How to write your Personal Statement like a boss
Ace the UK Personal Statement
The Personal Statement is your chance to demonstrate that you’d be an excellent student for the courses you’re applying to. It can seem like a big task though with no clear starting point and an odd request to ‘show off’. We’ve got you covered with our 6 tips on writing and structuring a statement to be proud of!
1. Make every word count
You only have 4,000 characters (that’s spaces and punctuation included) to make a great impression on an admissions team, so you need to be economical with your words. There are two ways of tackling this: keep everything concise, and have a clear structure to avoid veering off on a tangent.
To keep everything concise, you should:
- simplify complicated phrasing
- avoid exaggerated phrases like ‘I am fascinated by/ passionate about’ etc. (more on this later!)
- avoid unnecessary intensifiers like ‘really’, ‘very’, and ‘always’
- use acronyms for lengthy titles of well known qualifications or awards like the EPQ
- use surnames only when referencing well known authors, speakers, etc. except where there are two people in the same field with the same surname, like the Rosettis
- check for accidental double spaces.
Instead of: From a young age, I personally have always been a really keen and enthusiastic scientist, who has really thrived in all scientific subjects. Marie Curie - who discovered radium and polonium - has always inspired me to keep searching for the truth which is something I plan to continue doing at university.
We’re going to cover a lot of the issues with this example later on, but in terms of concision, there are unnecessary intensifiers (‘really keen’) and explanations (who Marie Curie is), extra wording (‘I personally’), and vague phrasing that doesn’t show very much at all (‘something I plan to continue). This student also hasn’t shown that they are a keen scientist - you should make your interest in the subject so obvious by using lots of examples, that you don’t need to tell the admissions team.
Try: I am a keen scientist who enjoys using experimental techniques to solve problems. In Chemistry, I recently investigated the rate of reaction between magnesium and sulphuric acid…
This doesn’t include everything from the original, but it shows an admissions tutor how the student is a keen scientist and launches straight into an example which will further demonstrate their suitability for the course. It is also only 177 characters compared to the first example with a massive 304!
Your structure will also help with your word count, and will make your statement simple to follow - admissions staff have to read thousands of Personal Statements, so make their job easy for them!
Unifrog’s Personal Statement tool provides you with a template structure, allowing you to organise your points into three sections:
- Section 1: why do you want to study this subject? (up to 1,200 characters)
You should use lots of detail and specific examples in this section.
- Section 2: what have you done in the past that makes you particularly suitable to study the subject? (up to 2,400 characters)
You can discuss any course related work or voluntary experience here.
- Section 3: what else have you done that would contribute to the university community (up to 400 characters)
You do not need to go into lots of detail here- keep it brief.
Once you have a basic outline, the rest of the editing and drafting process should be fairly straightforward - just select your best examples for each section and carefully edit the language to keep it concise and academically focused.
2. Keep your focus
Your structure should help you with this, but there are some other key things to remember to include and to avoid to make the most out of your statement.
The majority (80-90%) of a UK Personal Statement should concentrate on how you will make a great student in your chosen subject with lots of detailed examples. To keep the focus, ask yourself ‘does this explain why I am a good applicant?’ at the end of each example or description. Each point in Sections 1 and 2 should provide evidence that you have the right skills, experience, or attitude for learning for this particular subject. If the point or example doesn’t show this, it needs to go even if you spent a long time writing it! Be ruthless in your editing!
In thinking about which examples to use, there are two key things to remember: firstly, this is about your academic skill and ability, so hold on to your extra curricular activities to the end, even if your chosen university has the best hockey team in the league and you want to join it! Secondly, you are applying to study, not for the job that comes after studying so unless you’re applying for a vocational degree (medicine, architecture, etc.), you shouldn’t mention your future career goals; your admissions tutor wants to know you’ll be a great student, not a great museum curator or social worker.
You should focus your examples on your academic ability and interest and how that makes you a suitable candidate for the course. You can even pick out key general topics that you have an interest in and are looking forward to studying (e.g. sustainable building design in an architecture application), but avoid mentioning specific university courses or modules by name (e.g. Games and Virtual Reality at Glasgow School of Art), as you are sending this to all your chosen universities and this may limit your chances at those you don’t mention.
