Personal Statement

Introduction

As part of your UCAS application, you will be required to write a personal statement with a maximum of 4,000 characters. This is sent to each of your chosen universities, who use it – along with the other parts of your application, such as exam grades – to assess your suitability for their course and whether to make you an offer.

Your personal statement allows you to demonstrate to the admissions tutors why you are applying for their course; what interests you about the subject and why they should accept you – showing that you have the achievements, qualities and skills they are looking for. For more competitive courses, there will often be little difference between your grades and the grades of other applicants, so it is essential to make your personal statement effective by devoting appropriate time to its preparation.

It can be tough getting started on your personal statement – however, the earlier you begin drafting it, the more time you’ll have to finalise it before the UCAS deadlines for submission of your application (15 October 2016 for Oxbridge and Medicine/Dentistry/Veterinary Science, and 15 January 2017 for most other courses). Although there is no definite formula for writing a personal statement, and different subjects require different styles, the following advice breaks down the process and offers guidance for each step of completing a science-based personal statement.

Aims of the Personal Statement

Ultimately, the aim of your personal statement is to show the university’s admissions tutors that you are a good fit for their course, bearing in mind that different universities may be looking for slightly different attributes in their students. Some universities offer specific guidance on what they are looking for in personal statements through their website or course prospectus – use these to research and make notes of any specific admissions advice for the courses you are applying to, as this will allow you to tailor your personal statement to your preferred universities.

In order to produce an effective personal statement, you will need to address a number of key points that the admissions tutor will be looking for, and cover these in a well thought-out and well written manner. To achieve this, your personal statement should demonstrate:

  • your interest, enthusiasm and passion for the subject, giving evidence and examples of specific areas of interest
  • the relevant skills you have learnt from your studies, extracurricular activities and employment, and how these have prepared you for a degree course in your chosen subject
  • your ability to articulate your enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, the subject by writing long prose in a clear, confident and structured manner, using a wide range of vocabulary
  • the ways in which you have been following up your interest and furthering your understanding in the subject at a higher level, outside the syllabus (i.e., projects, further reading)
  • that you are well informed about what is involved in taking your subject at degree-level
  • that you are a well-rounded individual with hobbies outside of your subject
  • that you have a general idea of what you want to do after university

The most effective personal statements cover the above points implicitly, backing up claims through discussions and experiences which show the admissions tutor your passion for the subject, rather than vague generalisations and statements such as “I am passionate about physics” – they will already assume this. Isolate a reason as to why you personally engage with your subject and then discuss specific examples to substantiate this, eg. through a reflective discussion of further reading you have done. Write with quality, not quantity, in mind – the admissions tutor will be more impressed to read in detail what you learnt from one or two specific experiences or books, as opposed to a section which brushes over four or five. At the same time, don’t let the personal statement become a mini essay trying to simply demonstrate your knowledge of a topic you found through further reading – keep the discussion personal, showing what you got out of reading or learning it and why you found it interesting – for example did it relate to another subject you’ve studied?

For competitive courses and courses for which applicants are interviewed, another key aim of your personal statement is to persuade the admissions tutor to make you an offer or invite you to interview, as opposed to another applicant with equal grades. Your personal statement should illustrate and highlight your abilities, written with an intellectual flair that will impress the admissions tutor, all whilst being interesting, relatable and personal to you – it is a personal statement, after all. Quiet confidence is an effective style – avoid appearing overly modest and avoid being overly arrogant.

The next step is to think about what you’re going to include in your personal statement to meet these aims. This topic is discussed in the following section. Later, once you have completed the first draft of your personal statement, refer back to these aims and remove any content that is not contributing to them, as it doesn’t belong in your personal statement.

Planning

What to Include

Below is a list of points students tend to talk about in science-based personal statements, divided into two main sections: academics and non-academics. By dedicating some time to brainstorm answers to these, you will be significantly closer to getting started on your personal statement. At this stage, don’t worry about sentence length, order, connectives or how much space you will devote to each point in the final version – structuring will come later. Jot things down that you consider minor – you’re not committed to actually include any of these things in your statement once you start writing it. The only limitation is do not lie.

