Writing a personal statement

Writing a personal statement is probably one of the most difficult parts of the UCAS application form.

Many students will not have done much creative writing since GCSE, and even if you have, it's still very hard to write about yourself.

We've produced this short guide on writing a personal statement to help you with the process.

Just read through it, follow the steps, and you should soon have a rough first draft in place.

However, if you feel you need a little extra guidance, check out our personal statement editing and critique services. Our range of packages are designed to improve spelling, grammar and sentence structure; improving the strengths of your statement and removing any weaknesses.

OK, let’s start with the basics...

We suggest you have a pretty good idea of what course you want to study before continuing much further with your personal statement.

Generally, personal statements are quite specific so if you decide to change the course you are applying for you would need to rewrite your personal statement.

If you’re still uncertain as to which course you want to apply for, take a look at our page on choosing a degree. This tells you about all the things to consider when selecting your degree course, in order to ensure you make the right choice for you.

Next...

What is a personal statement?

The UCAS personal statement is a 47 line (or 4000 character) piece of writing that allows you to tell the universities and colleges you are applying to why they should offer you a place on the course.

In order to do this successfully, you need to convey your passion and enthusiasm for the subject to the admissions tutors, as well as demonstrate your suitability to the course.

Please be aware that application personal statements and essays vary between countries, and that the guidance below is only applicable to those applying to a UK higher education institution through UCAS.

Before you start remember this is a 'personal' statement, i.e. it's about YOU.

What we've written below is just a guide, and should not be stuck to rigidly. You may find that using your own ideas on how to put together your personal statement gives a better reflection of yourself than using advice from anywhere else.

Writing guide contents

Here is an outline of what our personal statement writing guide has to offer, which also allows you to skip to the parts you particularly want to read:

  1. UCAS advice - read what UCAS have to say first to get a general overview 
  2. Aims of the personal statement - so what actually is the point of a personal statement? what should it do for my application?
  3. Notes about yourself - Make notes about what you might put in your personal statement before you start
  4. You and your subject - Why do you want to take this subject?
  5. Read example personal statements - Read statements written by previous applicants to give you some ideas
  6. Goals of your personal statement - What do you think should be included to make your statement sound good?
  7. Language of your personal statement - How to make your statement read well
  8. Structure of your personal statement - How are you going to layout and write your statement?
  9. Writing your personal statement - A few last minute tips before you begin
  10. I've written my first draft - now what? - What to do after completing your first draft
  11. Formatting your personal statement - How to format your statement once you have your final draft.

UCAS advice

In the 'Your personal statement' section at the UCAS website, you are given a brief introduction to personal statements, and then a list of links to other sections to help you write your statement.

If you think this information is enough to go on, and your personal statement is already forming in your mind, then you can stop reading here and get on with writing it! If not, go on to the next section below.

Aims of the personal statement

Many universities don't interview applicants, so the only information they have about you is on your UCAS form.

A majority of the UCAS form contains your details - the bits the universities are interested in are your grades, your references and your personal statement.

The personal statement is the only part you really have full control over, so this is your chance to present a good image to the admissions tutor, even if your grades don't really seem to reflect this.

If you are applying to an oversubscribed university course, e.g. Physiotherapy, Medicine, etc. and everyone applying is likely to have good grades, the personal statement is the only thing that will set you apart from other applicants, so you want to try and make yours as good as possible.

When the admissions and subject tutors look at your personal statement, they are likely to be asking two main questions:

1. Do we want this student on this course?

2. Do we want this student at this university?

These questions can then be broken up further to make it easier to answer them thoroughly:

  • Is the student suited to the course that they are applying for?
  • Does the student have the necessary qualifications and qualities for the course?
  • Is the student conscientious, hardworking and unlikely to drop out?
  • Will the student do their best and cope with the demands of the course?
  • Can the student work under pressure?
  • Will the student be able to adjust to their new environment at university?
  • What are their communication skills like?
  • Are they dedicated to this course and have they researched it well?
  • Do they have a genuine interest in the subject and a desire to learn more about it?

These are the sorts of questions you need to answer in your personal statement.

