Personal statements for university. All you need to know.
In this blog post I’ll talk you through everything you need to know about getting your personal statement started (the really hard part!), first draft finished, edited, and then final draft submitted. I’ve been a UCAS tutor for 15 years, the last 10 of which I was the lead UCAS tutor. I know what works, what doesn’t, and how to rid you of the dreaded ‘writer’s block’.
It is that time of year for year 13 students and their parents, but spare a thought for the tutors as well. This is their busiest time of the year as writing your reference is not a quick process!
Once the early applications for Oxford and Cambridge, medicine, and veterinary science are out of the way on 15th October, all attention turns to the general deadline of 15th January. Applications submitted after this are considered ‘late’ and you will only be offered a place by universities that still have spaces on the course applied for.
Every year there are students dead set against applying for university entry, who then go on to change their minds after the deadline closes. The good news is that they do usually end up with offers, the bad news being that it’s probably not for their desired course. Be decisive and get your application in. If you then decide not to go to university then all you have lost is the £26 application fee. Having offers for university entry gives you options.
What is the purpose of a personal statement?
First impressions are important in most walks of life and your personal statement is essentially you introducing yourself to the admissions tutors at the universities you would like to go to. The majority of courses don’t have interviews, so this electronic document is your opportunity to make it clear that you’re a perfect fit for their course.
Key Dates and deadlines for UCAS personal statements
My advice is to start building your UCAS personal statement content from the start of year 12. Keep a picture on your phone of your GCSE results statement as this shows the results and which exam board was used for each of your subjects. You’ll need this for your application.
Oxford and Cambridge applications: 15th October
Medicine, Vet. Science applications: 15th October
All other courses*: 15th January
*Some art courses have a later deadline so be careful to check if you are applying for an art degree.
Personal Statement format
There are no hard and fast rules about the format. The key rules are that it must be no longer than 4000 characters (with spaces) and less than 47 lines. An easier way of understanding this is that it needs to be one page and 4 lines (approximately) of A4 paper in 12pt font. If you go 1 character over, or 1 line over, the UCAS track website gives you an error message. As a rough (but excellent guide) 75% of what you write about should be centred around the course you’re applying for. Waffle about your success in the Yr 8 football/netball teams is not welcome!
Personal Statement template
So I said there is no hard and fast rule . . .BUT . . your personal statement should have 5 paragraphs. I strongly recommend writing out these 5 headings. (don’t worry – you’ll delete them prior to submission.)
Paragraph 1 – Why I want to study this course
Paragraph 2 – Evidence to support my application . . work experience undertaken, books read, EPQ studied, online courses studied etc.
Paragraph 3 – Other skills I have developed during my time in 6th form that will support my application.
Paragraph 4 – Extra-curricular activities that show there is more to me than just academic qualities.
Paragraph 5 – Why am I looking forward to studying this course and what is it about university life that excites me?
How to start a personal statement
This is always the hardest part. Once you have pushed past that first paragraph, the statement tends to get easier to write. One way I like to look at this question is ….. “why do you want to invest as much as £60,000 of your money in this course”.
Yes, I know that rarely is this sum ever paid back (and if it is, it means you landed an awesomely paid job – well done!💪🏽)
The £60,000 question should encourage you to dive deeper than the standard ‘ever since I was a child response that I have read approximately eleventy billion times. (That is always a dull and uninspiring introduction from you to the course admissions tutor.)
Personal Statement Opening paragraph examples
It’s very easy to say to any student that they need to explain why they want to do the course. When I say that to a tutee they nod sagely, return to their computer and sit there with the cursor flashing at the start of a blank opening paragraph. If that’s you . . . here’s a nudge with some real examples.
(Note: All universities use plagiarism software – attempting to copy all or part of a previously submitted personal statement risks your application being discarded)
Opening Paragraph example – Politics
It has become increasingly apparent to me how powerful politics is as a force in our everyday lives. Whether it is political economy or political ideology, it affects every single one of the seven billion people on this planet and it is for its power and effects that I would like to study the ‘master science’. As Tony Blair said, ‘many people belittle politics’; whilst this is the stark reality, I cannot begin to comprehend why. Politics is a constant in all people’s lives and it affects everyone. Current situations, such as the economic difficulties and the Arab Spring, for me, makes it more important for people to get involved in both local and global politics.
