme'. However, some local abbreviations (eg. ITGS and CAS) will not be widely known. In these cases, use the full name or try to use a phrase that will stand in (eg. 'information technology' or 'community service').

Can I refer to people and places by name?

Unless the people concerned are well known, it is usually better to avoid personal references in your PS such as 'my science teacher Mr Irving'. Remember that you are writing for an audience that does not know you or your school. When referring to places, it is usually better to give an idea of the kind of place you are talking about rather than its full name. Eg. 'I spent two weeks working at Happy Mead Day Center in Detroit' could be rewritten as 'I worked for two weeks at a day center for handicapped children in Detroit'. This second version communicates more useful information.

I have lived in six countries and attended four schools. Do I need to mention this?

You can, but lists can be boring to read and your PS can easily become a mini autobiography. Be selective, and use only information which adds to your application and strengthens the image of yourself that you wish to get across. Don't list all the schools you have been to. No-one is really interested in this. However, a sentence like 'I have experienced three education systems in as many countries' can be of interest if you go on to explain how this has influenced your outlook on education or how this has made you more appreciative of other cultures. Such a sentence would be particularly useful if you were actually applying for a course on education or anthropology. If you give information about your background, try to make it relevant to your course choice, your current interests or your future aims.

I've won six international awards. How should I include them in my PS?

Again, don't list but highlight. Also, make the achievements say something about you - what have you learned? how has it affected your outlook on life? how has it contributed to your course choice? - so that the information is personalised.

Can I mention work experience in my PS?

Yes. If you are applying for medicine or veterinary science, some kind of work experience is highly valued in an application. It is also useful in law and performance-related subjects. Remember that 'work experience' can be voluntary as well as paid and can be a single day's observation as much as a six week job. If you have a part-time job which is not directly relevant to your application (maybe a job in a supermarket, shop or a paper round) it is still worth mentioning in your PS. It shows initiative and resourcefulness on your part. Remember that voluntary 'work' can take many forms and can support your application. Looking after a sick relative , caring for younger siblings, teaching someone a language - all these experiences have been used by students in previous PSs. The secret is: use the experiences that you do have, don't fret over what you don't have! Whatever you do, don't just list your experiences. Use details to give the reader a flavour of what you did. Eg. 'I worked as an assistant for Boeing in the summer of 2003' does not tell us much. 'Working as an assistant to aircraft maintenance engineers at Boeing in summer 2003' tells us more. Adding something about the value of the experience is even better: 'Working as an assistant to aircraft maintenance engineers at Boeing in summer 2003 gave me valuable insights into current aircraft technology and, in particular, the development of engine servicing techniques during long-haul flights' . This additional information is especially effective if the student wishes to study engineering or has done a research project on engine technology (this example is adapted from an actual PS in 2003).

I did an award-winning project when I was 12. Can I use this in my PS?

Universities are more interested in what you have done recently and - more importantly - what you plan or promise to do in the next few years than what you did in the distant past. Some biographical details ('My interest in Egyptian history was first aroused by a school trip to the British Museum') can be interesting, but your statement can get bogged down in the past tense if you describe too many early achievements.

I am half way through a research project which is related to my course choice. Can I mention it?

Of course! The IB extended essay, for example, is one of the strongest assets you have when writing your PS. Even if you have not finished your project when you write your statement, you should use it as much as you can to describe your subject-related interests or to frame questions about your subject which communicate your desire to study it further. Remember that your PS will be read several weeks or months after you send it off. You need to project yourself into the near future.

I have done some wider reading in my subject. Should I mention this?

Yes. Avoid a long list of books and highlight instead a few authors or areas of the subject which you have discovered. You should convey some knowledge about your chosen subject, but no-one is expecting you to be an expert. It is better to come across as an enthusiastic and motivated learner who has good and genuine questions, not someone who pretends to have read everything already.

Can I use a quotation in my PS?

Yes, why not - but make sure that it is integrated into your statement and is not just added at the end as an afterthought. Don't use a quotation simply because it is famous, sounds beautiful or has a 'deep thought'. The relevance of the quotation to your life should be clear. The reader is bound to ask 'Why has he/she quoted that?' if you just present a quote on its own. Any quotation should not be too long and you should of course attribute it.

I am quite weak in one of my subjects. Do I need to mention this?

No. The golden rule is: 'Sing your strengths, whisper your weaknesses'. This is not the same as being arrogant. You are competing with other students, and the last thing you want is a PS full of negative sentences ('I am not very good at maths..'). If you use a 'not' sentence it is better to revise it to reflect a more positive side of you. Eg. 'Responding to various weaknesses in my maths, I took additional classes to improve my ability' is better than saying 'I am not very good at maths'. But then you should ask yourself: do I need to say this at all in my PS? You have limited space to make an impression on the reader. What are your priorities? It is usually better to accentuate the positive.

