The advice here is aimed at those who are looking to study a single honours maths degree, which is typically a BSc. Maths or MMath degree. Whilst most of this advice is applicable to those studying joint honours degrees, it is strongly advised that the reader consult guides which cover both of their courses. For example, if you wished to study maths with French then you would use this guide in conjunction with the languages guide.
They say there is no time like the present and this is very much the case with writing a personal statement. The sooner you get it started, the more time you can spend crafting it. This is especially important as sixth forms and colleges can become backlogged with lots of personal statements during peak periods.
Personal statements are asked for by all universities as a part of their selection process even though selection processes vary between different institutions. A personal statement can make or break an offer to study maths at a given university. Also, it can be used as discussion material in an interview, so you should be confident that what you have written is an accurate reflection of your knowledge and experiences.
Finally, it should be noted that there is a general personal statement guide which can be found here. This may cover additional useful information which is not present in this personal statement guide and is definitely worth a look.
Understand what a maths admissions tutor wants
The key to writing anything well is understanding the reader wants from it. Without being able to put yourself in the shoes of the reader, in this case an admissions tutor, you cannot really tailor your personal statement to meet their needs.
Now different universities have different expectations from their applicants, but the University of Cambridge wrote an excellent article on the subject, which can be found here. In short, they expect a personal statement to convey the following information:
- It should explain your reasons for wanting to study your chosen course.
- It should demonstrate your enthusiasm and commitment for your chosen course.
- It should express any particular interests you have within your chosen course.
- It should outline how you have pursued your interest in your chosen course in your own time.
- It should demonstrate characteristics that will aid your transition to life at university.
Such expectations are true of most personal statements and act as a good starting point when looking at what admissions tutors want from maths personal statements. That said, it is worth considering what other universities have to say on the matter as their advice may give an alternative perspective or shine a better light on how to put their expectations into practice. Examples can be found here and here. You can even email admission departments of maths departments at different universities for advice if you want to.
Be inspired by what others have written
It can be hard to write a personal statement, but even more so if you have not read any yourself. Reading personal statements gives you a good idea of what you should and should not write, armed with the expectations of admissions tutors. Of course there are many unsaid rules about personal statements that you can only learn from talking to others, but for the most part you can tell a well crafted personal statement from a poorly written one.
A good idea would be to read several personal statements and review them with your knowledge of what admissions tutors want. Focus on what you thought was good and bad. By doing this you will gain an insight into writing personal statements and may be inspired enough to begin writing your own.
A good place to start with this process is The Student Room's maths personal statement archive, which can be found here. A good thing about starting here is that some of them have been reviewed by The Student Room's personal statement helpers, which can aid you in the reviewing process.
Gather material to support your personal statement
It is important to back up what you have written in your personal statement with examples from things you have watched, read, heard or experienced. In order to do this you need to recognise useful material which can be incorporated into your personal statement and make a note of it so you can come back to it when you actually write your personal statement. Having this information at your fingertips makes life much easier when you actually come to putting your personal statement together.
A recommended approach would be gathering evidence which fits into one of three boxes:
- Extra-Curricular Activities
This refers to anything you do outside of your studies which is not related to maths.
- University Maths
This refers to your knowledge of university maths through any source.
- Mathematical Interests
This refers to your pursuit of maths in your own time.
By putting your evidence into these three boxes, it will aid you when you come to using them. This is because when structuring your personal statement you will need to fill it with content and using these headings will assist in that process.
Now that we have established the types of material you should collect, we now look at the materials themselves. Here are some examples.
- Clubs and Competitions
Of course, there may be other types of material worth collecting that I have not mentioned, but this covers most of the material that is relevant to someone pursuing a maths degree. Also, you should be proactively collecting such material. This is because a lot of these materials will only arise if you seek them out.
Enhance the breadth and depth of your understanding of maths
Remember that a maths admissions tutor is usually an academic in the maths department of the university you are applying to. With this in mind they will be quite interested in how much you know about mathematics on the whole, as opposed to what is simply in your A-Level syllabus. They do not expect you to have a full understanding of maths, as this would make going to university redundant, but they expect you to have an appreciation for mathematics.
This means that your knowledge of mathematics should hold up to a certain level of scrutiny. Every time you learn about a new piece of mathematics try to think of the following things.
- What is this piece of mathematics?
- How does it work?
- What applications does it have?
Being able to answer those three questions very well will make it clear that you are capable of picking up new ideas and concepts and are willing to invest time in learning about them, which in a sense is what going to university is all about.
Here is some ideas to get you started. This is by no means a complete list.
- Propositional Logic
- Types of Proof
- Ordinary Differential Equations
- Diophantine Equations
- Properties of Prime Numbers
- Non-Euclidean Geometry
- Numerical Approximation
Some of these are related to things you have done in your A-Levels whilst others are completely new. Moreover, some of these topics are more challenging to grasp than others. That said this collection of topics provides a basis on which to further your mathematical knowledge.
