Kathryn Abell of Edukonexion shares some tips ahead of her talk at the British Education Fair in Madrid taking place on 19-20 October 2015.
When applying to a UK university, the discovery that school grades alone are not enough to gain entry onto the programme of your choice can come as an unwelcome surprise. This is especially true for international students, many of whom see the words 'personal statement' for the first time when starting their university application.
But far from being a barrier, the personal statement is, in fact, one of the stepping stones to achieving your goal of studying at a UK university.
A personal statement can help you stand out
If you have selected your study programme well – that is to say, you have chosen something that you are truly excited about that matches your academic profile – then the personal statement is simply a way to communicate to admissions tutors why you are interested in the programme and what you can bring to it. And given the fact that many universities receive multiple applications for each available place, and that most do not offer an interview, your written statement is often the only way you can express your personality and say 'choose me!'.
The 'personal' in 'personal statement' suggests that you should be allowed to express yourself however you want, right? Well, to a certain extent that is true: admissions tutors want to get a picture of you, not your parents, your teachers or your best friend, so it has to be your work. However, the purpose of the statement is to persuade academic staff that they should offer you one of their highly sought-after university places; although there is no strict template for this, there are specific things you should include and certain things you should most certainly leave out.
The importance of the opening paragraph
The online Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) undergraduate application form allows a total of 4,000 characters (around 700 words), meaning that you need to craft the statement carefully. The most important part is unquestionably the opening paragraph, as it acts as an invitation to continue reading. If you are not able to catch the attention of the admissions tutor, who has hundreds of statements to assess, then it is highly unlikely they will read through to the end.
The best advice here is to avoid much-used opening lines and clichés such as 'I have wanted to be an engineer since I was a child'. This kind of thing is not the invitation readers are looking for. Instead, try using an anecdote, experience or inspirational moment: 'Although tinkering with engines had always been a childhood hobby, it was the vision of the fastest car on earth, the Bloodhound, at an exhibition in London, that roused my desire to learn everything I could about automotive engineering'. Really? Tell me more!
Of course, your opening paragraph could start in a variety of ways, but the fundamental purpose is to grab the reader’s interest.
Provide evidence of your commitment and skills
Following on from that, you have to provide evidence of your passion and commitment to your chosen programme, and highlight the specific and transferable skills you possess to study it successfully. You can do this by following the ABC rule.
Action: Include examples of what you have done, experienced or even read that have helped you in your choice of degree and boosted your knowledge of the subject area.
Benefit: By doing these things, explain what you learned or gained; in the case of a book or article, put forward an opinion.
Course: The most successful applicants ensure that the information they include is relevant to their course in order to highlight their suitability. Flower-arranging may allow you to realise your creative potential, but will it help you study astrophysics?
It is perfectly acceptable to base this ABC rule on school-based activities, as not all students have opportunities outside the classroom. However, if you can link extra-curricular pursuits to your desired programme of study, you are further highlighting your commitment. As a general rule of thumb, the information you include here should be around 80 per cent academic and 20 per cent non-academic. So, for example, as a member of the school science club – a non-curricular, academic activity – you may have developed the ability to analyse data and tackle problems logically. Taking part in a work placement falls into the same category and could have helped you develop your communication, time-management and computer skills. You get the idea.
Non-academic accomplishments may involve music, sport, travel or clubs and can lead to a variety of competencies such as team-working, leadership, language or presentation skills. A word of warning here: it is vital that you sell yourself, but arrogance or lies will result in your personal statement landing in the 'rejected' pile. Keep it honest and down-to-earth.
Provide a memorable conclusion
Once you have emphasised your keen interest and relevant qualities, you should round off the statement with a conclusion that will be remembered. There is little point putting all your effort to generate interest in the opening paragraph only for your statement to gradually fade away at the end. A good conclusion will create lasting impact and may express how studying your chosen course will allow you to pursue a particular career or achieve any other plans. It can also underline your motivation and determination.
Use a formal tone, stay relevant and be positive
As you have to pack all this information into a relatively short statement, it is essential to avoid the superfluous or, as I like to call it, the 'fluff'. If a sentence sounds pretty but doesn’t give the reader information, remove it. In addition, the tone should be formal and you should not use contractions, slang or jokes; remember, the statement will be read by academics – often leaders in their field.
Referring to books is fine but don’t resort to using famous quotes as they are overused and do not reflect your own ideas. Also, while it's good to avoid repetition, don't overdo it with the thesaurus.
Negativity has no place in a personal statement, so if you need to mention a difficult situation you have overcome, ensure you present it as a learning experience rather than giving the reader an opportunity to notice any shortcomings. Also, bear in mind that your personal statement will probably go to several universities as part of a single application, so specifically naming one university is not going to win you any favours with the others.
Get some help but never copy someone else's work
Checking grammar, spelling and flow is essential and it is perfectly OK to ask someone to do this for you. A fresh pair of eyes and a different perspective always help, and, as long as the third party does not write the content for you, their input could be of vital importance. And while you may get away with not sticking to all of the above advice, there is one thing that you absolutely must not do: copy someone else’s work. Most applications are made through UCAS, which uses sophisticated software to detect plagiarism. If you are found to have copied content from the internet, or a previous statement, your application will be cancelled immediately. Remember, it is a personal statement.
