Giving feedback on a Personal Statement can be as challenging as writing one. Here are nine tips on keeping the process straightforward and making your feedback as useful as possible.
Personal Statements provide students with their only pre-interview opportunity to communicate with their chosen universities directly, and to express their interest in the subject they are applying for.
Your role in giving feedback is to help them make the most out of this opportunity by checking their writing meets the standard admissions teams expect, and checking it for typos and basic grammatical errors.
1. Know your stuff
In 2016, the Sutton Trust found that “teachers’ views about what makes a good personal statement are far from consistent with admissions tutors’ views” (full report linked below). Whether you’ve been a part of the UCAS process before or not, before you give feedback, make sure that you understand what universities want to see from a Personal Statement - admissions teams often change what they are looking for, especially as the quality of candidates gets better each year.
Start off by reading our guide on Personal Statement writing for students: Writing like a boss: the Personal Statement. We’ve written this using expert guidance from Causeway Education for both students and teachers to get a good grasp on what universities are looking for.
You should also be aware that some courses - like medicine, for example - expect something different from a Personal Statement or use them in a different way. Both you and your students should check if this applies to them.
2. Encourage details
It’s tempting to make sweeping statements in a Personal Statement, like ‘I have always dreamed of becoming a geoscientist’ or ‘I have strong leadership skills’, or even to define the subject itself. Research by the Sutton Trust, however, found “admissions tutors tend to value focused and sustained analysis of a specific topic of interest or case study rather than broad statements about a subject, or attempts to make the statement more ‘personal’”.
Students should use detailed examples to show how they are suitable for the subject they are applying for, using their experiences and wider/deeper reading and what they have learnt from them.
Admissions tutors are particularly impressed by students who are able to interpret information and form their own opinions. Instead of listing all of their wider reading, students should draw links between them, mention a detail that they found particularly interesting, or write about how something they read, watched, or listened to led them to explore something new.
Check out Writing like a boss: the Personal Statement for examples.
3. Keep an eye on the structure
Giving students a clear structure to follow will help them manage their ideas and word count, and will make it easy for admissions tutors to follow.
Unifrog recommends the following structure in line with up to date guidance from university admissions teams and Causeway Education:
- Section 1: why do you want to study this subject? (up to 1,200 characters)
This should be filled with lots of detail and specific examples.
- Section 2: what have you done in the past that makes you particularly suitable to study the subject? (up to 2,400 characters)
This is where students should write about any projects, course related work experience, voluntary placements, or summer schools they have taken part in, or wider reading they have done, and what they learnt from it.
- Section 3: what else have you done that would contribute to the university community (up to 400 characters)
There should be very little detail here - students should keep their extra-curricular activities brief and do not need to relate them back to their course at all.
Students don’t necessarily need a conclusion at all, and should steer clear of writing about their future career plans - they are, after all, applying to be a student, not an employee.
4. Be positive
Always include some positive words in your comments on a Personal Statement, no matter how much improvement it may need. While you should be honest, make sure your feedback is constructive and not off putting.
Instead of: You haven’t really written anything of substance - much of what you’ve written is quite vague and needs more detail to avoid going in the ‘no’ pile.
Try: You’ve made a great start of telling the admissions team how much you love literature, now you need to boost this by proving it - use lots of examples of the books you have read, what you learned from them, how they compared to books on similar themes, and specific literary elements that interested you.
Don’t worry if drastic changes are needed - Personal Statements must often undergo serious structural change before they are complete. You can start off by giving students one or two big things to work on, then circle back to the smaller issues that require less work.
Remind students that Unifrog saves every version of their work, so that they can go back to a previous version at any time if they change their minds.
5. Watch the word count
Students only have 4,000 characters including spaces and punctuation, but they should develop new ideas to their full potential and write down everything before worrying about their word count.
When giving feedback on early drafts of Personal Statements, don’t put too much emphasis on how long it is. Focus on the content, then encourage the editing process. Commenting on character count at an early stage may discourage your students, and may cause them to delete large chunks of good quality writing.
If they are using the 3-sections version of the Unifrog Personal Statement tool (versus the 1-box version), they are given a guideline of how many characters to write in each box, so that they have a rough idea of what to aim for.
6. Keep everything manageable
Breaking up the Personal Statement into bite-size chunks will make the writing process easier for your students, and the feedback process easier for you. The Unifrog Personal Statement tool can help with this as it allows you to divide the statement into three distinct sections, without losing sight of the fact that it also needs to work well as a whole.
Give your students specific deadlines for completing the first, second, and third boxes to give them time to write each section, and to give you time to make comments.
You can track students’ Personal Statement progress and set deadlines (using the ‘interactions’ tool) from the Advanced or Basic tools on your Unifrog homepage.
7. Fine-tune your editing process
The Unifrog Personal Statement editing tool allows teachers to give feedback in three ways:
- Use the ‘add note’ function for comments that need to be tied closely to particular words or passages, like wording suggestions.
- Use the comment box at the bottom of each section on Unifrog’s Personal Statement tool for more drastic proposals, as it allows students to think about the problem and alter it themselves. Don’t be tempted to make these bigger changes yourself through the editing tool; this should be written in the student’s own words.
- Use the edit function to make changes to the text directly. This is particularly helpful when correcting small errors in wording, spelling and grammar, or when working on a Personal Statement with the student.
Don’t worry about making changes that may have to be undone - Unifrog saves every version of the Personal Statement, so you will never lose any work.
8. Meet with your students face-to-face
The Unifrog editing tools should be used in conjunction with regular face-to-face meetings. Students are likely to respond better to feedback if they are given personal guidance along the way. If they need more information about a particular comment or correction, they should speak to you directly.
9. Discourage multiple readers
Students should really only have one trusted reader to support them with their Personal Statements to avoid receiving conflicting information. You might want to involve a subject specialist to support you with subject-specific terminology and accuracy, and you’ll be able to see any comments they make on the Unifrog Personal Statement editing tool.
Students will probably share their Personal Statement with someone at home as well - be aware that some parents and carers may give feedback that conflicts with your own, and you may have to step in to help keep the student on track.
Good stuff from elsewhere
'Making a Statement' by Dr Steve Jones
The Sutton Trust's 2016 report on Personal Statements.