I am applying for joint honours. How do I handle this in my PS?

Tricky one. You need to address both subjects and say something about your interest in each one. But you need to go further. You need to connect them. If you are applying to read, for example, History and Psychology, you need to think about how these two disciplines could complement or interact with each other. If possible, root your comments in work you have already done, or wider reading, or questions which interest you. You will need to read the university's prospectuses carefully to get ideas here. Try to explain why a joint honours course is the one for you.

I am applying for three different subjects. Which one should I base my PS on?

Very tricky one. You can only write one PS for application in the UCAS system, even though your application may be read by more than one university. The best thing to do is to base your PS on your first-choice course but try also to mention the other subjects. If the subjects can be linked by one generic category (eg. 'media', or 'languages', or 'performance') then base your PS on this general category rather than on named courses. If your subjects are radically different you may need to rethink your choices.

I have very clear career ambitions. Should I mention these?

Yes. Towards the end of the PS is a good place, although if you are very confident and assured you could put it at the end of the first paragraph. Having a clear career aim is not essential in a PS. However, it is useful to have some general direction (eg. 'the field of education' or 'a legal career') in mind, however tentative. But if you do not have this direction, beyond a university course, do not make it up.

I am taking a gap year. Should I mention this?

Yes. You should give some idea of how you intend to use the year, preferably linked to your course choice, towards the end of your PS. If you have no specific job or travel plans yet, think about how the year may benefit you when you finally go to university. Learning a new language, writing, doing voluntary work, taking extra courses, learning a new skill - gap years are used for many different reasons apart from travel and paid work. Many students take gap years and you are not at a disadvantage if you take one. But you do need to justify it in your PS.

I have travelled all my life. Is this useful information in a PS?

Could be. It depends how you present it. Just giving a list of countries is not helpful. You need to access the underlying experience of living in different cultures and what this has meant for you - both personally and as a student. Having international and multicultural experience is definitely an asset. But beware of cliches in this area. A sentence like 'Living in three different countries has given me a tolerant and international outlook on life' is not really saying anything individual - it's the kind of thing millions of people could say. Try to relate your international experience to your subject choice. If you are applying to read architecture, for example, how has living in different countries increased your knowledge of building design, or what links have you noticed between design and culture? If you are applying to read medicine, what have you noticed about health care systems in different countries? You do not need to write an essay here. You need to show that you have reflected on your experiences and have related them to your course choice. You are giving an impression of yourself as a thinking person.

I want to try a creative approach to the PS. Is this OK?

Yes. It is always worth a try, as long as you make sure that you give enough information about yourself in the process and answer some of the normal questions admissions tutors will have about your suitability for university (see post 'What are Admissions Tutors Looking For?'). In the past students have tried unconventional styles - writing about themselves in the third person, using invented dialogue or interview, even writing in narrative. These approaches, however, need careful preparation. If you try a different style, you should get as much feedback as you can from other readers to see if it really works. It is not enough just to be 'entertaining' in a bid to stand out from the crowd. If you don't communicate quickly and clearly, whatever style you use, admissions tutors may reject you simply for wasting their time. To some extent it does depend on the course. One former student we know who applied to read English with Creative Writing did succeed with an unusual PS - a dialogue between two voices in herself, the 'creative' and the 'critical' thinker. Remember, however, that a conventional PS does not have to be boring. You can show style and originality by making the most of the space you have and by really thinking about your writing. The 'unique' quality is in your life, not in an unusual writing style. You need to project that quality as vividly as you can.

How personal is a personal statement?

Good question. Despite its name, the PS is effectively a document bearing your name in a formal system. Potentially, it could be read by a large number of people and be passed from one university to another, although it is not made public. Universities will respect confidentiality, but there is no saying how many people and who will read your PS. So for you, as the writer, it is 'personal' on the condition that you understand the context in which it is being read and used to make selections. You are under no obligation to give private details about yourself. If you have a particular story to tell (you have been a refugee, for example, or you have lived through a natural disaster or had a major illness) this could be mentioned in your PS as a life experience. But avoid turning your PS into a mini autobiography. In many ways the PS is badly named. It is not a 'personal statement' as much as a 'motivation statement'. The context is public more than personal. It becomes part of your formal application for university.

I speak three languages. Is this useful in a PS?

Yes. Obviously if you are applying to study languages it will be a major feature of your PS. But for any subject choice being bi- or tri-lingual can be an advantage. Being able to write in more than one language is also highly valued by some universities.

I am applying for Oxford/Cambridge. Is the process the same?

