Personal Statement

UK Application Guide

Application Guide

6. Personal Statement

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Your personal statement is an application letter of max 4000 characters (roughly one page) aimed at motivate why you’ve applied to the programme and school in question and why you are the best fit candidate. Your personal statement is the main “subjective” part of your application to help you communicate your personal profile.

The official description of a personal statement from UCAS is the following:

“The personal statement is your opportunity to tell universities and colleges about your suitability for the course(s) that you hope to study. You need to demonstrate your enthusiasm and commitment, and above all, ensure that you stand out from the crowd.”

This chapter provides a detailed description of the Personal Statement and highlights the most important things to know in regards to the essay’s aim and structure as well as common mistakes.The chapter also provides useful recommendations and suggestions for the writing process. Writing a good personal statement can be quite tricky, but once prepared for the challenge, many find that the process is both fun and educational.

 

 

Purpose of a Personal Statement

In order to write a successful Personal Statement tailored to british culture, language and social norms, one should first look closer at the underlying purpose of the statement.

 

 

How important is a Personal Statement?

The most prestigious universities in the UK attracts thousands of applicants each year. It is therefore necessary to be able to filter out the less suitable candidates to ease the job for the admissions committees. The purpose of a personal statement is just that. It is another way of identifying the most promising candidates.

It’s difficult to put your finger on exactly how important your Personal Statement is relative to the other parts of your application. It depends. Let’s look at three different scenarios:

  1.     For a highly regarded programme at a top university such as Management at St Andrews, most applicants will have perfect grades. Perfect grades are therefore the minimum requirement, and your Personal Statement is this your most important tool for differentiating yourself.
  2.     For universities where the grades of applicants differ, your grades will play an important role. Your personal statement will still be important, but it won’t weigh as heavily as in our first example.
  3.     A good personal statement can be crucial if the grades of an applicant are bordering too low for a specific programme.

 

 

Universities want to get to know you

Your personal statement provides important insights into who you are, assisting the admissions committee in their selection process. Under the following heading we’ll talk about what they are looking for: your interest in the subject you’re applying for and your potential to excel academically. As mentioned earlier, different universities have different social-, academic- and ideological profiles, and your statements help the different schools assess how well you match their profile.

The aim of the selection process is not simply to choose the candidates with me most impressive profiles, but also to gather a group of students that will contribute to creating a fun, interesting, diverse and dynamic social environment at the university.

“For highly competitive courses which attract applications from many more candidates than there are places, comparing all applicants’ personal statements helps us to identify the most committed and suitable candidates.”

Admissions Committee, University of Warwick

”For applicants from abroad, the personal statement becomes particularly important, since it’s an opportunity for us to gain a better understanding of their academic interests and profiles, which might be quite different from British students.”

Admissions Committee, Royal Holloway’s School of Management

 

 

It’s all about your academic interests

Before writing your personal statement, is important to understand that the personal statement should not primarily be about you as a person. Instead, the paper should focus on convincing the reader that you are genuinely interested in the academic programme that you’re applying for and that’s why you wish to continue studying the subject in question after high school.

To write a convincing personal statement, you must talk about yourself and your experiences, but the paper should fundamentally be a motivation for your interest in an academic discipline, not a story about yourself. Personal merits, experiences and strengths both in- and outside the classroom can- and should be mentioned, but only if they relate to your academic interests and made you a better candidate for the programme in question. These common grounds and connections is what make you a suitable candidate (see the section of this guide titled “Personal Profile”). You should also talk about your goals in life, and how the programme in question will help you achieve your goals.

A lot of people have a hard time realizing how much focus should be put on academic interests in the personal statement. This is one of the main distinctions between a British Personal Statement and other application letters, such as the American College Essay. If you focus your statement on your academic interest and mention relevant experiences to highlight and “back up” your interest, you’ve come a long way. Keep up the good work and soon you’ll hopefully have a strong Personal Statement.

 

 

Your application is reviewed by the relevant academic faculty

Each academic faculty has their own admissions committee in many cases, to review applications to their specific programme. This means that, for example, if you apply for a Law degree, the faculty of law will review your application. The mechanism differs slightly between different schools. It may therefore be worth calling the central admissions office at the school of interest and ask how they operate.

 

 

Who sits on the admissions committee?