Academics

Reasons for choosing the course:

  • Why does the subject interest you? This leads on to why you have chosen the course, a key factor that the admissions tutor will want to know.
  • Why do you want to study the subject at a higher level? Answer this in terms of the new skills and knowledge you will gain, show you understand what is required of you in studying the subject at degree level and that you have the potential to succeed.
  • Which aspects or areas of your studies have you enjoyed most so far? For example, any particular content, experiment, project, or an approach to learning – convey your understanding of how this relates to work you would do on a degree course, eg. how you displayed teamwork in undertaking a project, or how it increased your interest in the subject.

Demonstrating interest in the subject outside of the curriculum:

  • Demonstrate any further reading you have done around the subject – eg. from books, respected newspapers, scientific journals, documentaries, websites, blogs, podcasts, radio programmes, lectures attended – explain the content of the further reading briefly and then focus on how you, personally, engaged with it, by reflecting on why it made an impression on you, and by giving your critical views on it.
  • Mention any trips you attended to relevant institutions, through school or on own initiative – eg. university residentials or taster days, summer schools, work experience, volunteering, trips to industry/research institutions such as JET or CERN – as with further reading, reflect on your experiences, relate them to the course or your current studies, and explain what you’ve learned from them and how they’ve helped develop your interest in the subject.
  • Describe skills you developed, used and improved through doing extracurricular activities, competitions, awards – eg. relevant clubs, societies, CREST projects/awards, Olympiads, maths challenges – these will often demonstrate skills such as problem-solving, teamwork, leadership, critical thinking, initiative, creativity and independent research skills. Don’t just mention them for the sake of it – explain how they have increased your interest and understanding of your chosen subject.
  • Summarise any mentoring, work experience or shadowing you may have done – these can demonstrate that you have initiative; and for work experience or shadowing, describe what you enjoyed about experiencing what it’s like in a higher-level research/industry environment. Mentoring shows your interest in engaging younger pupils – explain why you enjoyed this, and how it helped your own studies.
  • If you have done (or are doing) an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), explain how it relates to your interest in the subject and how the skills you gained from it will prepare you for university – the EPQ shows you are able to think analytically and independently and demonstrates transferable skills such as independent study, effective research, public speaking, time-management, recognising bias, organisation, motivation, planning and monitoring own progress.

Future plans:

  • Outline any potential long-term career plans you have – explain why you are attracted to the career and how you would use the experiences, skills and knowledge you would gain from the degree course.
  • If you don’t currently know what want to do after university, discuss what aspect of university you are most looking forward to and what you want to gain from the course and university life.
  • If you are planning to defer your university entry, briefly outline any gap year plans you have – focussing on any potential academic or subject-related plans (eg. work experience in industry), or explain what you will learn from travelling or employment, and why it will benefit you at university.

Non-Academics

Transferable skills and knowledge:

  • Write about the relevant skills you have learnt from any jobs, placements, work experience or volunteering you have done – for example, useful skills for university include the ability to work independently, teamwork, organisational skills, good time management, problem-solving, listening, critical thinking, etc.
  • Mention also any positions of responsibility you’ve held, both in or out of school – for example, if you’ve been a member of a club or society (in your community or at school), or led important team projects – this shows good leadership skills.

Other relevant interests, hobbies and achievements:

  • To help show you are a well-rounded individual, list any non-subject related activities, hobbies and spare-time interests you have, no matter how minor – for example, do you take part in any sports teams, music rehearsals, drama schools, travelling or reading?
  • Also discuss any non-academic accomplishments such as a Duke of Edinburgh award. These wider interests are valuable as they demonstrate your talents, and can indicate characteristics whose transferable skills will be useful for succeeding at university, even if they don’t directly relate to your subject.

