Expert tips to help you write your personal statement without work experience

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How to write your personal statement for 2021 university entry if the coronavirus lockdown means you can’t do a work placement

If you’re planning on starting your degree in 2021, you might be beginning to think about pulling together your university application and personal statement.

Lots of the pre-coronavirus advice out there will mention talking about relevant work experience in your personal statement. This is particularly true if you’re planning on applying to healthcare courses like medicine or dentistry, or other competitive degrees such as law.

But the coronavirus lockdown may mean that any placements you had planned for this summer have been cancelled, and now you’re looking for guidance on how to fill the work-experience-shaped hole in your personal statement.

Here are some ideas from universities and TSR members to help you write an excellent personal statement without work experience.

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Remember that everyone is in the same situation

First of all, don’t panic – everyone is in the same lockdown situation, so the universities are going to understand why you haven’t been able to get work experience if you’re applying for 2021 entry.

In a live TSR Q&A, the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, said, “universities will be flexible and will understand that the virus and lockdown has hindered abilities to do work experience and extracurricular activities to boost applications.”

“It is understandable, given this current situation, that people will not be able to access work experience prior to joining a programme,” commented Dr Paul Linsley, faculty associate dean at the University of East Anglia.

And John Watkins, employability director at the University of Law added that “there ought not to be any negative reaction” to personal statements that lack work experience as “it will be understood that opportunities will have been greatly reduced and the majority of applicants will be in the same position”.

Here are some teacher secrets for writing a great personal statement.

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Talk about any qualities and skills you have that will make you good at the course

Think about the kind of qualities or skills that a student on your chosen course would ideally have, then back them up with examples of how you’ve demonstrated them in your everyday life.

“Applicants should be prepared to talk about the qualities required of their profession, eg patience, compassion, attentiveness, courage, dependability, trustworthiness and give examples of those qualities, eg supporting a friend or elderly neighbour during COVID-19,” advised Linsley.

You could also think about “what personal qualities lend themselves to your chosen profession and give examples of these, eg for commitment, a time when you saw something through despite a number of difficulties,” added Linsley.

And when it comes to demonstrating relevant skills, you can think outside the box a bit and mention things you’ve done that aren’t necessarily directly related to the course. As long as the skillset you’re talking about is relevant to the kind of skills you’ll need to succeed on the degree, that should give your personal statement a boost.

“Applicants often believe that they need to have work experience in the area in which they want to study,” said Steven Walsh, recruitment officer at Liverpool Hope University.

“However, any form of life, work or volunteering experience can be relatable – it is more about the skills used and developed as opposed to what was actually being done.”

Read our personal statement FAQs.

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Go into a bit more detail about everything else

Your personal statement word count is pretty limited, so you could make the most of the extra space by going into a bit more detail about your previous studies and the reasons why you’re passionate about this subject.

“Some applicants may choose to replace descriptions of work experience with more content regarding their previous study – often students find that 4,000 characters is not enough to go into huge amounts of detail, so the opportunity to talk about how your studies have benefited you may be a good one,” commented Walsh.

“This also gives you more opportunity to discuss where your interest and passion to study this subjects comes from, how it has grown and where you foresee it taking you beyond university study,” Walsh finished.

TSR member AzureCeleste suggested that you could “talk about the other things you’ve done on your personal statement – the books [you’ve read] will look good to the more academic unis (like Cambridge).”

How to write your personal statement when you have nothing interesting to say.

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Get online to improve your knowledge and skills

There are plenty of online resources you can use to expand your knowledge base, and then mention in your personal statement (as well as cracking open a good old-fashioned book, of course).

“Due to COVID-19, I have no hospital work experience whatsoever,” said TSR member dxnixl. “I’m planning on watching documentaries and reading extra books, perhaps on cardiology or the nervous system.”

“There are online things you can do to boost your personal statements. All my extra stuff to do with my subject was extra reading,” shared Treetop321.

TSR member emilieraine spoke about online work experience, which some universities and employers have been offering since the coronavirus lockdown.

“For those of you worrying about med work experience, Brighton and Sussex Medical School are offering a virtual work experience course for medicine free of charge,” they commented.

Applicants could also “undertake online training – Microsoft packages, coding etc or organise virtual events,” said Watkins. “Basically, have a plan that says ‘what can I do to be a stronger applicant in six to nine months’ time?’ and use your imagination.”

And it’s also worth making sure that you have a positive online presence, so that any admissions teams Googling you won’t stumble across anything you’d rather they didn’t see. Being on lockdown is a good opportunity to “review your digital footprint and develop a professional social media profile,” suggested Watkins.

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Volunteer in your community

You may struggle to get work experience in an area directly related to the subject you’re applying for, but there are plenty of opportunities for volunteering at the moment (as long as it’s safe for you to do so).

In her Q&A, the universities minister suggested that “if you have time and are not in the vulnerable category then now is a great time to help your community and get involved with a local project/group to help your community fight COVID-19 and you can also pop that onto your applications.”

“Maybe people struggling to get experience could try getting involved in community projects,” said TSR member Keels25.

“I’ve seen some local initiatives in my area where people are doing food collections/donating food to people in need during the coronavirus outbreak. It’s not in a medical setting, but will demonstrate community awareness which is quite valuable to do,” they added.

The best way to get involved is to “look out for groups who are doing this in a coordinated or organised way and make it known you are willing to help,” commented TSR member GANFYD.

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Figure out if it’s what you want to do

For some subjects, work experience can play a crucial role in helping applicants decide if it’s the course they want to do. TSR member ecolier suggested reading first-hand accounts of the area to help make your decision – and, of course, turning to TSR members to get a better insight.

Applicants to medical courses, for example, could “read books by junior doctors like ‘This is Going to Hurt’ by Adam Kay, or ask us stuff here on TSR,” ecolier said. 

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There’s no one-size-fits all approach

Finally, don’t lose sight of the fact that your personal statement is meant to be all about you. Stay focused on why you want to do the course and why you’d be good at it and you’ll be on the right track.

“A personal statement, as obvious as it seems, is personal to you and therefore extremely subjective,” commented Walsh.

“There are useful guidelines to follow but in regards to content, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, as each applicant is an individual and that should be celebrated in a personal statement.

Looking for more inspiration? Visit our personal statement advice forum, take a look at our sample personal statements by subject or use our personal statement builder tool to get started.

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