The faculty admissions committees usually consist of young academics and research students. In the first round, candidates with poor grades and unsuitable profiles are filtered out. The remaining applications are reviewed as objectively as possible in accordance with the programmes specific criterias. There is no secret formula that can guarantee success in the admissions process.

The most qualified applications are sometimes forwarded to the faculty professors who can pick their favorites but also “veto” certain applicants. Keep in mind that professors, for obvious reasons, are very focused on academics and prefer reading about your academic interests over your involvement with the student council of your school or your soccer team. This further stresses the importance of a focus on academic interests in your Personal Statement.

 

 

A chance to get to know yourself

The best starting point for a successful UK application is to work hard on your personal profile and the connections to the profiles of the universities and programmes that you’re applying for. Using this method, you can easily start building a structure for your personal statement. It also helps when deciding which content is relevant, and what should be scratched out.

Brainstorming the contents of your Personal Statement is a great way to get to know yourself a bit better. By putting yourself on the spot and forcing yourself to think about your motivations of wanting to apply for a specific programme, you’ll discover things about yourself and your interests. It may turn out that you should, in fact, apply for a different programme. If you cannot convince yourself of being genuinely interested in a subject, you’ll most likely not be able to convince an admissions committee.

 

 

Extent and format

Your Personal Statement should not exceed 4000 characters (including spaces). This equates to roughly 600 words and/or 47 lines. Some online sources recommend writing a slightly shorter letter, as this can be perceived as “refreshing” by admissions committees that read thousands of letters in a consecutively. A short Personal Statement can be just as effective and convincing as a longer one, if you keep your letter concise with a thought-through structure.

 

 

6.1.001

 

6.1 Personal Statement: Layout

There are some formal rules regarding the structure and layout for your Personal Statement, and we recommend not being too experimental. Although you’ll find a few amazing examples of highly non-conventional and successful Personal Statements online, these are very rare and very risky. It’s better to impress with an efficient structure that highlights well thought out content. One suggestion is to divide your letter up into short, simple and clear parts. The following layout is a good starting point:

  •  An introduction that captures the attention of the reader and introduces your academic interest
  •  One or two paragraphs focusing on your academic interest
  •  One paragraph about your personal experiences and how they relate to the academic programme of interest
  •  One paragraph containing something interesting and out of the ordinary
  •  Summary that ties everything together, with a powerful finish that will leave a strong impression on the reader

 

 

Step-by-step guide to the writing process

Use your Personal Profile

The foundation of the content of your Personal Statement is laid out already when designing your personal profile. The common denominators (“connections”) that connect your personal profile with the profiles of the university and the specific programmes will serve as good content for your letter. Here it becomes clear why your personal profile and the connections are so important – they are the basis of your entire Personal Statement. Pick the most relevant connections for your Personal Statement.

At first, when you develop your personal profile you should aim to make it as comprehensive as possible. Most people end up with a long list of bullet points. Now you must identify the most relevant contents of your personal profile to feature in your Personal Statement. The limit of 4000 characters means that you must narrow your list down significantly.

Think long and hard about what you choose to include in your letter. These points are ultimately what are going to convince the admissions committees. All examples should have a strong connection to the specific school and programme that you wish to apply for or to the personal characteristics required to excel academically.

Below we’ve elaborated on each section of the Personal Statement structure presented above.

 

  •  An introduction that captures the attention of the reader and introduces your academic interest

Here you can talk about an inspiring experience, idea or insight that illustrates your relationship with the chosen academic programme. Something that awakened your passion for the subject might be a book, a summer course or an event.

 

  •  One or two paragraphs focusing on your academic interest

In this part of the letter you should focus on your direct academic interest in the programme you’re applying for. How did your interest come to life? Are there any particular parts of the subject that you’re extra interested in? Why? Explain what is so interesting about it and describe how a university education can help stimulate your intellectual curiosity.

You can include specific examples that prove your interest in the subject in order to strengthen these paragraphs. You may also talk about the subject more in-depth and discuss specific ideas, research, theories or personalities within the field you wish to study.

Remember that most undergraduate programmes are very broad and it is impossible to have a burning interest in everything. Pick the parts that fascinate you the most and showcase your genuine interest.

