Writing your personal statement: a university admissions manager reveals what he’s looking for

An eye-catching personal statement could be your passport to your first-choice university. Sure, the admissions staff will be looking at other things as well – your predicted grades, your references, your school record and so on

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But those 47 lines on your personal statement are your golden opportunity to get your personality across, to emphasise your enthusiasm for the course you want to study and show the people who matter just why they should offer you a place.

But where to start? When you’re trying to sum up your entire life and aspirations in 4,000 characters, it’s easy to get hit by a tidal wave of writers’ block. What you need is some expert guidance. With that in mind, we got in touch with Paul Gascoyne, admissions manager at BPP University and asked him: “what do you look for in a personal statement?” 

Here are Paul’s eight top tips on creating an outstanding personal statement.

Make it clear from the start what you are applying for

Many applicants try too hard to write a distinctive opening paragraph but it simply becomes clichéd or verbose. The first sentence should be crystal clear. When writing a personal statement, don’t lose sight of what the reader is expecting. As an admissions tutor, I want to know where your motivation comes from and I need it to be clear what you are applying to study and why!

Don’t repeat yourself

You are often told not to repeat yourself in your personal statement, which is true, but also be aware that I have your full UCAS application form in front of me. I can see what school you go to and I can see what subjects you’re studying. Repeating them in the personal statement without relevance is wasting valuable space. Don’t forget – I can also see what your referee is saying about you too, so if they say your attendance isn’t great, but you say it’s perfect, it may cause some suspicion!

Once more with feeling

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The best personal statements are the ones where applicants can get across their genuine enthusiasm for their university experience without using the standard set of clichés (I have a passion for…’ etc). As an admissions manager I’m fully aware that most applicants will be writing a personal statement that will need to appeal to other universities and other admissions managers in my position, but some personal statements just jump off the page and talk right at you. These are by far the best and are driven by a real enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, the subject. It’s clear from statements like these that the applicant has carried out a considerable amount of research and they are certain they’ve chosen the best option for them. Make it clear why you’ve chosen what you have, what motivates you, and what you hope to get from the university experience.

Less is more

There are two main reasons why it is preferable to opt for a concise style of writing: firstly, because doing so will enable you to include more information and reflection before reaching the 4,000 character limit, but also because an excessively florid, overly verbose style stands a greater chance of either confusing or annoying the reader!

Me, myself and I

Do not start every sentence with “I”. Don’t worry if you find that you have done just that after re-reading your first draft, it is actually the best way of getting your thoughts down on paper. However, when the time comes to redraft your statement, think about how to vary the openings of sentences in order to keep the reader interested and impress with your written style.

For most people, it’s best to write the way you talk

Don’t use words in your statement that you wouldn’t use in ordinary conversation. Your personal statement won’t be enhanced by picking up a thesaurus. A lot of personal statements I read are tough to get through because students are often trying too hard to write well. If creative writing isn’t your strength, then it’s best to be natural. Use short sentences and short paragraphs. Having said that, hopefully it goes without saying that ‘text speak’, colloquialisms and slang are to be avoided!

Don’t show off

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The purpose of the personal statement is to ‘sell’ yourself to your universities of choice, but at the same time it’s important not to try too hard to impress. Applicants who try to appear too knowledgeable, overstate their experience or exaggerate their liking for the subject stick in my mind for all the wrong reasons. Many applicants now start their personal statement with a quotation. Being truthful, most of these make me cringe, especially after a full day of reading personal statements. Ultimately, the decision is yours, but always consider whether using a quotation actually adds to your statement and keep the reader at the forefront of your mind.

Gap year

Writing about your gap year is not an opportunity to brag! By all means tell me about the skills you’ve developed and broader horizons you now have, but make sure it’s clear why that is all relevant to me. How are your experiences going to help you on my course and in your future career and why will they make you a better student at university? 

Find out more about BPP University and register for its upcoming open day by visiting the BPP University website.