A good idea is to go to use university prospectuses to understand what the maths syllabus is like for each university and then go to university web pages and try to understand the online lecture notes. You may even find lecturer email addresses in the process should you have any questions, many of whom would be happy to answer questions that indulge your mathematical curiosities.
If this sounds like a good idea to you then try the University of Manchester School of Maths' departmental homepage, which can be found here. The idea above can be done effectively using this website.
To effectively write anything there needs to be some element of planning involved. If you do not plan your personal statement then it can become very difficult to write as you may be unsure of what you are doing. That said, it is inadvisable to spend a lot of time planning your personal statement unless you know you can afford to. This is because it is possible to put too much planning into your personal statement as a means of procrastinating.
With that in mind here is a recommended plan for a maths personal statement. It gives you the structure to write your own and illustrates how this meets the expectations of a maths personal statement as outlined earlier in this article. That said it is only a recommendation and you may find a better structure to use when writing your personal statement. If you do then feel free to use your own structure, but remember that it has to meet the expectations of the reader as mentioned here.
Many people find writing this part of this personal statement the most difficult. If you are really stumped with it then jump into the middle of the personal statement and come back to the opening later. By doing this you may also have a better grasp of what your personal statement is all about and thus be in a better position to actually write your opening.
The opening of your personal statement is important as it is always the beginning and ending of a piece of text which stand out most to the reader. With this in mind you want your opening to reflect a highly motivated, enthusiastic and interesting mathematician who is looking to pursue mathematics at a higher level.
Now there are many ways to write a good opening, but there is no short and fast way to achieve it. Reading plenty of personal statements will give you a feel of what goes into a bad one, but one way to write a good one is to think about the most important part of mathematics to you.
I mentioned a whole list of mathematical topics here, but there are even more in general. Which is the most important to you and why? Using this approach makes you think about mathematics and its importance from your perspective. This is a highly effective way to start a personal statement as it demonstrates your enthusiasm for mathematics in a way which could resonate with the reader.
Post Opening Paragraphs
Your next paragraph could reinforce the opening if you have written a particularly brief opening or it could focus on something else entirely. You may decide you want to talk about your experience with university mathematics, the books you have read, the documentaries you have seen or another interest you have in mathematics.
The only advice I have is to make each of your paragraphs focused on one particular theme. Many people who write personal statements have a habit of listing everything that they find interesting about mathematics, but the problem with this is that you cover a lot of topics in minimal detail. Listing your experiences is a poor way of getting across their importance as an admissions tutor will simply gloss over them as the way they are presented suggests their lack of importance.
This comes back to the material we mentioned earlier here. When giving material to support your interest in mathematics think about the following things.
- What is it that I am talking about?
- Why do I feel the need to mention it?
- What is mathematically important about it?
These three points will guide the use of your material. So when you plan out your post opening paragraphs you can write and move around material by bearing these things in mind.
For a mathematician this usually is not necessary, but can be valuable if it is somewhat related to mathematics. It can be used to strengthen motivation for pursuing a mathematics degree by demonstrating that you are looking for a mathematically oriented career.
When writing a work experience it is worth thinking about the following things.
- What was the work experience about?
- Who was the employer?
- What tasks did I undertake and what skills did I develop by doing them?
- Was my role related to maths and did it encourage me to pursue mathematics at a higher level?
Alternatively, work experience can be used to demonstrate the skills you have and demonstrate that you are capable of studying at an undergraduate level. That said, your extra-curricular activities do this as well so it is not necessary for work experience to fulfil this role.
It should also be noted that work experience does not have to be related to maths. Some people try to force their work experience to be related to maths; it is clear when this is the case and it does not work well.
These should generally be geared towards making you a well rounded person and showing that you have the capabilities to cope with an undergraduate degree. I suggest making it very skills oriented, focusing on what you did and the skills that you gained from that.
This section ideally should be one or two paragraphs and should not be related to maths. The rest of your personal statement is filled with mathematics - so there is no need to include any here.
Remember that this is the last part of your personal statement which the admissions tutor will read, so it is best to ensure that this is of a very high quality. There is no specific way to end a personal statement, but having written all the preceding paragraphs, you should have a feel for what your personal statement is all about.
With this in mind, a good way to end a personal statement is to summarise why you are looking forward to studying university mathematics. The most important thing though is to really sell your enthusiasm to study it. Your ending is a final sales pitch to an admissions tutor who is looking to accept you on their course.
Do bear in mind that your ending is only as good as the paragraphs which precede it. It is important that you are fairly confident in the paragraphs which precede your ending as any drastic rewrites of the preceding paragraphs may impact the ending of your personal statement.