Yes, as far as UCAS goes. However, both Oxford and Cambridge have recently re-introduced their own application process in addition to UCAS. This includes a short 'personal statement'. It is advisable here not to repeat the UCAS statement but write something more focused on your subject choice and your intellectual motivation, as well as your reasons for applying to Oxford/Cambridge.

I am deferring entry for a year because I do not know what I want to to study. Should I do a PS now?

Yes. Even though you will not be applying formally until next year, it is worthwhile doing at least a draft PS so that next year you will have something on paper to work on.

I am applying for the second time. Can I use the same PS as last year?

Yes, but why not change it? You will have changed in the last year and you will probably have new achievements or interests to talk about, so your PS can be updated. Remember that if you change course choice your PS will certainly need to be done again. Don't forget that the PS is not just a record of who you are. The actual process of writing is important too. It can help you think about your life with more focus and maybe even change your ideas about your future.

Can I mention a teacher's reference in my PS?

Avoid this. The teacher's reference is supposed to be written independently of your PS. If there is something important that you think should be mentioned by the school, especially something your teachers may not be aware of, you should tell your careers counsellor/advisor. However, there is no guarantee that it will appear in your school reference.

Will my personal statement be useful if I get an interview?

Almost certainly yes. Although not all universities interview, it is not uncommon to get called for one. If you get an interview, you may well be asked some questions based on your personal statement. The interviewers will, in any case, almost certainly have a copy of your PS with them. This is why you should keep a copy of your PS and read it before you go for your interview. (Do not, however, consult it during the interview!)

Can university prospectuses help me in writing my PS?

Yes. Read them to get ideas about courses, teaching methods and research interests. Use them to find out exactly what is involved in studying English, Architecture, Sports Science - whatever. And then apply that knowledge to your interests and abilities. Borrow useful words and phrases but do not copy chunks of a prospectus in the hope that you will sound like the 'right' candidate. Always adapt and modify what you find.

I've seen some 'model' personal statements on a website. Are they useful?

They may be, but be careful! Any examples of good PSs (see workshop handouts) are useful provided that you borrow words, phrases and strategies and then apply them to your own situation. Do not copy chunks of other people's statements and then call them 'yours'. They won't be.

Above all, don't be conned into 'buying' a personal statement from an essay website. Universities are very sensitive to plagiarism and may reject you immediately if they suspect you of it. However, plagiarism is not the same as borrowing useful sentence structures, good words and effective phrases from your reading. Borrow them, and make them your own.

Note: many universities now use anti-plagiarism software designed to pick up blatant copying. Our advice: read widely, but don't copy!

Who should I show my statement to to get feedback?

Your teachers, trusted friends, employers and family members may all give you useful feedback. Use constructive feedback, but don't let anyone write the statement for you!

How important is presentation of my PS?

Very important. We cannot stress highly enough: proof-read your PS several times, don't rely on a spelling checker, and get others to check it before you send. Particularly look out for punctuation that can be improved or corrected. Look out for typos. When we showed some past PSs to admission tutors at a London university last year we were amazed at how quickly they spotted the spelling error in the middle of one statement. You might not agree with it but it is a fact of life: people often respond negatively to mistakes in written language.

Do I have to use British English spelling?

No. Use the spelling system in English that you are familiar with, and be consistent. Universities receive many applications from international students who have been educated in American English. You will not be penalised for this just because the universities happen to be in the UK.

What happens to my personal statement?

Good question. The answer is: it varies. It varies according to university, to subjects, and to the stage in the application process. It is possible that in some cases PSs are not read at all. Predicted grades and school references take priority. In other cases, PSs will be read quickly in combination with grades and school references. In others, all PSs will be read and evaluated.

We believe that the PS becomes more important in competitive and borderline situations. Although it may not be read immediately when your application arrives, your PS may be decisive at a later stage when decisions are made between candidates with the same predicted grades.

Whatever happens, your PS will be read alongside hundreds, possibly thousands of others. Your PS will probably be read by more than one person, but the average time spent on a PS by each reader is likely to be about two minutes. So your PS must communicate quickly and efficiently and arouse the reader's interest from the start.

That is why the first paragraph and your motivation statement are so important.

Is this the last time I will have to do this?

Almost certainly not. Personal statements (or versions of them) are widely used in applications for jobs, higher degrees, grants and training courses. Writing a short piece about yourself in a limited number of words is also common in many other situations - standing for election, introducing yourself to a new set of colleagues, even a home page on a web site or an 'about me' section on a blog. Also don't forget that your employment c.v will include some elements which recall personal statements. So this experience will not be wasted!