Unfortunately you cannot answer them directly with a simple 'yes' or 'no' -  you need to provide evidence and make it sound believable.

Ultimately, admissions tutors are human too, and may well have hundreds of personal statements to sift through, so even if you think you've answered all these questions really well you may still be unlucky.

There are other techniques you can use to make your statement stand out and appeal to admissions tutors, but remember people are all different and therefore may have different ideas about what they look for in a prospective student.

Some of these techniques are discussed in the personal goals section further down.

Notes about yourself

Now you have some idea of why you're writing a personal statement, you need to think about what you're going to put in it.

You don't need to start thinking about the wording or structure yet - the first thing to do is get down some ideas on what you could include.

The best way to do this is to use a set of headings and write bullet points about how you relate to these headings. Here are some example headings you may wish to think about.

What you want to study at university and why

  • Specific aspects of the courses that interest you
  • Examples of coursework you have completed
  • Practical work you have enjoyed
  • Books, articles, etc. you have read related to the subject area
  • Work experience or voluntary work in this area
  • Conferences you have attended
  • Personal experiences that lead to the decision to take this subject
  • Where you hope a degree in this subject will take you in the future
  • Experiences that show you are a reliable and responsible person
  • Part-time job
  • Business enterprise
  • Community and charity work
  • Sixth form committee
  • Helping out at school events and open days
  • Young Enterprise, World Challenge, Duke of Edinburgh award, Asdan Award, Debating societies, and what you have gained from these experiences.

Your interests and skills

  • What you like to do in your free time
  • Sport and leisure activities
  • Subjects you study that are not examined
  • Musical instrument(s) you play
  • Languages you speak
  • Prizes you have won or positions achieved in your interests

Gap year (if applicable)

  • Why you want to take a Gap year
  • What you plan to do
  • How this may relate to your course

Obviously, if you're not taking a Gap year, you can avoid this section. If you are it could still be left out, but you may be asked why you're taking it at interview.

You should now have lots of bullet points about yourself, all of which will be useful in preparing your personal statement.

Don't worry too much if you don't seem to have done many of the things outlined above - just think about things you've done that show all your good qualities, or could be written in a way that displays your good qualities.

The important thing is that you have a good reason for why you want to study the course. It doesn't matter if the reason sounds silly at the moment - you can work on the language later.

All admissions tutors will be looking for people who are enthusiastic and passionate about the subject(s) they want to study, so make sure you really are.

If you're choosing this course just because you can't think of anything better to do, that's not a good enough reason, and maybe you should consider looking for a course you would enjoy more.

You and your subject

Saying why you want to take your course is possibly the most important part of your personal statement.

You can have perfect grades, great extra curricular activities and be a really wonderful person, but if admissions tutors feel you aren't committed to your course, you won't get a place.

Hopefully the notes you have written for the section above have already given you a good idea of what to write about why you want to take your course.

If not then you should at least be sure you want to take that subject - writing a personal statement is a lot of work, and you don't really want to get to the end of it and decide you want to study a different subject. So before you go much further be sure you have chosen the right subject for you.

As mentioned earlier, if you’re still not sure about your choice of course, check out our section on choosing a degree to help you make a final decision.

Remember you don't actually have to choose the course you want to take yet, just have a rough idea of the subject area (or areas) you might be interested in.

Now you need to think about exactly why you want to take this subject. Even if you are 100% sure that this is the course for you, you still need to get this across to the admissions tutors.

If they accept you, you are going to be studying this course for at least the next three years, and you need to convince them that you are committed to it.

Have a think about exactly why the subject appeals to you, and write down as much as you can about it.

It doesn't matter if you only scribble a few notes - you can modify them before you write the statement, and the important thing is you can be sure of the key reasons why you want to take the subject.

Write down as many as you can, and if you end up with quite a few, you can always just pick the best.

Remember - if you can't think of any good reasons - should you really be taking that subject?

What if I want to do a joint degree?

There are two options you can use to tailor your personal statement to joint degrees (a degree where you take two subjects e.g. Economics and Politics).

You can talk about the subject you feel is most important, and not mention the other.

This has the advantage that you can apply for two different joint degrees and only talk about the common element e.g. for Economics and Politics and Law and Politics, you would only talk about politics.