 

Once you have brainstormed and thought carefully about your answers to the above questions, you need to choose which points you feel you should include in your personal statement. If your list involves too many similar things, for example, a large number of books that you’ve read, select just two or three which you enjoyed the most, or which made the biggest impression on you. This way, you can elaborate in more detail on your experience of reading them – the admissions tutors would prefer to see this than simply seeing a list of books. Always try to avoid making generic statements – make sure you give a personal take on everything you mention in your statement – talk about the details in the book that you found most inspiring. In terms of which experiences to include in your statement, more recent ones are more valuable than older ones, as the admissions tutors want to know you as you are now, and how you will be at their university. Show the admissions tutors you know your own strengths and make sure you understand topics and details in your personal statement well enough to talk confidently about them at interview, if your university uses interviews as part of their selection process.

If you have worked through the above list and feel you don’t have enough exciting experiences or exotic excursions to write about, compared to other people’s statements you may have read, there is no need to worry. By spending some productive time researching through books and science news websites and publications, and reflecting on what you have learned, you should still be able to collect sufficient material to write a very good statement for a science-based subject. The admissions tutor will not be judging you based on the fact you might not have had the same opportunities as other people.

Note, there is no need to list your qualifications (eg. “I am currently taking A-Level Maths, Physics and Chemistry and achieved … grades at AS”) in your personal statement – this is already covered in the Qualifications section of your UCAS form, which the admissions tutors will see on the same page as your personal statement – you will be wasting valuable characters in your statement if you were to list these here, too.

Structure

Although there is no set structure for science-based personal statements, the following can be used as a guide:

  1. A punchy opening paragraph about your general interest in the subject and why you want to study it.
  2. A couple of mainly academic paragraphs as the body of the statement – these are more flexible – discussing your experiences of the subject in more detail.
  3. The penultimate paragraph in which non-subject related content such as extra-curricular activities and hobbies are discussed.
  4. A punchy closing paragraph about your aspirations, commitment and what makes you look forward to the course.

Universities typically recommend that you focus around 75% on academic subject-related discussion, and 25% on non-subject related extra-curriculars.

Organise your material and use a sensible order that will make your text flow – the key is to make your statement easily readable for the admissions tutor. Keep sentences short, as overly-long sentences can be difficult to follow and make your statement cumbersome. Clearly defined paragraphs can help with this but, on UCAS Apply, you can’t indent lines and, if you leave lines between paragraphs, these empty lines will count towards the 47 lines you are allowed, leaving you with fewer characters to use.

Extra Additions

There are a number of additional matters to include in your personal statement if you are an international student, a mature student, or are planning to take a year out before going to university (a gap year):

Gap year students

Briefly explain, in a few sentences before the conclusion of your personal statement, why you want to take a gap year and outline any plans you have, focussing on potential academic plans (eg. work experience in industry). If you don’t have any academic-related plans, explain what skills you will learn from travelling or employment, and how they may relate to your course.

Mature students

Use the personal statement additionally to explain what you’ve been doing since leaving formal education, why you want to return to study, and demonstrate how you will cope with the rigours of academic work – using experiences in employment to evidence this. To provide more details of current or previous employment, send a copy of your CV directly to the universities you are applying to (don’t send it to UCAS). If your degree will result in a change of career, explain why you have decided to follow a new direction.

International students

Your personal statement should also explain why you want to study in the UK and demonstrate that your English language skills are sufficiently advanced to allow you to successfully complete a degree course taught in English. You can show this by giving examples of any English courses or tests you’ve taken, saying if any of your previous studies have been taught or examined in English, and describing any activities where you have used English outside of your studies. You should also discuss why you want to be an international student in the UK, rather than study in your own county. Read UCAS’ International Undergraduate Guide for Students for more information.

More than one subject

If you are applying for courses in more than one subject area, you have to try to make your personal statement fit with the different courses you are applying for across your chosen universities, since you can only submit one personal statement through UCAS. You can either choose to emphasise the subject you prefer (or the one which is more competitive) – while, at the same time, explaining that you also have an interest in the other subject – or you can take a thematic approach by focussing on ideas, topics and skills which are applicable to both courses.

