Teacher secrets for writing a great personal statement

Writing a personal statement is one of the most important things you will do when applying to university. 

Here is some useful advice and insider knowledge from Mrs Kinetta, who has more than 25 years of experience as a Sixth Form Tutor. Read carefully so that you understand exactly what a personal statement is, what universities are looking for, and how to avoid common personal statement pitfalls. 

So what is a personal statement, then?

Essentially, it is your sales pitch to the universities; your letter of application. You have 4,000 characters (and yes, characters includes spaces, not just letters) or 47 lines, depending on which limit you hit first, to answer two questions: Why this course? and Why me? 

The first thing to say is that the limits are not negotiable. UCAS will cut you off mid-sentence as soon as you go over either of them, so editing your statement is an essential part of the process. The formatting on the UCAS form is not the same as on most word processing programs, so the character counts are unlikely to match, and the only way to be sure that you have not exceeded the limit is to keep copying and pasting your text into the text box on the UCAS form itself and amending it accordingly. It’s a drag, but it’s inescapable, and that’s all there is to it.

It’s important to say that you only get to submit one PS and the same one goes to all the institutions on the UCAS form. There are some very rare exceptions to this rule, such as Cambridge’s SAQ form, but the rule for nearly everything else is that there is only one opportunity to sell yourself, and all universities see the same thing. This is vital to bear in mind for two reasons. 

Firstly, if you target a particular university by name in the PS, the other universities will see this and draw their own conclusions about how likely you are to want to attend their own establishment. 

The second thing to bear in mind is a difficult one to accept for some people: you should apply for the same course, or extremely closely related courses, at all of your chosen universities, because a PS cannot deal with a ‘pick ’n’ mix’ approach. If you intend to apply for two courses in Underwater Basketweaving, another two in Applied Badger Management and a fifth in Juggling and Circus Skills, two thirds of your PS will be irrelevant to any one admissions tutor at any time, and this simply makes you look indecisive and uncommitted, with the added bonus of also looking as if you are unaware of the course content. You can only attend one course in the end, so do yourself a favour and make your mind up which it is to be at the outset, and write a properly targeted statement which will maximise your chances of success.



So, how do you write this vital document?

Here are some tips gleaned from more than 25 years of experience as a Sixth Form Tutor. They are in no particular order and some will be more obvious than others, but they are based on thousands of tried and tested applications, so feel free to use them.

Budget to use some of your characters on paragraph spaces

That means a whole line of spaces, not just indenting a paragraph, because UCAS formatting removes indents automatically. Paragraphs are important. You must avoid the ‘wall of text’ effect and you don’t want to appear insufficiently literate to know how to use paragraphs to the very people who will be marking your academic work in a year’s time. 

Spelling, grammar and punctuation matter

As above. Enough said. Don’t use cliches. Any metaphor about lighting fires/sparks has been used thousands of times. It doesn’t impress. UCAS has in the past produced lists of how many times the same phrases are used in a year and the results are both hilarious and sad. What you think is exciting and original is unlikely to be so, when you consider how many UCAS applications there are stored away. Aim for a plain, clear and simple written style, because that is what will help the admissions tutor pick out what s/he wants to know. Leave the flowery style for your first novel.

Don’t plagiarise

UCAS has its own plagiarism software and uses it. It generates a percentage of plagiarised material, of which it notifies each university. This is culled not only from its own banks of past applications but from anything which is cached by Google. Above all, don’t post your statement on TSR, because it will be picked up. The same anecdote about setting fire to pyjamas cropped up 800 times in a survey of PSs by UCAS. Since it is unlikely that this number of people actually did this, it points in only one direction, and universities are not likely to look favourably on an applicant who is already cheating before they even get there.

Leave the extra-curriculars out...

It’s really, really important to stress that if you are applying for an academic course as opposed to a vocational one, admissions tutors don't give a tuppenny damn about extra-curricular activities, so don't waste time or space on them, particularly not simply to say you've learned 'team work and leadership skills' from them. Contrary to popular belief, admissions tutors are not especially interested in ‘well-rounded’ students. They are interested in students who are good at their academic specialism, and the two are not necessarily the same. A ratio of 75% academic stuff : 25% other stuff is probably a maximum to aim for.

