By Alison Home, on 25 September 2012
I’ve been reading lots of personal statements this week, so I wanted to write some last minute tips for students about to apply through UCAS. Here are some common problems, and examples of how you can remedy them. My examples are invented, but they are based on real statements that I have read recently.
Listing books, topics or experiences without discussing them
- “To further my knowledge of Psychology, I have read Oliver Sachs’ ‘The man who mistook his wife for a hat’, Stephen Pinker’s ‘How the mind works’ and Jon Ronson’s ‘The psychopath test.’”
- “Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, The Second World War, The Georgian and Victorian periods, the American civil rights movement and Mao’s China are all historical periods that I am incredibly familiar with and very knowledgeable about.”
Don’t do this! It is off-putting for the reader and doesn’t demonstrate your knowledge. Rather than trying to cram in lots of material, pick one or two things and discuss them more analytically.
Forgetting to discuss your A level subjects, or only discussing them very briefly
“Maths and Chemistry A levels developed my logic skills and History A level taught me to structure essays”.
You need to spend about 75% of the statement on academic related content, so don’t throw away the chance to discuss your A level subjects. Try to link the skills and knowledge from each A level back to the course you are applying for. Look at this extract from an Ancient World Studies personal statement:
“In all my A-level subjects I have found elements which will assist my study of the Classical World. At Religious Studies A-level, I have been introduced to archaeological methods which help determine the dates of historical events in the Old Testament. I find this interesting as I have had the opportunity to study other ancient civilisations such as the Assyrians in contrast to the Hebrews. Studying Mathematics and Chemistry has also taught me to adopt an analytical approach which would be useful in archaeological study.”
Assuming that the admissions tutor will know what you are talking about
Don’t forget that the admissions tutor has never met you. They may have never heard of your school, and may not be familiar with your city and the youth programmes running there. They can’t read your mind and know what you were trying to say. Lots of students refer to activities without contextualising them, for example:
- “I have been attending SMF programmes for young aspiring professionals….”
- “My voluntary work with Futureversity enhanced my communication skills”
- “On the UCL talk, I found the lecturer’s ideas about torture really interesting’.
- “At the academy I am required to be a role model for younger students”.
Here are my re-written versions:
- “I have been attending the Social Mobility Foundation programme …” (This is a well-known organisation so admissions tutors will recognise it, but don’t write it as an acronym).
- “My voluntary work with Futureversity, a London charity which runs courses for young teenagers during school holidays, has enhanced my communication skills…”
- “Over the past year I have attended a series of public lectures at UCL, one of which discussed the implications of international law on torture and human rights. I found the speaker’s suggestion that …. interesting because…”
- “At my school I am a subject mentor for Year 7 students, offering additional support in maths.”
Leaving out highly relevant material because you ran out of space
I found that many students omitted really impressive and relevant achievements because they had run out of space or weren’t sure if it was relevant. One student had won a place on a highly competitive programme which included a visit to Yale University in America, but didn’t include this in the personal statement!
Write out everything you might want to include, without worrying about word count. Once it is all on paper, go through it and cut out the waffle. Then if you need to cut it further, decide which bits of content are the least impressive or relevant, and cut them. Keep things that are highly relevant to the degree programme or that show impressive skills and achievements.
Writing long, complicated and incoherent sentences
“I was fortunate enough to secure an extremely prestigious work experience placement, during which time I was afforded the opportunity to observe multiple and diverse client consultations.”
This type of writing is very common – it wastes characters, and is annoying for the reader as it doesn’t tell us anything important. Read this version:
“On my two week work experience placement, I observed many client consultations.”
This gives exactly the same information, but it is half the length. You now have more space to talk about some of the interesting things you observed in the client consultations.
And lastly … the crime of the misplaced apostrophe!
You do not need apostrophes for plurals, for example:
“The teachers were very concerned about the personal statements”.
But you do need apostrophes for possessives, something that belongs to or was made by someone or something, for example:
‘The student’s personal statement was hugely improved as a result of Alison’s advice”.
Good luck with editing your statements, and please do write to the UCL Horizons team if you need more help and guidance.
We also have some guidance sheets about personal statements which you can download at this link: