Personal statements - staying ahead of the game

If it’s news to you that successfully applying to university is all about standing out from the crowd, then you really shouldn’t be applying to university.

The aim of the game is to get those offers, and to get offers you need to make your UCAS application memorable.

That’s about as obvious as saying that to win at football you need to score goals.

So with what you have to do firmly engraved in your common sense, knowing how you do it is the key to success.

With admissions tutors endlessly divulging advice, almost everyone is becoming an expert at writing the "perfect personal statement".

A quick browse through Studential's personal statement writing guide will reveal those tried and tested steps for constructing a perfectly acceptable personal statement.

In fact, if those steps were followed 3 years ago, then your personal statement would be one that stands out in the endless pile that tutors sieve through.

But these days, that brilliant personal statement isn’t looking so shiny.

As the standard of personal statements improve, a better form of statement needs to be developed to get those sought after places – it’s all about staying ahead of the game.

So here I offer my own spin on the personal statement.

Good grades, and a good reference are a given, but that’s certainly not enough.

These days, everyone has straight As and their teachers adore them - no wonder the top universities are now introducing additional tests (BMAT, TSA, STEP) and it is now possible to get an A* grade at A level.

So the personal statement is there to distinguish you from the rest - it’s your time to shine!

However, I believe there is a common mistake underlying today’s "ideal personal statement" which, if corrected, could greatly increase the uniqueness of your statement. This mistake is blindly simple: talking about yourself!

“Personal” doesn’t always mean “You”

This, I find, is the mistake so many people make: when they see the words "Personal statement", they think "hmmm…personal…I’ll talk about me".

Now 3 years ago, if all you did is talk about how friendly you were, and what a good dedicated student you were, then frankly you didn’t stand a chance.

These days everyone starts by talking about why they like the subject they want to study, and then move onto talking about themselves.

Undoubtedly this was a step in the right direction. But why stop there?

An admissions officer has to read through hundreds of applications, and it’s just boring listening to people talk about themselves.

THEY ARE NOT INTERESTED IN YOU.

They don’t work at university to be admissions officers, they work there because they love their subject. So if you want to appeal to them, stop talking about you and start speaking their language - talk about their subject.

Now this can sound a bit radical, and I agree, it is. But you need to make your personal statement unique, and so all I’m suggesting is a new way to make your personal statement stand out.

If you can think of a better way to make your statement unusual, then go ahead.

However, be careful. People have made the mistake of trying fancy things with layout and presentation – don’t go that way! It makes your statement look unique yes, but interesting? No.

Admissions fficers can not be bothered with people who write their personal statement in spirals or other strange patterns (yes, I have seen examples of this being done, and it’s not pretty).

Paragraphs are all you need, and a series of well constructed ones will flow together and yet have their own sub-concious sub-headings, giving your statement structure.

So don't underestimate the power of the paragraph - use it well!

Starting As You Mean To Go On

Talking about how you're "devoted to study, motivated, organised" etc is just a waste of time.

If you're applying to a top university, the officer will expect that as a given. So how do you start your personal statement? Well, let’s take an example.

I’m going to choose Physics, because I’m a Physicist at heart.

You don’t start with a paragraph talking about how much you looove physics, and that you read loads of books on it and stuff, because once again, that's talking about YOU.

Stop talking about YOU! What you need to do is pick something very specific in your subject, but something advanced - not covered in your syllabus - something you'll be studying at university.

I picked a topic called Quantum electrodynamics (QED) - you don't need to know what it is, but I can assure you that you don’t cover it at 6th Form College.

It needs to be a reasonably wide area of your subject, not something too specific (you can't be enthusiastic about a tiny aspect of a subject, that just makes you sound narrow).

By starting your personal statement talking about a complex area within your chosen subject, you instantly (without even saying it) show that:
1. You like your subject
2. You read around your subject
3. You want to learn more about your subject and university is where you want to do it.

What’s more, an admissions officer will be interested in what you have to say.

They, no doubt, will have their own opinion regarding your chosen area, and will be interested to see whether or not they agree with what you think.

However, you can’t just jump into an advanced area of your subject without something to back your opinions up – you need a reference point.

I chose a short, but well known, book on QED and dropped in a couple of quotes from there - but be careful.

People think they are being clever when they drop in witty and well known quotes, but it’s a big mistake.

An experienced admissions tutor will have seen it all before, they’re not in the mood for bullshit, it’s a waste of their time and it’s a waste of your precious personal statement space.

I think you need to devote about a third (or maybe a half) of your whole personal statement talking about this one chosen area, which should be 1 or 2 paragraphs.

But it is important to show that you've thought about what you've read about in your reference point - this is perfectly done by leaving a few open questions.

As for QED I think I used something like "But how something that is proven to be physically accurate actually works defies me - and I fear that this question is beyond human thinking and will never be answered".

It's basically getting the admissions officer to think how they would answer your question. If you get them thinking, you get them remembering.

Whatever you do, don't sound menacing or challenging - you don’t want to get the tutor all worked up and angry at your controversial views.

Just make it sound like you are hugely interested in your subject, but can not understand it without their expert help, and you would greatly desire to spend the next 3 years discussing these matters and others like it with similar minded individuals.

The Rest of It

Now you're either a third or halfway through and if all’s well you've got the officer sitting there, interested - they can connect with you because you are asking the questions that they probably asked at your age - you are TALKING THEIR LANGUAGE.

It's then time to show yourself off: at this stage it's time to drop in a few book titles that you've read, maybe touch on other areas of your course that interest you.

Here you can actually briefly mention how you want to continue your learning, and university is the ideal environment to get your queries answered and to feed your desire to understand their subject.

You can now have a paragraph (a short one, mind you) to sell the rest of yourself. Talk about your interests other than your subject - try and think of the unique and unusual.

For example, once a week for 6 months I did fencing - to drop this in I said "I enjoy experiencing the arts, and have even tried my hand at the martial art of fencing".

So not only have I shown off about the unusual fact that I have done fencing, I have shown I enjoy other arts, e.g. music, art, drama.

Then you're left with 2 or 3 lines, and all there is left to do is think of something memorable (but not cocky or arrogant) - something that sums up why you should be given a place (don’t say that of course).

You suggest it by appealing to what they are after - an inquisitive, dedicated, open minded individual.

A Final Word

Finally, I'd just like to say that you can make your personal statement whatever you want it to be. The advice given here is only a suggestion - it is by no means the way to go about things.

But I feel as though staying ahead is key if you are applying to the top universities, and this is how I personally felt I achieved that.

So I’d just like to wish all of you good luck for the future, give it all you’ve got, and if that isn’t enough…become Prime Minister and you can shut all those universities that turned you down.

Willa