Stand out from the crowd: here's how to write a good personal statement that will get you noticed
So, you’re thinking about writing your personal statement. Good plan, let’s get started. Seriously – right now. Sorry to be blunt, but it’s truly never too early.
Your personal statement forms a core part of your university application, and the sooner you get going, the better you can make it.
"Hang on a minute," you say. "I've heard personal statements don’t matter that much. I've heard unis are more interested in grades and experience than the 4,000 characters I'm typing into my personal statement." Well, that can be true. Can be.
Trouble is, you can’t know for sure and personal statements can often end up being a bit of a tiebreaker.
Let's say there’s one space left on a course, and you're one of two applicants with matching grades and experience. All of a sudden, those personal statements are the only way for admissions staff to tell the difference between the two of you. If yours is rushed and full of spelling mistakes, what do you think of your chances?
Sure, your application might not reach that dealbreaker stage. But is it something you want to leave to chance?
Here we’ll take you through the process of planning, writing and checking a good personal statement, so you end up with something you can submit with confidence.
And to make sure the advice we're giving you is sound, we’ve spoken to admissions staff at more than 20 UK universities to get their view. Look out for video interviews and advice on applying for specific subjects throughout this piece or watch our personal statement playlist on YouTube.
Personal statement deadlines
You'll need to make sure you've got your personal statement written well in advance of your application deadline. Below are the main university application deadline dates.
15 October: Deadline for applications to Oxford and Cambridge universities, along with most medicine, dentistry, and veterinary courses.
15 January: Deadline for applications to the majority of undergraduate courses. After this date, universities will start allocating places on these courses - but you can still apply after the 15 January deadline.
What is a personal statement?
Let’s start with the basics. A personal statement is a central part of your UCAS application, where you explain why you’ve chosen a particular course and why you’ll be good at it.
Personal statements are especially important if you’re trying to get on a very competitive course, where you need to do anything you can to stand out.
There’s a limit on how much you can write: your personal statement can be up to 4,000 characters (including spaces) or 47 lines of 95 characters (including spaces); whichever is shorter.
1.Plan what you want to cover
The first thing you need to do is make a plan. Honestly – do this bit. Writing a personal statement off the top of your head is horribly difficult, and if you don’t have a plan it’s probably going to come out rubbish. Start with some notes, answering the following questions:
- What do you want to study?
- Why do you want to study it?
- What is there about you that shows you’re suited to studying this subject at university? Think about your personality, as well as your experiences.
- What are your other interests and skills?
These few points are going to form the spine of your personal statement, so write them in a way that makes sense to you. You might want to make a simple bulleted list or you might want to get all arty and use our tool to create an elaborate mindmap. Whatever you choose, your aim is the same. You want to get it clear in your own head why a university should offer you a place on its course.
Getting those details down isn't always easy, and some people find it helpful to make notes over time. You might try carrying a notebook with you or set up a memo on your phone. Whenever you think of something useful for your personal statement, jot it down. Inspiration sometimes comes more easily when you’re thinking about something else entirely.
2. Show off your experience
Some things are worth adding to your personal statement, some things are not.
Firmly in the second camp are your qualifications. You don’t need to mention these, as there’s a whole other section of your personal statement where you get to detail them very precisely. Don’t waste a single character going on about how great your GCSE grades are – it’s not what the admissions tutor wants to read.
What they do want to see is: what have you done? OK, so you’ve got some good grades, but so does everyone else. What have you done that’s different, that shows you off as someone who really loves the subject they are applying for?
Spend some time thinking about all the experience you have in that subject. If you’re lucky, this might be direct work experience. That’s going to be particularly appropriate if you’re applying for one of the more vocational subjects such as medicine or journalism.
But uni staff realise getting plum work experience placements is easier for some people than others, so cast your net wider when you’re thinking about what you’ve done. How about after-school clubs? Debating societies? Are you running a blog or vlog?
