The Personal Statement and What Universities are Looking For

Wednesday, September 21, 2005 | comments

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).
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