What makes an effective Personal Statement?

Posted on 29th Apr 2019 in University Study, Personal statements

Kate Raison, Director of UK Study Options, gives some expert advice to help you put together a 'concise and compelling' statement with your UCAS application.

Personal statements are an essential part of your UCAS application as they set you apart from all the other equally capable candidates applying for one of the limited places on a course. Your personal statement should give the Admissions Tutor a strong understanding of who you are and why you want to study the course that you are applying to. You only have 4,000 characters, so you have to be concise but compelling. It is also likely to be the only communication that you as an individual have with an Admissions Tutor so you need to make it count.

It is also very important to understand that the most selective UK universities wish to see a personal statement that is at least 70-80% academic. Your extra-curricular activities, hobbies and interests should form only a small part. Remember - the person reading your statement is likely to be an academic who has spent their life studying the subject you claim to have an interest in. Therefore, the main focus of the statement should be your interest in the course and the evidence you have to prove it.

The best personal statements provide evidence of:

  • enthusiasm and motivation for study of the subject
  • understanding and/or experience of the subject
  • academic engagement with the subject
  • relevant knowledge and skills for the subject
  • originality and independence of thought

The Russell Group of research-intensive universities recommend the following 4-part structure:

  • Introduction
  • Course
  • Extra-curricular activities
  • Conclusion

We’ll have a look at each of these in turn.

Introduction – why do you want to study this course?

This should be a snappy opener to grab the reader’s attention – no longer than 4 sentences. It should be interesting, original and give an indication of your personality. Keep in mind that a personal statement should be personal and the introduction is your chance to make a connection with the Admissions Tutor.

Admissions Tutors like to know why an applicant is applying for the chosen course, particularly if they are applying for a subject that they have not studied before at school, such as Engineering or Earth Sciences. You could include a personal trigger that explains why the course interests you or an example of how it relates to modern affairs. You could mention one of the ‘big issues’ in the subject you have applied for or talk about what you find most interesting about the course. Sometimes students start with a relevant quote (if you use a quotation you must ensure that it is accurate and that you explain how it has inspired you) or some questions to show that you know what the course entails and that you are enthusiastic about studying it in more depth. Be warned – if you are expressing interest in a particular aspect or module of the course, be sure to check that all your course choices offer this as part of the degree. Sometimes students talk about their current studies at school and how these have inspired them to pursue the subject at a higher level. Career interests can be a starting point for course choice but be aware that Admissions Tutors will still want to see academic interest in the subject.

The course – what evidence do you have to prove your academic engagement with the subject?

This is the main body of the statement where you can demonstrate both your enthusiasm for and commitment to the course.

Tutors are looking for a personal statement that demonstrates your academic engagement with the subject. They are looking for evidence to show why a course genuinely interests you together with proof that you understand what is required to study the course. In other words, they need to be reassured that you have done your research and have looked beyond course titles to investigate what the course is actually about.

Because this section should be 70-80% of the statement it can be helpful to break it down into ‘inside school’ and ‘outside school’. ‘Inside school’ could include current studies and what you have found particularly interesting and would like to take further. ‘Outside school’ will be anything that you have done that is relevant to your course, which is outside of your school curriculum. Admissions tutors are looking for these ‘super-curricular’ activities as evidence that you are engaging independently with your subject and that you have the capacity and self-motivation for independent study - key to a successful undergraduate experience. The focus here is not to list loads of activities but to give fewer examples with evidence and to show that you have thought about/reflected on/learnt from these experiences.

Extra-curricular activities – what have you done that shows you have the skills needed to be a successful student on the course?

Although competitive universities are primarily interested in seeing evidence of academic interest in the personal statement they also want well rounded students. They are looking for proof that you have the skills necessary to succeed on your course and that you will be able to cope with university life. Non-academic interests and achievements can also help you to stand out from the crowd and give personality to a ‘personal’ statement.

As with the academic interests it is important not to list a whole stream of interests and activities - no matter how impressive you think they are. It is far better to choose fewer, more interesting examples, draw out the transferable skills that you have gained from them and show why these demonstrate your potential to succeed on the course.


It is sensible to finish the statement in a professional manner by rounding it off with one or two concluding sentences. Without repeating what you have already said, link back to the course you are applying for, remind the Admissions Tutor how committed you are, and how you are looking forward to participating in university life as a whole. Make this a really positive finish showing why you think that you deserve to be offered a place.

Top tips

Ensure that there are no spelling or grammatical errors. When you are satisfied with the content, proof read it – no one is immune from the odd typo or mistake. Do not just rely on spell-check. The easiest way to spot mistakes is to read the statement out loud to yourself and let others read it too

  • Make full use of the space available, but with correct punctuation. Get rid of words/phrases that do not add anything to your statement
  • Start writing your statement well in advance of the deadline so you have time to re-draft it a number of times
  • Follow a clear, logical structure
  • Avoid jargon, abbreviations or non-standard English
  • Try to include some subject specific vocabulary
  • Avoid repetition of information contained in the UCAS form
  • Write using active verbs, not passive verbs

Things to avoid

  • Jokes (these can come across as unprofessional and your sense of humour may not appeal to the Admissions Tutor)
  • Every sentence beginning with ‘I’. Try using gerunds (a verb plus ‘ing’ at the start of sentences)
  • Lots of pompous language that you would not ordinarily use in an attempt to impress
  • Lists – an admissions tutor does not want a long list of every book that you have read or every sport that you play. Fewer examples of current or recent activities in more detail is the key
  • Naming a particular university unless you are only applying to that one university
  • Lying or exaggerating claims (remember that if you have an interview you may well be asked questions based on your statement)
  • Saying that you have “always loved” a subject. Talking about how you first developed an interest in something is more believable and interesting. 

And finally:

Always remember that every part of the statement should answer the question “why should we give you a place on the course?”

Take advice from parents, teachers, and advisers but at the end of the day it is YOUR statement and it should reflect and sound like you – it is called a personal statement for a reason.