Remember, you’re looking for experience that shows why you want to study your chosen subject. You’re not just writing an essay about what you're doing in your A-level syllabus.
3. Be bold about your achievements
Don't be bashful about your achievements; that’s not going to help you get into uni. It's time to unleash your inner Muhammed Ali and get all “I am the greatest” with your writing.
Do keep it focused and accurate. Do keep your language professional. But don’t hide your qualities beneath a layer of false modesty. Your personal statement is a sell – you are selling yourself as brilliant student and you need to show the reader why that is true.
This doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and if you’re finding it difficult to write about how great you are it’s time to enlist some help. Round up a friend or two, a family member, a teacher, whoever and get them to write down your qualities. Getting someone else’s view here can help you get some perspective.
Don’t be shy. You are selling your skills, your experience and your enthusiasm – make sure they all leap off the screen with the way you have described them.
4. How to start your personal statement
In your first sentence, cut to the chase. Why do you want to do the course? Don’t waste any time rambling on about the daydreams you had when you were five.
Just be clear and concise – describe in one line why this course is so important to you. Then, in the rest of your intro, go into more detail in demonstrating your enthusiasm for the course and explaining how you decided this is what you want to do for the next three or more years.
However you choose to start your statement, just avoid the following hoary old chestnuts. These were the most-used opening lines in personal statements for 2018 entry – they are beyond cliche, so don’t even think about it.
- From a young age I have (always) been [interested in/fascinated by]…
- For as long as I can remember, I have…
- I am applying for this course because…
- I have always been interested in…
- Throughout my life I have always enjoyed…
- Reflecting on my educational experiences…
- [Subject] is a very challenging and demanding [career/profession/course]…
- Academically, I have always been…
- I have always wanted to pursue a career in…
- I have always been passionate about…
5. Focus your writing on why you've chosen that subject
So you’ve got your intro done – time to nail the rest of it. You’ve got to be a little bit careful when following a personal statement template. It’s easy to fall into the trap of copying someone else’s style, and in the process lose all of your own voice and personality from your writing. Our personal statement builder is a great tool to help you write your personal statement without losing your voice.
There is a rough order that you can follow, which should help keep you in your flow.
After your opening paragraph or two, get into any work experience (if you’ve got it). Talk about extra-curriculars: anything you've done which is relevant to the subject can go here. Touch on your career aspirations – where do you want this course to take you?
Next, show your enthusiasm for your current studies. Cite some specific examples of current work that you enjoyed. Show off your relevant skills and qualities by explaining how you’ve used these in the past. Make sure you’re giving real-world examples here, not just vague assertions like “I’m really organised and motivated”.
Follow this up with something about you as a person. Talk about non-academic stuff that you like to do, but link it in some way with the course, or with how it shows your maturity for dealing with uni life.
Round it all off by bringing your main points together, including a final emphasis of your commitment to studying this particular course.
6. How long should a personal statement be?
You've got to work to a very specific limit when writing your personal statement. In theory you could use up to 4,000 characters – but you’re probably more likely to be limited by the line count. That's because it's a good idea to put line breaks in between your paragraphs (to make it more readable) and you only get a maximum of 47 lines.
But for starters you should ignore these limits completely. At first, you just want to get down everything that you feel is important. You'll probably end up with something that is far too long, but that's fine. This is where you get to do some polishing and pruning.
Keep the focus of your piece on the course you’re applying for, why you want to do it and why you’re perfectly suited to it. Look through what you’ve written so far – have you got the balance right? Chop out anything that goes on a bit, as you want each point to be snappy and succinct.
7. Keep it simple
Editing your statement isn’t just about hitting a character count. You need to also make sure your writing is doing its job: explaining why you want to do the course and why you’re right for it.
Simplicity is the key here. Aim for short, punchy sentences that get your point across. Keep reminding yourself that you are not writing an essay. What matters are the facts – get these across clearly and avoid the temptation to embroider your writing with flowery language.