Now that we have established how to prepare and plan for a maths personal statement, we now focus on its delivery. There are many things to consider when writing and refining your personal statement and it is advised that you only focus on this section of the guide once you feel confident with the others. This guide was written in this specific order and it may take longer to fully grasp if you jump to this section first.
Punctuation, Spelling and Grammar
A personal statement is a formal piece of writing so you should write it in the same manner as you would with a job application. This means no contractions (e.g.: we're, isn't, won't, etc), slang, spelling mistakes or brackets. You should be incredibly thorough on the final draft of your personal statement, because you can only submit it once.
On the subject of capitalisation, it is best avoided unless you know that it requires capitalisation. Names of qualifications, countries and languages are the most common things which require capitalisation on personal statements. Maths or mathematics, ideally the latter, does not require capitalisation on personal statements. It is better to assume something does not require capitalisation and have it fixed by someone reviewing your personal statement than assume that it does require capitalisation.
Moreover, your grammar should be of a very high quality. This is achieved by a good choice of phrasing and an appreciation for the meaning of words. What it does not mean is using lots of adjectives or complex words. It means understanding what you have written and how the reader will interpret it. The best way to achieve this is to have other people such as teachers or your parents read through your personal statement. It should also be noted that UK grammar rules are adopted and not US grammar rules.
That said, using mathematical terminology is strongly recommended provided that you understand the meaning of the words you use. Remember that if the university you apply to has an interview process then your personal statement could be used as a discussion point during the interview. With this in mind, the last thing you want to happen is to be asked about a word which you included in your personal statement because you saw it on Wikipedia and thought it was cool.
Clichés should also be avoided. These are things said over and over again in maths personal statement which get rather annoying.
- Maths is beautiful.
Too many people say this and most of them cannot justify it. If you cannot explain it then do not say it.
- From a very young age I was interested in mathematics.
Admissions tutors are far more interested in why than when.
- I was always good at maths.
Evident from your reference and your qualifications.
- Maths is exciting, fascinating, interesting, etc.
It is fine to use adjectives, but bear in mind this is going to an admissions tutor in mathematics, it is not an English essay.
Overuse of A-Levels is always another common concern too. By leaning too much on your A-Levels, you are suggesting that you have not shown much of an interest in mathematics in your own time, which is what admissions tutors are looking for
Keep your sentences varied. If you start all your paragraphs or sentences the same way then your personal statement will be quite dull and it does not flow very well. At the same time, connectives such as moreover, furthermore and also should be used in moderation. Consider whether or not they are actually necessary.
As for talking about yourself in a negative light - avoid it. Unless it is absolutely necessary to talk about it then you should steer clear. Always discuss with your referee matters which must be put into your UCAS application such as illness or poor predicted grades before deciding whether or not to include them in your personal statement.
Also, remember to use paragraphs in moderation. A sentence or two does not make a paragraph, but neither does a short passage of 20 sentences. Paragraphs are linked by theme and content. If you are unsure whether to put a paragraph in then do so. It is far easier for someone reviewing your personal statement to delete a few misplaced paragraphs as opposed to putting in the 5 to 7 paragraphs which are required for a personal statement.
Throughout this guide we have discussed the construction and implementation of a maths personal statement. It is worth pointing out that this is a guide, thus the advice contained within this article should be used at your own discretion. That said it is based on a lot of experience reviewing maths personal statements so it should provide a solid foundation on which to build your personal statement.
Writing a personal statement is quite the undertaking, but remember that you are trying to show your passion for mathematics, which is more than about just saying how interesting you think it is. A good way to think about it is in the form of an elevator pitch. Imagine you found out something really cool about mathematics and you had 60 seconds to convey it to a friend - what would you say? Although the target audience and the purpose are different, the idea behind this example and a maths personal statement are ultimately the same.
Understanding recreational and university mathematics is quite an asset. Being able to give a high level overview of your interest in mathematics and the things which you are looking forward to studying at university goes a long way to show your commitment and enthusiasm towards mathematics. This takes time and effort to build and should not be taken lightly. That said, you should avoid being consumed by maths as it is not good for your personal well being.
You have 4000 characters or 47 lines with which to impress an admissions tutor, if you are hitting 3000 or less characters and finishing up your personal statement then you are not writing enough. By the same token if you are hitting 4000 or more characters then you really need to prioritise the information which you are putting into your personal statement and delete less important stuff. You will need the paragraphs!
Here are some useful links in regards to personal statements. Some of these were used in this article, whilst others are only given in this section.
- General Personal Statement Guide - The Student Room 
- Mathematics Personal Statements - The Student Room 
- Your Personal Statement - UCAS 
- Undergraduate Study - Selection - Personal Statements - University of Cambridge 
- How to write an excellent personal statement - Imperial College London 
- The Winning Formula: Personal Statement Writing Guide - University of Essex 
- School of Mathematics - University of Manchester