How to Write an Ace Personal Statement

Freddie Larkins on 26 February 2019
How to Write an Ace Personal Statement

A good personal statement could be the difference between achieving the offer from the university you’ve been in love with since the open day and having your application rejected. 

Admissions tutors use your personal statement to gauge whether you are a good fit for the course and the wider university community. These people see thousands of applications each year, so it pays to write one that stands out.

Though it may seem like a chore to write, the personal statement is a fantastic opportunity - you can communicate who you are, what makes you tick, and why you’re great.

This guide will cover the key points you need to get across in your personal statement, providing you with a framework to structure your writing.

How long should my personal statement be?

4000 characters. This equates to about 500 words or 47 lines, so brevity is key. While you may have a million things you would like to tell the admissions tutors, the character limit forces you to prioritise the most relevant experiences to the course. No bad thing if you ask us.

How should I structure my personal statement?

The wonderful thing about personal statements is the creative freedom given to applicants. There is no standard way of structuring your work. While this gives you the opportunity to stand out from the crowd, it brings with it the risk of waffling for 4000 characters. No one likes waffling.

To help you avoid waffle, we recommend following this simple structure for your personal statement:

  • Opening - what motivates you?
  • Body - what relevant experiences do you have?
  • Conclusion - why are you awesome?

Let’s take a deeper look at each of these sections.

Opening: inspirations and motivations

The purpose of the opening section is to set the tone for the rest of the personal statement. You should aim to outline your inspiration for applying to the course and your motivations to excel at your chosen degree.

Lots of students agonize over their opening line, but you needn’t bother says Emma Powell, an admissions tutor from Edge Hotel School: “Don’t put so much prominence on writing a witty first line – having a good overall personal statement will make a much better impression”.

You’ve got 46 other lines to make a great impression, so don’t spend time worrying about the first.

That said, avoid cliche openings. UCAS released information in 2015 on the most common opening lines in personal statements, which included:

  • "From a young age I have always been interested in/fascinated by..." (1,179 students)
  • "For as long as I can remember I have..." (1,451 students)
  • "I have always wanted to..." (927 students)

We don’t doubt that you’ve been passionate about your subject since before you could remember but trust us, the admissions tutor has seen it all before. Open with an issue or concept that’s interesting and contemporary. As one admissions tutor puts it, "start with what's inspiring you now, not what inspired you when you were six".

The rest of your opening section should set out your motivations for applying to the course. Did you study something that caught your attention? Was it something you read? A podcast you listened to or a film you watched? Did you attend an outreach event by a university?

Admissions tutors want to know that your interest in the subject extends beyond a wishy-washy, hollow statement like "I’ve been interested in Biology for as long as I can remember".

In addition, be sure to tell the admissions tutor what you look forward to about the course. For Geographers, it might be the prospect of doing fieldwork. For Engineers, it might be a chance to do a year in industry.

If you’re applying for different courses, outline broader skills that you look forward to developing, such as critical thinking or textual analysis.

DO: Keep your opening line succinct and crisp, avoiding cliches at all costs.
DON’T: Use up too many words explaining your motivations. Save plenty of space to show off your skills and experiences in the next section.

Body: relevant experiences

In this section, you’ll show off everything you’ve done to prepare yourself for the course. Academic work, sporting achievements, work experience and volunteering - it all counts.

A great way to keep your writing laser focused is to identify key qualities from the course descriptions you’ve applied for and explain how you’ve demonstrated in your academic and extra-curricular experiences.

Admissions tutors want to see a personal statement that’s uber-relevant to your chosen course(s).

We’ve picked a couple of examples from real course descriptions to show you what we mean. The key qualities in the course description are highlighted in bold, which we have addressed with a sample response.

BA Sociology @ University of Leeds
Course Description: “Bridging big ideas and practical problems, you’ll consider how classical, contemporary and emerging styles of thought or the ideas of key thinkers can shed light on social issues such as crime, disability, family and gender issues, racism, social care and youth unemployment.”

Sample Response: “Through my volunteering experience I have engaged both with big ideas and practical problems, and relish the opportunity to continue doing so at an academic level. Over Christmas I organised a fundraiser for a local food bank, addressed the pressing, nationwide issue of food poverty while also overcoming practical problems on the day such as sorting raffle tickets for 100+ attendees.”

BSc Chemistry @ University of Birmingham
Course description: “Throughout your time with us, you will be constantly challenged as you push forwards the boundaries of your understanding, all within a supportive learning environment.”

Sample response: “I continually seek to push forward the boundaries of my understanding of Chemistry, beyond that which is required of me for my A-Level exams. I am an enthusiastic listener of Steve Mirsky’s Scientific American podcast and regularly attend open lectures by the Royal Society of Chemistry, the most recent being a thought-provoking discussion of sustainable innovation in the Chemical industry.”

To help you match the key skills in the course descriptions with your experiences, try creating a two-column list. One column should contain all the key skills you’ve identified from your course descriptions; the other should contain all the bits of experience you’ve accrued over the past few years.

DO: keep your examples succinct and to-the-point. Make it as easy as possible for the admissions tutor to make the connection between your experiences and the qualities they are looking for in applicants.
DON’T: embellish or exaggerate your experiences. The admissions tutor will have likely read hundreds of applications before they get to yours - they’ll spot a lie from a mile off.

Conclusion: why you’re awesome

First thing’s first - don’t begin this section with ‘in conclusion’, ‘to conclude’ or some other variant. This works in essays, it doesn’t work in personal statements.

Using that kind of language tells the admissions tutor that you can’t bring the personal statement to a seamless, natural conclusion - instead, you’re relying on signposting.

The conclusion is your chance to outline why you’re an awesome person who offers much more than just academic potential. You’ve told them why you deserve to be on the course; now tell them why you deserve to be accepted into the university.

Shona Barrie - Recruitment Manager at Heriot-Watt University - explains this well: “Tell us why you will be an asset to our university community… it's not just about getting a degree – it's about appreciating the bigger picture!”

In other words, your interests and hobbies can really enhance your personal statement. Are you a die-hard Harry Potter fan? Mention how you’d like to try competitive quidditch. Avid debater? Join the debating society. Top class footballer? Represent the university at football. The conclusion is your chance to show how your presence will enrich the university community.

Finish your conclusion by outlining what you’ve said up to this point. You’re motivated by X, a geek about Y, and great at Z. Try not to cover new ground here - simply reiterate why you and this university are a match made in heaven.

DO: include your hobbies and interests in the conclusion. It is a personal statement, after all!

DON’T: begin with ‘in conclusion’ or a similar-such signpost. Your personal statement should flow to a natural conclusion.

Final steps

Check, double-check and triple-check. Read it out loud to your family, friends and dog. This will help you to spot any spelling errors and bits that don’t quite read as well as they could.

The only thing left to say is good luck!

Freddie Larkins
Freddie Larkins on 26 February 2019