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 from.....to'. 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!
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