Personal Statements: A Teacher's Perspective
The advice below is kindly used with permission from a sixth form tutor who wishes to remain anonymous.
The UCAS form may be the first and the last word
Don’t worry if you’re not invited to interview after you’ve sent off your application. Many universities do not interview for a majority of subjects.
You’re only likely to get an interview if you’re either applying to Oxbridge, and/or for a competitive course such as Medicine, Veterinary Science, Physiotherapy or Law.
Realise that what you send off on your UCAS application has been endorsed and accepted by us, your teachers. Therefore your performance has to match what you say about yourself.
When you go about drafting how to say it, you have a chance to examine your performance; and hopefully you will not compromise teachers by asking us to endorse what you know is not true.
You may, on the other hand, need extra help, e.g. in Oxbridge applications, Medicine; and it is our practice to provide back-up written support in such areas, in addition to our reference on the UCAS form.
Details of the course and arguing why you have chosen it
Obviously, this can cause problems since all 5 courses you have chosen will have slightly different content. But please try (where possible) to make generally true comments about the type of courses you are applying for.
A good chunk of your personal statement should be taken up with reasons why you are applying for this subject. Check the content of the course, and write down how all your skills, experience and knowledge make you a suitable candidate.
This will provide you with a solid argument as to why you will excel in it and why the university should offer you a place.
If you are invited to interview, you can score points by elaborating exactly what it is that you like about that particular institution's course.
Obviously, at this stage, I am allowing for the fact that you have further things to add to your form, on account of not yet having done the above activities.
At this stage, try to predict what you will learn from these things, even if ultimately you will want to adapt your draft to take new experiences into account more systematically.
A word about style
A pernicious type of language has crept in recently, where one develops a horrid air of self-congratulation ("I am very good at" etc.) Unfortunately it is our job, not yours, to say whether you have worked hard, been punctual or are very good.
I cringe when I read statements such as, "I am a very keen student" or even, "I have taken my education seriously." Would you say if you hadn't? Which is not to say that all of you have: some of you have been lazy and under-achieving, on occasions (apologies for being so blunt).
However, it's up to us to decide how much of that we can hide, and still keep our self-respect; or how much we can praise you for your attitudes and work over the past 6 years. That is our job when we write your reference.
"All the way through my educational career..."
" In my long time at ****** Grammar School..."
(Even) "In my life with the school..."
These are not just a few isolated examples; almost everyone writes something like this in their first draft. Just say, "At school,...." or "At St. John's School,...". Keep it short and to the point.
"During my period of work experience, I..." is another example of this pomposity.
Just say, "In school work experience, I...".
Other awful airy-fairy phrases include: "Away from school," "I ventured abroad" (i.e. I have visited...) and "I have given due consideration to my next course of education."
Remember, you only have 4000 characters in which to squeeze your personal statement - don’t waste valuable space with unnecessary vocabulary.
This leads to...
The art of OTT!
Please don't say, "I have vastly enjoyed ..... " this or that (French Grammar, Work Experience,..... you know, that sort of thing!)
Just say you enjoyed it, and then go on to say what you learned from it.
"Numerous conferences" would have to be really quite a large number, when almost invariably you mean two or perhaps only one.
"I have read many, many horror novels" is another memorable offering.
Again, don’t waste space when you don’t need to.
In short, grammar has been diabolical on occasions.
"Outside of school" is not English.
In this country, it is still normal to say "outside school." "Doing my studying" was another gem we once had.
Look at your English style, and ask yourself whether it is really necessary to revert to standards well below what your English teacher permitted two years ago.
Cut out I'm, I'd, I've, etc. They are for informal modes of communication.
Always use formal English for your personal statement.
Show some expertise and detail
If you claim to know about Art, for example, you must prove it.
I have seen many wholly-unconvincing attempts to show knowledge of Art, Travel, Architecture, Philosophy, Aeronautical Engineering, etc.
On the other hand, it is impressive if you can show knowledge of wider cultural areas, even though you are not expected to be a complete expert yet. However, you can convince the admissions tutors of some level of expertise, forethought and knowledge through careful reading and discussion.
What is an engineer?
Make sure you know, before you say you want to be one.
It is possible to sound laughably amateurish in some areas, I'm afraid.
One student grudgingly agreed that he did a little reading in his spare time (an English Literature student).
Incidentally, has it occurred to you that reading horror novels is not evidence that you should be studying English Literature?
Some people seem almost determined to "lead with their chin."
Imagine the person reading this at the other end! Don't lead with weaknesses.
Don't play yourself down
"Although only achieving a fairly mediocre standard,..."
"Although I don't really like Science all that much,..."
"On the whole, I get nowhere with such practical tasks..."
"I struggled at first,
"I'd have preferred a different work experience"
"I've at last managed to become independent"
"I've now started to show more commitment"
Then there is the approach of describing what you didn't like about aspects of your current or previous studies.