If you decide to do this, make sure you talk about the qualities you have which show you are suitable for the other half of your joint degree.

Alternatively you can just talk about why you want to do both subjects, although the approach you choose will probably depend on how closely related your subjects are.

What if I want to apply for different subjects?

There is no easy way to write a personal statement for two unrelated subjects.

If the subjects are similar, such as Maths and Statistics, or Accounting and Business Studies, you may find you can write a general personal statement that applies equally to both courses.

If this is the case you many not want to mention either of the subjects by name, and instead talk about the related work that you've already done and why you have enjoyed it.

If your subjects are totally unrelated there is no way you wan write a personal statement that will cover all of them.

Instead you need to come up with a statement that gives you the best chance of being accepted.

For example, if you are applying for one subject at four of your university choices and another subject at the other two, you may just want to write a statement related to the subject you chose to study at four universities and either forget about, or change the course, at your other two choices.

You also want to consider your predicted grades in relation to the universities you are applying to.

Universities that normally make lower offers are less likely to be concerned about a badly targeted personal statement, whereas for universities that make high offers, the personal statement will be much more important.

Try and alter your personal statement so it is more specific to the universities asking for higher grades, as this will give you the best chance of being offered places at all your choices.

There will probably be some cases where there is nothing you can do, for example, if you are applying for three totally unrelated subjects, each at two different universities.

There is no advice that will help in a situation like this, except just to consider whether this is really what you want to do, and that you may be seriously reducing your chances of being offered a place on your chosen courses.

Even if you do apply for three different courses, you will only be able to study one of them, so it helps if you try to limit your choices to similar subjects.

Read example personal statements

Some people may know exactly how they are going to lay out and write their personal statement, but for the rest of us it's a bit more difficult.

Even though you now know what you're going to put in your statement, do you know how to make it read well?

The best way to get an idea of how to go about producing your personal statement is to look at some other people's statements.

This gives you a chance to see the sort of structure and language other people use, how they explained why they wanted to study their chosen course, as well as their own interests and abilities.

When you read through sample personal statements, have your own notes from the section above ready. If you find anything you've done but haven't already thought about, make a note of it.

Reading through lots of personal statements will allow you to judge which ones you think are good or bad, and find parts of statements you really like or dislike. This exercise will come in useful in the next section.

Hopefully your school or college will give you some example personal statements, but if they don't, there are loads of personal statement samples available here at Studential.

We have a collection of over 1000 personal statements, making us home to the largest catalogue of personal statements on the web.

Goals of your personal statement

Now you’ve looked at some example personal statements, you may have some idea of how you might put your own together.

However, even if you’re still stuck, you should have seen lots of statements you like, as well as a few that you don't.

Use this knowledge to decide how you are going to write your personal statement.

From the personal statements you have just read through, you may have gathered the following guidelines:

  • Don’t sound arrogant and pretentious
  • Try to have an interesting phrase or paragraph to start and finish on
  • Try not to quote books, magazines or publications in a way that makes it sound like you’ve only read them to put them on your statement.
  • Do not lie outright and stay as close to the truth as possible
  • Don't try to be funny or make jokes in your statement
  • Don't start every sentence with I
  • Don't include your hobbies and interests unless they are relevant
  • Don't use vocabulary you don't normally use and just looked up in a dictionary
  • Don't use famous quotes in your statement unless you back them up with information on how and why this person’s quote influenced you. Dropping them in just for the sake of it makes you look silly and that you haven’t given serious thought to your personal statement.
  • Don't repeat things already on your UCAS form, e.g. predicted exam grades.
  • With the exception of a gap year, don't make claims you are going to do something before you come to university
  • Don't include clichés
  • Don't take any political or religious viewpoints.

Guidelines like these should give you an idea of what to focus on and think about when writing your own personal statement.

They also stop your statement from looking too much like one of the examples that you might have copied bits from.

Take a look at the personal goals in more depth.

Remember - you don't have to use any of these goals as your own. If you think you are really witty and some light humour will go down well in your statement, then take the plunge and put it down.

