Personal statement essentials – what you need to know

Posted on 4th Mar 2019 in University Study, Personal statements

Kate Raison, Director, of UK Study Options, offers some advice on writing a personal statement – a vital part of the university application process...

Why is the personal statement important?

The personal statement is a very important part of the UCAS application. You may believe that you are only one of a handful of students applying for a course with a particular set of examination grades and predictions. But the reality is that there are lots of other, equally able candidates, all wanting one of the limited number of places. The Admissions Tutor for an oversubscribed course needs a way of deciding which applicants most deserve an offer and a carefully considered and well written statement is needed to help you stand out from the crowd.

The personal statement is likely to be the only communication that you as an individual have with an Admissions Tutor. Most courses do not interview applicants and it is likely to be your only opportunity to show that you are an interesting person who is genuinely interested in the course they are responsible for.

Who reads the personal statement?

Although some UCAS forms are processed by a centralized admissions department, most personal statements for competitive courses are read by a tutor in the department to which you are applying. Admissions tutors will be actively involved in both the research and teaching that takes place in the department. In other words, you must assume that your statement will be read by an expert in the field who is looking for students who share their enthusiasm for the subject and that they will enjoy teaching.

When are personal statements read and how are they used?

The primary role of a personal statement is to help admissions tutors differentiate between candidates of similar academic ability and decide who they will make offers to. They are read (together with the rest of the information on the form) when the UCAS application is sent to the university. Many admissions departments will consider applications as soon as they arrive and make offers immediately – others will wait until they have a batch of applications.

Sometimes statements are used to decide which candidates to call for interview. This is especially true of Oxford and Cambridge who interview all applicants before making any offers. Personal statements may also be used to generate questions at interview. Be warned - anything you claim to have read or be interested in is fair game for Admissions Tutors to quiz you about.

Sometimes statements are used to reject candidates outright – especially if they are poorly written and contain grammatical and spelling mistakes.

The personal statement can also make a difference much later on in the UCAS process, after offers have been made and accepted and examination results known. If an applicant has narrowly missed the required grades (and there are still places available to be allocated) Admissions Tutors may look again at the personal statements to decide whom to give those remaining places to.

Why write your personal statement early?

It is important to start early – good students redraft their statements many times until they are satisfied. Keep in mind the deadline for your application - October 15th (Oxbridge, Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Science), January 15th (most other courses) or March 24th (some Art and Design courses). You will also need to work to any deadlines set by your school. Teachers and UCAS referees do not have an unlimited amount of free time available to check your statement – help yourself by ensuring that they receive your statement in plenty of time.

Many admissions departments look through applications and make offers well before the official deadlines – it is in your interest to apply early while there is still a full complement of offers available. In addition, early applications show organization, good time management and enthusiasm – qualities that university students need and that you are trying to demonstrate.

As the official UCAS deadlines approach admissions tutors are inundated with a rush of applications – you want your application to cross their desk well before this, so that they have more time to carefully consider your application.

How long should the statement be?

The electronic UCAS application form allows you 4,000 characters, including spaces, which is about the same as one side of A4 paper. You should draft your statement in word and then copy and paste the finished article into the Apply system. There is no spell-check facility on the UCAS form so it is essential that you have checked and double checked your statement for spelling and grammatical errors.

Many students try to use complex language in order to impress Admissions Tutors but good writing is often concise and it can be more useful for you to use the limited space by putting your points across directly and simply. Be careful not to waste any of the valuable space by including information that is already available to the admissions tutor elsewhere on the application (e.g. details of A-levels being studied.)

Can I write more than one personal statement?

No, you are only allowed to write one statement for all five course choices. This is relatively simple if you are applying for the same single honours course at all five choices but becomes more problematic if you are applying for slightly different courses – the skill here is to identify and focus on the common ground between the courses and then provide evidence that you are a suitable candidate to study these elements. With joint honours courses you will need to show that you are equally interested in both subjects.

If you are applying for Medicine, Veterinary Medicine or Dentistry you are only allowed four choices for these courses and a fifth back up choice that is usually for a related subject but can be for something completely different. For these applicants the personal statement must be purely directed to the Medicine, Veterinary, Dentistry course and needs to be much more work experience based than the majority of statements. Most ‘fifth’ choice admissions tutors are happy to accept a statement that is clearly aimed at one of these ‘early entry’ courses, but this may not always be the case and you should always check with individual institutions. (Some may ask for a separate statement to be sent to them directly.)

What about plagiarism?

UCAS check each incoming personal statement (via their similarity detection software) against a library of personal statements previously submitted to UCAS. They also sample statements collected from a variety of other sources. If your statement is found to have enough similarities to any other, then UCAS will contact your universities to inform them that they suspect you have copied your statement. The decision about what action, if any, to take regarding cases of plagiarism rests with the Admissions Tutors at individual institutions.

Lots of students look at statements that have been used before, either from friends or from websites – this is fine for research purposes, but your statement MUST be an original piece of writing and your own work.

Needless to say, your UCAS personal statement is a very specific piece of writing so it’s worth taking the time to understand its purpose, how it is used, who reads it and any specific requirements, such as character limit. Once you have a good understanding of this then it’s time to start crafting the content.