Avoid it unless you want universities to reject you.
Don't tell them it's the Ritz Snooker Club that you attend. In Manchester.
Who wants to know that?
The same goes for your Scout Troop or fencing company you spent a week with on work experience.
Just say, "a local ..."
On the other hand, it might be important if you feel that you went to a highly prestigious company, or one that is absolutely central to your hoped-for profession, e.g. in Civil Engineering, or Aero-engineering, etc.
That is not superfluous.
Redundant phrases also look awful.
If you say that you "... support Fulham FC, and regularly go to their matches at ..." it just looks as if you are trying to pad out your form.
Don't even say you go to a lot of their home matches (and don't use the phrase "a lot" at all!).
You need to somehow link this activity to your course.
Repeating other information on the form
Don't tell the universities which A Levels you are doing or what grades you got at GCSE; they can see that for themselves in the Qualifications section.
But by all means RELATE the A Levels you are doing to the course that you are applying for in some detail if possible: i.e. in comments such as "My mix of Arts and Scientific A Level subjects has ..."
"During my A Level studies I have enjoyed focusing on the technological aspects, which I believe are my strengths and will prepare me well for ..."
“I enjoy socialising”
If you sink to this level in your personal statement, I frankly don't think that you deserve to go to university.
They just are not interested in what types of pub/nightclub you go to.
This would be a million miles from what you should be talking about, and suggests a lack of thought about good things that you could be saying about yourself and about your future hopes.
Ironically, though, they do want to know that you will be a convivial, interesting person to have in the department for three or four years!
Don't spend several lines talking about your love of Terry Pratchett or Steven King!
Let’s face it, who wouldn't be able to put that in? You’re supposed to be elucidating the ways in which you are special, a little different; not the ways in which you do what about 15 million other British people do.
Mention that you read newspapers, journals, if you can.
If you are not reading these, then it is quite honestly time you started doing so.
"I enjoy keeping informed about current affairs" and subsequently relating it to your subject, would be a good move.
Courses of study at school
Mention individual aspects of your A level work that have proved interesting or important, or that you have applied to the world outside, or indeed to the course that you want to do.
Try to show the value you have gained from being a prefect, if you have, or in any other position of responsibility.
Some sense that there's satisfaction in helping with the smooth running of the school, and giving back a little of what you yourself have been given, as well as the enjoyment of helping others to succeed, contributing to a community etc.
Your interests and achievements
Don't be falsely modest.
There is nothing wrong with admitting that you are good at something.
Don't forget to mention (as long as it’s true) that you won this or that area championship, etc.
Two recent 6th formers forgot to mention they were World Junior BMX champion, and London Junior Dinghy champion!
More on interests and hobbies
Don't say you like music, or reading.
Give details. Show breadth. Give specific examples, e.g. what you last read, bands, composers that you like. (Be sure that you can back it up in an interview).
Travel: if you have been abroad, say so, show what you have learned from this.
Interests can include: photography, theatre, creative writing, cycling, discussion groups, public speaking, scouts, guides, organising school activities, religious groups (again, be specific).
What is a university?
Really advanced point: there needs to be a sense that you have asked yourself what a university is for, what study is for, what you will gain from a period of Higher education.
In other words, what would a course of study do for you, how would meeting people from new kinds of backgrounds unfamiliar to you, etc.
What will you find in a university that you don't find in school? (e.g. vastly increased library and laboratory resources, greater variety of age, background, experience in your fellow students, far greater independence for you to decide your work patterns, vastly increased recreational activities, etc).
Give a sense that you are looking forward to expanding your own horizons, learning new things, working hard at a topic that is really your own choice, gaining from the expertise that the HE Institutions have to offer.
What have you learned
This is the key point to get across when drafting your personal statement.
Whatever you write about; your lessons, your hobbies, your travels, your work experience, it is not how good you've been (that, as I said above, is for us to say) but what you have learned from the activity that really matters and impresses the admissions tutors.
Warning - these skills need to be thought through a little carefully by Mathematicians, since their subject is a little different from all the others.
- Divergent mentality (looking outward to the widest possible range of sources for academic inspiration).
- The ability to connect different insights in a theory
- Ability to handle a number of different types of activity at the same time
- Seeing a long task through to the end
- Questioning type of person
- Good at making observations
- Manual dexterity
- Strong IT skills applied in all your areas of work
- Pick up on little loose ends, details of a problem and generates solutions or new ideas from that
- Competitive - likes to lead
- Enjoys swapping ideas with others - working in a team to get results; allocating tasks to each member of the team
- Synthesising material from a variety of different sources
- Finding alternative solutions to the same problem
- Using different media - internet, books, people.
Not all of these will be relevant to the course you’re applying for, but gives you an idea of a few that you may want to include in your personal statement.
For each one, make sure you give an example of how you applied it as either an existing skill or a new one you learned from your work experience placement, etc.
Best of luck with your application!