Outline for a Personal Statement

Friday, September 9, 2005 | comments

When planning your UCAS personal statement it is sometimes helpful to do an outline to make sure that each paragraph has a specific purpose. This helps you to get an overview of the whole statement. It also makes the job of linking paragraphs together easier.

Remember that statements are usually read quickly and the first impressions given by your words really do count.

Although each statement is individual, we know that admissions tutors are looking for certain things when they read a personal statement. In particular they are looking for a clear motivation statement in the opening paragraphs. The question 'Why do you want to read this subject?' should get a clear answer. They are also looking for specific evidence to back up the motivation statement. And they are looking for legible, interesting and well-written statements.

You do not need to come across as an expert in your chosen subject! Universities are looking for enquiring and capable students with good all-round skills who will benefit from the opportunity to study at an advanced level. They are looking for people who will enjoy independent research and who enjoy learning.

Here is a suggested outline for a personal statement which you might like to use and adapt to your own situation.

Paragraph One: Motivation for Course Choice

* Answer clearly the question 'Why do you want to read this subject?'

* Use a direct motivation statement ('I would like to study x because...') or a biographical statement ('My interest in x began...' or 'I have had a strong interest in x since...'). If you choose the latter, keep it brief! Don't tell your life story!

* Give a clear sense of your current interests and how you would like to develop them. If you have career plans, mention them, but this is not essential. You should, however, present yourself as a person looking to the future. You need to be on an 'upward learning curve'.

* Avoid writing things which defer to the school's opinion of you - 'My teachers tell me I am good at physics' or 'My high grades in maths have spurred me to continue study in this area'. Your application will show your predicted grades and (hopefully) a good teacher's reference. The PS is to show your specific interests, aims and achievements.

* If you are applying to do joint honours (eg History and Psychology) you need to say something about each subject and show how they can be linked (eg knowledge of individual psychology can help us in the study of history).

* If you do not know why you want to read a particular subject, you need to do some serious thinking now. Research courses in the careers library and on the internet, ask friends and family to interview you about your interests, write a personal memo to yourself with a list of things you like/dislike.

Paragraph Two: Academic Interests and Achievements

* Answer the questions that admissions officers are likely to ask about your academic suitability: 'What have you done so far that is relevant to your course choice?' and 'What specific academic accomplishments or skills or interests do you have?'

* Use your extended essay or other school projects to show what you have done in terms of research. Give some idea of work you have done which you would like to pursue further. The IB extended essay is excellent preparation for university-type work - show that you have taken the opportunity (even if you are still working on it at the moment).

* Mention any wider reading outside the syllabus that you have done or specific areas of your chosen subject that interest you.

* Mention any achievements or courses or trips that are relevant to your course choice.

* If you are applying to read medicine or veterinary science, mention any work experience you have done.

* If you are applying to read computer science, give some idea of your practical skills and knowledge and mention the platforms you are familiar with.

* Do you have any particular IT skills - web design? blogging? digital photography?

* If you speak two or more languages, mention them, and any advantages you feel you have gained from living in a multicultural/international background. If you can, relate this to your course choice. This aspect could also go in the following paragraph.

* Note: you do not need to list your IB subjects or describe the IB curriculum.

Paragraph Three: Important Background Experiences

* Choose two or three experiences which are not directly related to your academic work but which have contributed to your personality and, if possible, relate them to your course choice.

* Reflect on these experiences by describing what you have learned from them. Do not just give a list! It is better to describe one or two formative experiences with some interesting details rather then give a comprehensive list. Concentrate on experiences which have taught you something - eg. about leadership and responsibility, communication, or social problems.

* Use experiences of participation or organisation such as: MUN and debating; charity work and fundraising; CAS and volunteer work; foreign trips (eg Tanzania?); work experience; music and drama; community work; environmental work; school council; active group membership; language learning; designing a website or blog; sport.

Paragraph Four: Extra-curricular

* Include here things which you did not mention in the previous paragraph. Music, sports, positions held are good examples. Add anything which is not central to your application but which adds to the overall impression and makes you sound like an active and well-rounded person. Any individual details ('I am currently reading political biographies in my spare time')works well. Again, don't give a long list but try to group related things together in sentences.

Paragraph Five: Restate Motivation, Looking Forward

* A short final paragraph - two sentences is enough - should return the reader to the motivation statement at the beginning. Instead of just repeating it, try to add some idea of your future ambitions and what challenges at university you are looking forward to. As with the whole statement, try to be specific to your own situation rather than use cliches. Avoid saying things that everyone would say ('I am looking forward to the social life at university'). Communicate your passion for your chosen subject.

* If you are taking a gap year, explain what you are planning to do and if possible how it relates to your course choice. If you have no specific plans, think of something to justify the year. It could be travel, work experience, learning a language.
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