As a guide, spend around 60% of the space talking about your course, why you want to do it and how you’re suited to it, 30% on your work experience and any other activities that are relevant to your subject and 10% on your career aspirations.
Exactly how you write your statement depends on your subject – generally people write more about work experience for vocational subjects like medicine and law than they would for subjects like maths or English where work experience is less important.
8. Smart ways to end your personal statement
Writing a closing line that you’re happy with can feel as tricky as coming up with your opener. What you’re looking for here is a sign-off that is bold and memorable. The final couple of sentences in your statement give you the opportunity to emphasise all the good stuff you’ve already covered.
Use this space to leave the reader in no doubt as to what an excellent addition you would be to their university. Pull together all your key points and – most importantly – address the central question that your personal statement should answer: why should you get a place on the course?
9. Make sure your personal statement has no mistakes
Now you’ve got a personal statement you’re happy with, you need to make sure there are no mistakes.
Check it, check it, then check it again.
Once you’ve done that, get someone else to check it, too.
You will be doing yourself a massive disservice if you send through a personal statement with spelling and/or grammatical errors. You’ve got months to put this together so there really is no excuse for sending through something that looks like a rush job.
Ask your teachers to look at it, and be prepared to accept their feedback without getting defensive. They will have seen many personal statements before; use what they tell you to make yours even better. You’ve also got another chance here to look through the content of your personal statement, so you can make sure the balance is right. Make sure your focus is very clearly on the subject you are applying for and why you want to study it.
Don’t post your personal statement on the internet where anyone can see it. You will get picked up by the UCAS plagiarism checker.
Instead, now is a good time to make your parents feel useful. Read your personal statement out to them and get them to give you feedback.
Or try printing it out and mixing it up with a few others (you can find sample personal statements here). Get them to read them all and then try to pick yours out. If they can't, perhaps there's not enough of your personality in there.
10. Don't think about your personal statement for a whole week
If you followed the advice at the very start of this guide, you’ve started your personal statement early. Good job! There are months before you need to submit it. Use one of these weeks to forget about your personal statement completely.
Get on with other things – anything you like. Just don’t go near your statement. Give it a whole week and then open up the document again and read through it with fresh eyes. You’ll gain a whole new perspective on what you’ve written and will be well placed to make more changes, if needed.
10 steps to your ideal personal statement
In summary, here are the ten steps you should follow to create the perfect personal statement.
- Start with a plan. List all the things you want to cover.
- Focus on your experience and your interests, and explain why it's relevant to the course.
- Blow your own trumpet; don't understate your achievements.
- Start with a clear statement on why you want to do the course.
- Make sure your writing focuses on why you want to do that subject.
- Write your personal statement as long as you like; you can edit it later.
- Avoid flowery language. Write simply and concisely.
- Use your closing couple of lines to summarise the most important points in your statement.
- Check your writing thoroughly and get someone else to check it, too.
- Give your brain a rest by forgetting about your personal statement for a while before you send it off.
Personal statement dos and don'ts
- Go through the whole thing checking your grammar and your spelling. Do this at least twice. It doesn’t matter if you’re not applying to an essay-based course – a personal statement riddled with spelling mistakes is just going to irritate the reader, which is the last thing you want to do.
- Leave blank lines between your paragraphs. It’s easier for the reader to get through your personal statement when it’s broken into easily digestible chunks. Remember that they’re going to be reading a lot of these! Make yours easy to get through.
- Get someone else's opinion on your statement. Read it out to family or friends. Share it with your teacher. Look for feedback wherever you can find it, then act upon it.
- Don’t write it like a letter. Kicking off with a greeting such as "Dear Sir/Madam" not only looks weird, it also wastes precious space.
- Don’t make jokes. This is simply not the time – save them for your first night in the union.
- Don’t criticise your current school or college or try to blame teachers for any disappointing grades you might have got.