Instead of: The process of writing an EPQ taught me many skills that will be invaluable to me at university and in my future career as a Project Manager.
This is such a vague example - we have no idea what the EPQ was about or what specific skills this applicant built. The example also hasn’t been linked to the course that the student is applying for, but they have mentioned their future career goals, making this seem more important to the student than the actual studying bit!
Try: Through writing my EPQ on ‘Sustainability in the UK’, I developed my research skills and the ability to break down complex, interconnected policies and processes. These skills will be essential throughout my degree in architecture where I will need to be able to research widely and become familiar with policies on specific areas like sustainable building design.
In this example, the student has identified and evidenced two specific skills that they have related directly to their chosen subject. This example also answers the question, ‘does this explain why I am a good applicant?’
Please note that this example isn’t complete. We would recommend giving more information and picking out some key parts of the EPQ the student found particularly interesting, what they learned, and how this relates to their chosen subject.
3. Sell yourself
This can be a tough one! The thought of having to write about our best qualities fills some people with absolute dread, but you do have great skills and attributes and your university admissions team wants to hear about them! The trick here is to be confident without coming across as arrogant or overconfident: be proud of yourself, but don’t show off.
Try the following exercise:
- Start off by making a list of all the useful experiences you have had, the things you have done that you are most proud of, and any awards or certificates you have ever achieved, or competitions you have won (if you have been using Unifrog’s Activities tool, check here before you start your list to give you some ideas).
- Next to each example, make a note of the relevant skills and relevant subject knowledge you've gained.
- Finally, mark out the examples that are relevant to your chosen subject or to going to university in general; these are the examples you are going to use to demonstrate how fantastic you are to your admissions team.
When you write each example, avoid arrogant and sweeping statements such as ‘I have a vast array of skills’, which only shows your admissions team that you’re not quite sure what the value of that activity was! Instead, describe how specific skills have been put into practice to give real evidence of your ability.
Instead of: My class organised a geology day for younger pupils at my school demonstrating our teamwork and organisation skills.
This uses collective language (‘our...skills’), and doesn’t show the applicant’s involvement in the event, so the admissions tutor won’t find it relevant.
Try: My class organised a geology day for younger pupils at my school. My job was to research speakers and activities. I was also part of the marketing team where I made posters with the team, spoke in assemblies about the event, and encouraged as many students as possible to join.
This shows the students’ involvement, highlighting exactly what they did and how this contributed to the overall event, ‘selling’ the applicant by showing the value of their involvement.
4. Show your passion
Obviously, the reason you’re applying for your chosen subject is because you love it; unfortunately, telling an admissions team that you love engineering, or dentistry, or childhood studies isn’t enough to make them want to give you an offer.
Instead of telling them about your passion, show them by choosing 1-2 specific examples of things you’ve done outside of the classroom to demonstrate that you enjoy the subject so much, you want to spend your own time exploring it further. This will impress the team reading your application for 2 reasons: firstly, the admissions staff have often devoted their entire careers to studying this particular subject, so they like to see a similar commitment in the applicant; secondly, they want to admit students whose enjoyment of the subject will motivate them to work hard.
So, what examples could you use?
- Reading: read widely and deeply to explore your subject more fully. ‘Reading’ also includes watching and listening, and Unifrog can actually help you with this!
- Use the Geek Out sections in the Subjects library to find suggested films, talks, podcasts, articles, and books related to your chosen subject.
- Use the Read, Watch, Listen tool to explore more widely - find films, podcasts, books, poems, and more that you can filter by a range of categories including genre, vibe, and interest.
- Writing: write a personal blog, an article, an extra essay, or a project.
- Experiencing: go to lectures, museums, galleries, and planetariums.
- Getting involved: organise work experience, take part in competitions outside of school, create a society/club, or join a summer school.
- Helping others: teach younger children at school or as a tutor, or volunteer at a youth centre, local place of worship, or in a care home to share your knowledge.
- Creating: make a short film, start a podcast, or put on an event at school.