These goals are really just ideas you might want to use to help you come up with your first draft - remember a personal statement is supposed to be personal, and you should stick with writing whatever you think will work best for you.

Language of your personal statement

From looking at example personal statements you have probably found some language that you like or think works well.

The first thing to remember is: do not directly copy any of it! not even a single sentence! The reason is, copying statements is plagiarism, and if an admissions tutor sees a statement they recognise they will probably reject you instantly.

You should also not copy single sentences for the same reason - sentences that stick out in your mind may stick out in the examiners also.

It is ok to find a sentence or paragraph that says what you want to say, but make sure you adapt it yourself and don't just copy it.

You need to use language that makes you sound enthusiastic about your courses and portrays you as an interesting person.

If you're still wondering what sort of language to use look at existing personal statements, prospectuses and on the web to find sentences you feel fit your views.

University prospectuses are a good place to look - find your course, see how it is described and see if you can work anything similar into your personal statement.

Write down a list of words or sentences you would like to use like this:

  • to gain greater understanding of the world around you
  • sends a signal to prospective employers and graduate schools
  • students of economics become problem-solvers
  • the fact is economics affects our daily lives
  • a challenging and diverse discipline
  • develops analytical skills, quantitative skills, research skills
  • it is interesting and relevant

Don't copy the sentences you find outright - change them or write your own sentence in a similar style.

If you can't find any sentences you like, try and write your own - it is a personal statement after all.

Structure of your personal statement

Now it's time to think about the structure of your personal statement - you should have read lots of examples by now and may have a fair idea about how yours is going to look, but this section should clarify things a bit if you don't.

Most statements are written in an essay format, but you don't have to do yours like this.

We don't recommend you write it as one large block of text. Even though you can fit more words in, this just makes it hard to read.

You could however use headings rather than write in an essay style. Not many personal statements are written like this but if you think yours would work better like this, then go ahead.

A starting guideline is to simply spend half the statement talking about the course and why you want to take it, and spend the other half writing about yourself and your own abilities, though once you get into it this can be easily changed.
 
Another approach is to split up your notes into a few categories and write a paragraph on each category. For example:

  • Paragraph 1: Introduction to the subject, the aspects you’re interested in and why
  • Paragraph 2: What you have done related to the subject that isn’t already on your UCAS form
  • Paragraphs 3 and 4: Work experience placements and relevant activities at school
  • Paragraph 5: Your interests outside of school, particularly those that show you are a responsible and reliable person
  • Paragraph 6: Your goal of attending university and a memorable closing comment

Again, this is only a guideline - depending on yourself and your course you may want to change things.

The last option is to simply find a statement you like and use it as a template.

Please note, we say template - not copy and paste!
 
You can write the first draft of your personal statement using the same structure, being careful that you don't use any of the exact language.

Spend most of your time on the start and finish of the personal statement.
 
A good opening will grab the readers’ attention and cause them to read the statement properly, rather than just scanning it.

A good conclusion will mean the reader remembers what you wrote, and hopefully will recommend you.

In our opinion it's best to start with why you want to take your subject, and finish with why you want to go to university or what you want to do afterwards.

Writing your personal statement

Hopefully you now have all your notes ready - you've thought about the language you want to use, as well as the structure and the goals of your statement.

You are almost ready to start writing your personal statement, but here are a few things to bear in mind first.

Remember the aims of a personal statement. You need to show the admissions tutor why you should be accepted on your chosen course at your chosen university.

In addition to what you say in your pesonal statement, the language you use and the way it is laid out will be judged as well.

Also remember you only have a limited amount of space (47 lines, or 4000 characters), but don't let this put you off too much.

A long personal statement can be easily trimmed down. It's harder to increase the length of a short personal statement, but if yours it too short to begin with, don't worry.

There is no requirement that you fill the entire space, but it's better to have a short and well written personal statement than a long and irrelevant one.

Be positive and interesting - if there is something you are unhappy about, try to portray it in an attractive light, or failing that, remove reference to it altogether.

Before you begin, take a look at the websites and prospectuses of the universities you are applying to, and see if they say anything about writing personal statements.

This information would probably be written by the admissions tutors, and would give you a much better idea of the sort of things you should put down!