 

  •  One paragraph about your personal experiences and how they relate to the academic programme of interest

The purpose of this paragraph is to illustrate the personal qualities that will make you a successful student. This can be done by mentioning things from your personal profile: experiences, characteristics or life goals.

You should focus more on yourself than in this part rather than the academic programme, but always show the connections. Talk about things like high school courses or extracurriculars that have helped you develop certain skills that are relevant for the specific academic challenges ahead. Here are two examples:

  1. How your independent- and creative thinking abilities often lead to different opinions and stances, making you a valuable participant in philosophy classes.
  2. How your mathematics course helped you develop an ability to take on difficult problems and solve them in a systematic way. This systematic thinking is valuable when studying and practicing Law.

 

  •  One paragraph containing something interesting and out of the ordinary

It may be interesting to include a more personal paragraph towards the end of your letter. Use your personal profile as basis to find something special that makes you stand out. Then explain why it is relevant to your candidacy.

Many choose to include a merit relating to leadership (ex. Student councils, sports teams or entrepreneurship), creative interest (ex. Art, music, dance) or adventure/travels (ex. Climbing a mountain, volunteering, traveling around the world). Such experiences show for personal qualities that are valuable and grant your application an edge.

What you choose to write about doesn’t need to be directly related to your academic field of interest, but should at least show for how you can contribute with something unique in an academic environment.

 

  •  Summary that ties everything together, with a powerful finish that will leave a strong impression on the reader

In the end of your letter you need to summarize what you’ve talked about in your Personal Statement. Avoid introducing new material in this part. If reasonable, you may include a short passage on why you wish to study in the UK specifically.

 

 

Finish the letter on a polite note.

 

 

6.2.001

 

6.2 Personal Statement: The Writing Process

There are no magic formulas that can guarantee a successful Personal Statement. This leaves the door open to creative ideas and characteristic writing. Too much creativity and irregularities should however be avoided, as this can distract the reader. The content is the most important part.

Think about what you want each individual paragraph to communicate. Then focus on which specific examples to include as illustrations. Try to create smooth transitions between paragraphs so that one section flows into the next one without disrupting the reader’s focus. You can easily do this by making the first line in each paragraph relate to the last line of the previous one. This makes the text much easier to read.

 

Check list

Your Personal Statement should somehow answer the following questions:

  •  Why do you want to study the subject of interest?
  •  Have you understood what the programme is about and contains?
  •  Why will you succeed in this programme?
  •  How do your personal qualities and experiences back up your academic abilities?

 

Admissions committees also look for the following in your Personal Statement:

  •  Intellectual interest in your subject motivating a will to further educate yourself
  •  Which specific parts of your chosen academic field fascinate you the most
  •  You were always naturally drawn to gaining knowledge within the field

 

Finally, ask the following question:

  •  Is all the content in your personal statement clearly relevant for the programme that you’re applying to? If not, delete the parts that feel superfluous or irrelevant. These things steal focus from the stronger parts of your letter.

 

 

Find your voice (grammar, language, tone and tempo)

Most academic programmes require a high level of written, formal English. The language used in your Personal Statement is an important chance to show that you have what it takes. How you formulate your Personal Statement reflects your linguistic abilities, which subsequently illustrates your capacity for both logical and creative thinking. Your task is to create a flow in the text that makes the reader focus on the content.

To formulate oneself on an advanced level is challenging, especially as an international applicant who is not a native English speaker. Even British students struggle to formulate their Personal Statements. First priority is to know how to use the English language correctly, and only then can one focus on the style, tone and harmony of the text.

To achieve good enough results on the TOEFL test and cope with university studies in the UK, a certain level of English proficiency is required.  This same level is required in order to produce a successful personal statement. It is therefore key to practice your English skills before applying.

 

 

Language and formulations

You should begin thinking about the linguistic tone and pace of your Personal Statement once you feel confident writing in English. You need to find a style that naturally represents you and simultaneously fits the academic discipline and institution you’re applying for. Your language must be tailored to fit the reader.

Remember that your Personal Statement is an official document, and you should therefore by all means avoid using everyday words, slang and offensive words. You should also avoid too formal words that no one uses. A common mistake is to try to impress the admissions committees by using too advanced words and formulations that come across as unnatural. Use a simple, clear and proper-sounding choice of words that helps the reader understand and focus on the content.