Don’t forget to record your thoughts on everything you explore using the Activities tool so you don’t forget what you learnt or found interesting! Your thoughts on what you read or did are key to your examples and will demonstrate both your independence and the love of your subject at the same time! Make sure you are honest about what you have read, researched, or taken part in: your admissions team will be able to verify a lot of what you have written through the reference from your teachers, so it will be clear if things don’t quite match up. And, if you are invited to an interview, it is more than likely that you will be asked about your independent reading and will be blatantly obvious if you have stretched the truth!
Instead of: I’ve always loved reading novels across a range of genres. I read in my spare time and I can’t wait to study more of them in my English Literature degree.
This is too vague so doesn’t convincingly evidence the applicant’s passion for English literature. There are no examples of the type of novels or authors this student enjoys reading, and it’s not clear that they read beyond the novels set in the English lessons. As a general point, always avoid phrases like ‘I’ve always loved…’ - they’re rarely true and very overused! Again, showing your love is more important than saying you love a subject.
Try: I greatly enjoyed reading ‘Money: A Suicide Note’ by Martin Amis as part of my English coursework. I was particularly interested by Amis’ use of the excess-driven protagonist John Self to explore the darker side of individualism. After I handed in my coursework, I was eager to explore contrasting presentations of consumerism further in Amis’ work, as well as that of other contemporary authors, such as Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis. I read X which contrasted with my thoughts on Amis’ work as...
This convincingly evidences the applicant’s love for their subject by highlighting a specific interest- in this case, the presentation of consumerism in contemporary literature. It also shows that the candidate has thought about how their example (Money: A Suicide Note) connects with other key themes in their subject, and how this has sparked in interest in other novels and authors. The candidate is also comparing their in class studies with their wider reading, demonstrating a natural curiosity in the subject.
5. Stand out (for the right reasons)
Standing out in your Personal Statement doesn’t mean adding in jokes, writing it like a piece of creative writing, or sharing bizarre anecdotes. It means standing out as a strong academic individual through your experiences and unique interest in one particular aspect of the course. Convey your academic personality by discussing wider reading and independent research, and the impact this has had on your decision to study the subject.
This can often come in the form of an anecdote or unusual reason for your initial interest in the subject, but avoid shoehorning anecdotes or experiences into your writing for the sake of it - it’s more important to sound sincere than to sound unusual.
Another great way of standing out is avoiding clichés. Using famous quotes - for example - to start you off is a sure fire way of turning an admissions team off your application before they’ve even had a chance to read about you. Even if you’ve found an unusual quote that you think no one has ever used before, it’s very likely that the admissions team have seen it amongst the thousands of applications they’ve read over the years. Even more importantly, using inspirational quotes often suggests a lack of inspiration. It’s better to use your own words than someone else’s.
You should also avoid clichéd phrasing like ‘from a young age’, ‘interesting’, ‘passion’ and ‘team player’ as this lacks real substance. Equally, steer clear from those ‘lightbulb’ moments when everything suddenly became clear and you knew you wanted to study mechanical engineering - not only is it highly unlikely that one moment decided your whole life for you, but your decision to study a subject at university should be carefully considered across all your experiences and interests.
Instead of: I have wanted to study liberal arts and sciences from a young age ever since I visited the Science Museum with my primary school.
‘From a young age’ should definitely be avoided - it is clichéd and shows the admissions tutor that your decision isn’t based on anything recent or carefully considered. We also have a ‘lightbulb’ moment in the form of visiting a museum - this might have sparked an interest in a subject area, but it’s super unlikely that the decision to study liberal arts at university was made by the primary school you!
Try: Studying liberal arts will further develop my interest in how the worlds of arts and science are interlinked and feed off of each other. When studying Da Vinci in art, I began exploring human proportions and how our perception of these can be affected by artistic principles like lights and shadow...
This example feels more honest than the previous one. It also focuses on a long term, mature reason for choosing the subject considering the academic skills that the student enjoys and wants to develop.
6. Check your work
After each major edit, take a break, proofread it, and then proofread it again - unfortunately, even a small spelling or punctuation mistake can overshadow a brilliantly-crafted sentence, and you don’t want your hard work to lose its impact!
Once you’ve completed your Personal Statement, have it checked by one key reader, and possibly a second to act as a subject expert. Careful not to ask too many people - you don’t want conflicting feedback.
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