Get your ideas down in a mind-map first
Finally, I will leave you with my top tip. If you understand all the theory behind the personal statement and have an abundance of ideas floating in your head, but are staring blankly at your computer screen, take a pen and paper and make a simple mind map. Jot down all your experiences, activities, skills, attributes and perhaps even include books you have read or even current items that interest you in the news. Then look for how these link to your course and highlight the most significant elements using arrows, colours and even doodles. Capturing thoughts on paper and making logical deductions from an image can give structure to your ideas.
Register for our British Education Fair in Madrid, taking place on 19-20 October 2015, for a chance to talk directly to staff from 40 UK universities, vocational colleges and English language schools.
Get more advice from our Education UK site on your UCAS application and writing your statement.
You might also be interested in:
Read more articles
Admissions tutors reading law applications aren't just looking for the sports captain who works part-time in a solicitor's office. Well-rounded applicants, with a firm grasp of current affairs and a genuine reason for wanting to study the law, are really who they're after.
"Schools of law know that not all candidates have had access to high prestige work experience," says Steve Jones of the University of Manchester, who recently conducted research into personal statements. "Focus on the skills that you do have. Think carefully about why you want a law degree and what you'll do with it. Everyone says they're 'passionate' about their subject – think instead about what makes you different from other applicants.
"Don't talk about your hobbies unless they're directly relevant to your chosen programme. Spend time researching the university departments and degree programmes for which you're applying. There's no big secret to the personal statement: universities just want applicants who are well prepared and have lots of potential."
So make sure you have done your research. Aled Griffiths, deputy head of the law school at Bangor University, says students must show an up-to-date understanding of the legal profession. "It's a bit naïve nowadays to say 'I want to be a barrister' unless you have some idea of how that might happen," he said. It's important to say which areas of law you're interested in, though it's fine for students to be undecided "as long as they understand what confronts them".
Reading newspapers is considered to be more important than reading law texts. "We want to know what turned you on to law, whether it's constitutional issues in Egypt or civil marriage," said Griffiths, adding that students should demonstrate a "knowledge of world events and the applicability of the law".
Griffiths said introductions should be about why you think you'll make a good lawyer or what attracted you to law. "Personal experiences which sparked your interest are great, but don't give us your whole life story," he added.
And it's no longer novel to mention your favourite law drama. The worst thing you can do is list your achievements without exploring their applicability to a law degree – even mentioning a placement at Jones Jones LLC is meaningless unless you say what you thought of it, Griffiths said.
Similarly, Deborah Ives, director of admissions for the University of East Anglia's school of law, recently rejected a 3 A* candidate who said "I want to be a lawyer because my father's a lawyer". Ives said that unless this has led to experiences which have generated a personal interest in law they are not interested "We are looking for an informed decision."
Some of the possible hobbies that relate to a law degree are public speaking, debating, languages and advocacy. Most admissions tutors, however, make it clear that there are many activities which teach transferable skills relevant to law.
Ives said that students underestimate how important sport is – any sport – especially if a student is good, because it shows motivation, diligence and determination. Work experience doesn't have to be directly law related either: "I was most impressed by a lad who was explaining about his interest in criminal law and how that had developed, and how he had gone down to the police station and volunteered to take part in identity parades," Ives said.
Every law school wants different things, however. Claire McGourlay, admissions tutor for the University of Sheffield's school of law, said the best thing to do is ring up the university and ask them what they are looking for. "I don't look for work experience that's just law related," she said, adding that she'd be just as impressed by someone who has got up at six every morning since they were 14 to do a paper round.
"As long as they can demonstrate that they have done something – a bit of an all rounder really," she said. "And they don't have to be an Olympic athlete, just as long as they have done something." Nor do applicants have to be clear on their career aspirations – it's OK if you don't yet know if you want to work in law.
McGourlay says every personal statement is individual. "Some are very creative, some are more concise. I don't mind either way as long as it shows them as a whole person and shows a general interest in the subject.
"The key is to write fluently. No spelling mistakes, no bad grammar, not plagiarised." The worst personal statements are always the ones that haven't been proofread, she said.
Daniel Attenborough, admissions tutor at the University of Leicester, agreed – saying that personal statements are a "sales pitch" and students need to express themselves in an eloquent and elegant way. He advised against simply stating that you like chess. Explain that chess has encouraged your independent thinking and competitive nature, and why this is relevant to a career in law.
If students mention something like enjoying the TV show Suits "it usually just makes me laugh," says Attenborough. "It doesn't necessarily go against the student at all." But he's more impressed by an interest in how the law interacts with broader social issues – how the law is shaped by capitalism, or the impact of UK law on asylum seekers.
And it's important to remember that the personal statement is only one part of the application. Neil Kibble, director of law admissions at Lancaster University, said he is reluctant to set too much store by personal statements as he's very aware that some students get more guidance than others.
"We don't want to privilege two or three types of extracurricular activities at the expense of others," he said. "We would ask students to reflect on whatever experience they have had, whether it's working in a shop or looking after a member of the family, and say what they have learned from it."
Kibble said he tends to pay more attention to personal statements during clearing, when a particularly strong statement can win him over to a candidate who has not achieved the right grades.