You're ready to go!

Remember - you need to write in a way that is informative, interesting and useful.

Along with writing about what you've done, try and explain why you did it, or what you think you learned from it. For example:

I currently have a part time job and this has taught me about teamwork, responsibility and time management in the workplace.

From this point, you're more or less on your own, so move on to the next section when you've got a complete first draft of your personal statement.

I’ve written the first draft of my personal statement - now what?

Congratulations on putting together the first draft of your personal statement!

Don't worry if it sounds disjointed, you have missed bits out or it's too long or too short - you can correct these things later on.

First of all, read through what you've written slowly and try to read it from someone else's point of view.

Make sure it's easy to read and not confusing. Have you said everything you want to say without under or over-selling yourself?

If you are confused by reading your own personal statement, it is likely anyone else reading it will be too (including the admissions tutors!).

Next - get other people to read it. Ask your family, friends, teachers and anyone else who you think will be able to give you a good opinion.

As well as checking for spelling and grammar mistakes, they will be able to tell you if they think there are some things you may have missed out.

Also show it to your head of year at school or career adviser, as people like this will have seen a lot of personal statements and therefore know what a good personal statement looks like.

You could also get people on the Internet to look at your statement, and see what they think.

There are many web based communities where you can post your personal statement or email it to people, and they will happily give you advice for free.

There is one downside though: if you post your statement on a message board or forum, anyone can look at it, so you may get people who steal parts of your statement (or the whole thing!).

Hopefully by looking at your personal statement again and showing it to other people you should have a whole bunch of changes to make to your original draft.

Before making these changes, save a copy of your original statement so you can go back to it if you need too.

Keep making changes, showing people your statement, and making more changes - it's not unusual for people to have done 10-20 drafts (though many do much less) before they are completely happy with their statement.

Once you've got a personal statement that reads well, and you are happy with it, it's time to look at the size of it.

Formatting your personal statement

Personal statements can no longer be submitted on paper, so not much formatting is required.

The software used to upload your personal statement to UCAS can be quite temperamental, so carefully check through your statement line by line once you've submitted it.

We've also written a few guidelines on particular things to check for - though this may change as the software is updated and improved.

Online applications using UCAS Apply

Although you only have 47 lines in which to write your personal statement, there are still little tricks to squeeze more words in.

However, you should take care using them, as they will only clear you through the automatic preview – you can’t tell how it will appear to the admissions tutors.

Word, character and line limits

Firstly remember, there is no word limit – instead you're concentrating on a character limit (4000 characters including spaces) and a line limit (47).

Both of these must be satisfied to allow you to save your personal statement.

Checking you’re within the character limit is easy - just use the 'word count' tool on your word processor, which should show you how many characters you have used.

The line limit is more difficult, as the length of the lines is predetermined - any lines longer than 93 characters (including spaces) are wrapped onto the next line.

You can check you don’t go over the line limit using a word processor that shows the cursor position (the upright bar showing where you’re typing) and creating a new line after you’ve typed 93 characters – if you’re doing this make sure your word processor doesn’t wrap lines automatically before this.

Other things to remember

No formatting of any type is allowed in your personal statement, except using capital letters - so any bold, italic, or underlined words will disappear in the preview.

Tabs and multiple spaces will be condensed to a single space, so it is no longer possible to indent lines. Single spaces at the beginning of lines will also be removed.

You have a very limited set of 'special characters' to use along with all the upper and lowercase letter and numbers. You can use the following symbols:

!"£$%^&*()_+' |/ ,.;:'@#~[]?*-=

Common symbols not allowed are €, long dashes (–) and the special quote characters “ ‘ ’ ” which will simply be removed from your statement.

So remember to replace long dashes with - and quotes with " and '.

Some of these problems stem from Microsoft Word's autoformat feature, so you might want to turn if off before starting your personal statement.

Backslashes (\) are also not allowed but will be replaced with forward slashes (/) and curly brackets will be replaced with normal ones.

See also:

Examples of personal statements

Top rated personal statements

Personal statement editing and critique services

Teacher advice

Personal statements - staying ahead of the game

Personal statement analysis

Personal statement FAQ