...unless your course is vocational

If it's a vocational course, then it's all about relevant experience and what has been learned from it. Vocational means a degree which trains you for a specific career and has an aspect of professional qualification in it, such as medicine, dentistry, podiatry, nursing etc. Being clear about what you did and reflective on what effect it had on you is the key to success here, not the quantity of it, which is often matter of who you are lucky enough to know rather than anything else.

More on TSR: 
Find all your relevant uni discussion from this big list 
Read through our complete guide to UCAS apply 
The applying to uni hub has loads more useful info


Be relevant

Don't waste space on linking your other A levels to the subject you're applying for. Every A level student does the same things, so doing this does nothing to make you stand out. Forcing a connection between physics and a degree in flower arranging is just sad and demonstrates that you have nothing more relevant about the future course to talk about.

Don't list books you've read without saying what you learned from them.

Don’t spend time looking out that really obscure volume of Sanskrit poetry or that really difficult piece of astrophysics, because it really marks you out as trying too hard and being a weeny bit pretentious. Two or three books is the most you should go for, unless it’s a literature based course, in which case you should be demonstrating an enthusiasm for reading beyond the syllabus in a structured way, without being forced to do it by your teachers.

Don't be a know it all

Don't tell the admissions tutor what his/her subject is all about - they know.
Don't claim to have been fascinated by the subject since birth. Longevity of an idea doesn't make it any better than a recent one, and most five year olds have no idea what orthopaedic surgery means.

Don't try to prove that you already know what the subject is all about. Admissions tutors want someone who is going there to learn, not one who claims they already know it all, not to mention that that is the way to make massive howlers which prove you're an idiot.

'Show, don't tell' is a cardinal rule. Don’t claim an ability which you cannot give evidence for.

Don't have a pity party

The PS is not a place to explain what went wrong last time/in the exams/with your life. The PS should be a positive statement of enthusiasm for the course you are hoping to embark upon. It should be full of positive demonstrations of interest, not an apology for not doing well in the past. Would you take someone on with this attitude? Any claims for mitigating circumstances must go in the reference, where they will carry more weight because they are from an independent source. Anyone could claim anything in a PS, so their claim for Special Snowflake status carries precisely no weight and is a waste of characters.

Make sure it reads well.

Reading it out loud to either yourself or a willing family member is a really good way to hear if the grammar is awkward or unclear. Remember, an admissions tutor will have, in some cases, hundreds of these to read. Make it clear. Make it obvious why you want to do this course and why you would be good at it, and make it easy for them to understand what you are telling them. That’s pretty much what writing a PS is all about.

Take your time and start early

It’s well worth taking your time over writing your personal statement in order to get it right, and you should be prepared to make several drafts to ensure it’s the best you can make it. If you can, plan to do an early first draft as soon as you know what course you want to do, and then set it aside for a few weeks before revisiting it. It’s very often the case that you can spot ways to improve it much more easily after you’ve given yourself some distance from it. It’s very common for schools to get people started on the first draft at the very end of Year 12, and although it’s often the last thing you feel like doing when you’ve just finished your AS exams, it is in fact very good timing. It gives you something to work on over the summer holidays, when you have to time to research your courses. It also helps you to gather your ideas together and play around with them whilst there’s still time to scrap it entirely if it isn’t going well. Surprisingly often, simply thinking about explaining why you want to do a course can make you realise that what you actually want to do is quite different to what you thought you wanted to do, and knowing that early on in that application process will save you from much anguish later on when you realise that you’ve applied for courses you no longer want to do.

More on TSR: 

How to avoid getting five uni rejections 
Help choosing a uni subject 
Writing an excellent personal statement in 10 easy steps 
Create your Personal Statement with our brilliant builder tool 
Everything you need to know about applying to uni

There are many more things one could say about writing a PS, but the bottom line is ‘Why this course?’ and ‘Why me?’ as I said at the start. If you can get this cracked, you’ll be home and dry. Don’t expect to get it right first time, and don’t underestimate the length of time it takes to write a really good PS. Don’t be the one trying to cobble one together on the night of January 14th, because it might cost you your dream course. Be clear, be honest, be enthusiastic and you won’t go far wrong. Good luck!

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