Keep your sentences short and on point. This is an effective trick to improve your writing, but requires a bit of time and effort. Application advisors will teach you about the KISS model – “Keep It Simple, Stupid”.  By allocating enough time for fine-tuning work, you stand a good chance of producing a competitive, concise and strong Personal Statement.

 

 

Things to avoid

Below you’ll find three common mistakes that you should avoid in your Personal Statement:

  •  Humor – it is difficult to successfully communicate humor in text, and it is often times misinterpreted
  •  Quotes – this is a cliché. The reader is interested in reading your words, not the words of other people.
  •  Excessively vivid depictions and metaphors – this gets too complicated and heavy.

 

 

 

6.3.001

 

6.3 Personal Statement: Easy mistakes and good-to-knows

In this section, we cover some of the most common mistakes committed when writing Personal Statements. Make notes of the items in the lists below, and go over the lists both before and after writing your statement, to ensure that you avoid these pitfalls.

 

Mistakes to avoid:

  •  Focusing too much on your personality and experiences. A general rule is to focus roughly 30% of your content on non-academic topics, and the rest on the academic field of interest
  •  Using too advanced words and formulations – keep your structure, formulations and choice of words simple
  •  Using specific university names in your application, as you probably are applying for many different ones
  •  Using all the 4000 characters at your disposal
  •  Using quotes, humor and other literary techniques. These are all too common mistakes.
  •  Copying other people’s Personal Statements (or just parts of them). Such Personal Statements are immediately disqualified
  •  Using cursive, underlined or bold text – these features are disabled in the UCAS form. Apostrophes (ex. “é”) are also not enabled.
  •  Making sweeping statements such as “I’ve always been passionate about…” These sorts of formulations are not especially memorable. Instead focus on specific information.
  •  Expressing strong political opinions, unless it is a central part of your personal profile
  •  Talking about experiences from a very young age, unless these events have played a major role in shaping you as a person and it is relevant to your application

 

Make sure to:

  •  Focus the large part of your Personal Statement on why you are interested in the programme you are applying for
  •  Relate all the personal characteristics, experiences and merits mentioned to your academic interest
  •  Formulate yourself in a simple and clear way with a formal but not too high-flown tone
  •  Think about who is going to read your Personal Statement
  •  Show that you’ve understood the constructs and contents of of the programme you’re applying for
  •  You’ve carefully reflected and prepared your personal profile before choosing which content to include in your Personal Statement
  •  Ask teachers, siblings, friends, parents and academic counselors to read your letter, suggest improvements and correct grammatical errors.
  •  Be specific – name exactly which book you’ve read, where you worked and/or the name of your role model

 

Some extra qualities admissions committees in the UK regard as highly valuable

  •  A genuine and long-termist interest for an academic subject
  •  Understanding of the difference in academic level between highschool and university
  •  Being an independent learner. Show that you’ve taken your own initiatives to learn beyond what was taught in the classroom.

 

 

Here’s a good lecture on Personal Statements:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jQ3MJgdkJY

 

 

 

6.4.001

 

6.4 Personal Statement: Writing exercise

This writing exercise is perfectly designed to improve the skills needed to produce a successful personal statement. By repeating the steps in the list below, you will find that the overall quality (clarity, directness, sophistication) of your writing improves. Combining great articulation with great content will eventually make for an excellent statement.

 

Write the perfect paragraph

  1. Enter the university’s website and read through the description of the program you are interested in applying for. Identify one characteristic that seems extra important to excel in the field
  2. Go through your personal profile and choose one experience that distinguishes you as a high school student
  3. Think about how your experience affected you and which abilities you developed
  4. If you find a connection, start writing a paragraph about why you are interested in the course you are applying for
  5. When you’ve explained your interest, try to motivate how your unique experience has helped strengthened this interest of yours. The challenge is to manage to make this connection. Once you’ve done so, you can easily add a sentence about how your experience also helped you develop the exact characteristic that you identified in step 1. With all of this content, the paragraph should be close to finished.
  6. Did you have a hard time making the connection between your experience and your academic interest? Go through your personal profile again and try using a different experience, or start over with a different programme.
  7. Try this with different academic programmes and experiences. Play around with it. This is only a writing exercise, and so you don’t have to limit yourself to the specific programme that you intend to apply for.

 

 

 

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