Opening paragraph example – Psychology
Being injured during an important time in my athletics career and having to watch my competitors slowly gain an advantage over me was mentally challenging. This fuelled my curiosity as to why everyone was telling me I had to get it mentally right in order to make a comeback. At that time, I was studying the sports psychology unit in PE, where my curiosity in psychology grew as I began to learn the different ways the mind affects the body’s performance. This curiosity developed quickly; I constantly wonder how our minds impact our behaviour in all aspects of life. From this point, I realised that it is the subject I want to take forward into the next stage of my education.
Opening paragraph example – Aeronautical Engineering
As a child I would prefer a complex Meccano set over a toy any day. Ever since I can remember, engineering has always been a key aspect of my life. Throughout the years, my parents have owned various cars, classic and modern, and I’ve always been there to lend a helping hand. I volunteered at a local garage and although I quickly got bored of the simplicity of cars, it fuelled my love a more complex form of engineering. I have also built a model propulsion system for a jet plane and although it was simple, it too enforced my plans of studying this course further at university. Aeronautical and aerospace engineering are now my next step forward in my education.
Personal Statement opening paragraph ideas
- What was the ‘eureka’ moment that has culminated in you sitting struggling for an opening line to your statement?
- How does this course fit with your aspirations for the future?
- Why does this course enthrall you?
Personal statement top tips.
- Even if it is still your first draft, copy your statement and paste it into a repetition checker on the web. The one I use is repetition-detector.com. You’ll be surprised at how many times you repeat yourself. Repeat this process for every draft you create.
- Don’t ever use timescales in your personal statement. ‘In year 10 I’ . . . . . . . it’s never necessary and ‘dates’ some of the great stuff you have done.
- If possible, get work experience banked as early on as possible. Two weeks is the ideal length, or possibly even better still, do two different work experiences for a week each. This gives you sooooooo much to talk about so long as the experience is relevant to your application. If it isn’t relevant, why did you do it in the first place? If you haven’t done this, it’s still possible to plug the gap by conducting an ‘informational interview’ with someone who does the job you wanted to shadow as part of a ‘normal’ work experience placement. In the Covid year(s) this is becoming more commonplace.
- You should submit your personal statement draft as early on as possible. It takes time for these to be reviewed and any recommendations for changes to come back from the tutor. Be proactive because I can assure you that the majority of your peers won’t be so get themselves to the front of the queue.
- Pay your UCAS fee (it’s £26 for 2021 entry and generally goes up by a pound every year) as soon as possible. Normally you pay this to your school and the fact you have paid makes you that little bit closer to sending your application off.
- Give your tutors something to write a great reference about you on. Don’t be shy about asking them about the reference and telling them some of the great things you have done at school. Your teachers will also have a say in what goes into your reference. Always bear this in mind when thinking about how you conduct yourselves in lesson and whether you hand work in on time.
- Get involved in as many extra curricular activities as you can. It helps with paragraphs three and four.
- Research all university choices online and make contact with admissions tutors if you have questions. They are PAID to answer your questions and love to hear from prospective students. Remember, it’s their job to sell the course to you. They know that you have a huge choice of courses but they will want you to apply to theirs. They need bums on seats!
- Don’t use words like partake, passion, ignite. I’ve seen them a million times and they always come across as naff.
- Get your parent/parents to proofread your statement. They may not have a ‘trained eye’ but they can probably spot poor grammar or total nonsense from a mile off.
- Get your personal statement done, checked and your application sent off. There is no benefit in delaying this process, apart from perhaps giving you more Xbox/TikTok time while your personal statement lies unfinished.
- Be careful with your use of capital letters. All subjects like biology, chemistry and psychology should not be capitalised. The only subjects that should be capitalised are the languages. Other common mistakes include university names; University of York (for example) would be capitalised because it’s the name of something, but ‘I want to go to university’ would not. If this seems a bit obvious and patronising then I’m sorry . . . trust me, 50% of statements I see get this wrong. If there is one grammar faux pas that most students are guilty of in a personal statement, it’s chucking capital letters in almost at random. Please don’t! Good luck, and remember that writer block is your enemy. Get your first draft written and it will all flow from there.
Need more help?
I’ve recorded a series of short videos that talks you through what you need to include in each paragraph. Each video is supported by a PDF with top tips for that paragraph along with a selection of real examples of each paragraph to try and release any writer’s block. Speak to your parents about the £47 cost. It is money well spent!