Writing

Style

Your personal statement is a formal piece of writing and the style in which you write it should reflect this. It should sound natural – but not chatty – and use diverse vocabulary – but not overly complex words with which you’re not familiar; everyday formal language is fine. Spelling, grammar and punctuation should all be correct, and avoid contractions and abbreviations (such as “I’d” and “didn’t”). Addressing the reader (the admissions tutor) directly using “you” is not usual practise in personal statements. Assume the reader already has a level of knowledge – for example, there is no need to explain what Duke of Edinburgh awards are, or to describe what a well-known book is about. Avoid making lists or using repetitive language (“I enjoy…”, “I enjoy…”) in your statement.

Although you want to make your personal statement stand out from other applicants’, there is a line between standing out to the admissions tutor in the right way and in the wrong way. Originality is a key part in making your statement personal – and although it might be tempting to include (or even start) your statement with a quotation by an important figure in your subject, this is very commonly done by many applicants, and can come across as clichéd. Quotations are someone else’s words, and the admissions tutors want to hear your own! The use of jokes – no matter how well intentioned – is also discouraged as they can be misinterpreted by the reader, who may not have the same sense of humour as you. Re-evaluate any use of the words “love”, “adore” or “ignited” (in fact, any fire-related metaphors) as these have a tendency to sound cheesy and their use is rarely justified, given how many synonyms exist for these words. Avoid clichés along with intellectual pretensions and overly hyperbolic phrases, as these can sound tacky when reading the personal statement in a formal environment.

Before you start to write each sentence, consult the planning sheet you made from the questions under “What To Include”. Using these notes, you will be able to incorporate more effectively which ideas and statements you want to convey in each sentence. Try to use connectives to link sentences in order to improve the flow of the text; but avoid using filler sentences or vague and generic statements which add nothing to your statement. Write succinctly and remove anything that doesn’t contribute to its aims (laid out in “Aims of the Personal Statement”). There is no need to state repeatedly in different words how passionate you are about your subject – this should be shown implicitly through your evidence of wider reading and subject-related experiences. When discussing further reading, be specific and give brief examples from the book to provide insight in your own thinking in relation to what you have read – show you have formulated an opinion on the book, how it has made an impression on you, and what you got out of reading it.

You should do more than simply describe the subject-related experiences in which you have been involved: elaborate on and emphasise what you took away from them, how they increased your interest in the subject and, show evidence of useful and relevant skills you gained or improved through the experiences. You will often not even need to state the skills themselves – and if you do, avoid listing too many. Fully utilise each experience – show through your discussion of it that you enjoyed it and really engaged in it – in turn, this will help your style be enthusiastic and positive to the admissions tutor.

When entered into UCAS Apply, your personal statement will lose any formatting within it – bold, italic or underlined words are not allowed, and many types of special characters and symbols will be removed – including accented characters (à, é, ù), € and special quote and bracket characters (eg. “ ‘ ’ ”, {}, \ – though the characters “, ‘, () and / are allowed). Tabs and multiple spaces will be condensed to a single space, so you are not able to indent lines. You can leave an empty line between paragraphs to more clearly define these, but this will reduce your character amount.

Never lie, embellish or exaggerate any statements in your personal statement – apart from anything else, you may be asked to expand on them at interview and find yourself caught out. Of course, there’s no need to be an expert in quantum mechanics if you mention your interest in the field, but be prepared for questions in the interview that will show you know at least the basics of it to reassure the interviewer that you have done sufficient research in to it. Don’t make unsupported claims for yourself, either – always back yourself up with evidence or examples. Most important, never, ever plagiarise anyone else’s work in your statement, or pay for someone to do it for you. UCAS uses a similarity detection system to scan your personal statement against every other applicants’ (including previous year’s) – and if plagiarism is detected in your statement, your chosen universities will be told.

Feedback and Finalising

Once you have completed your first draft of your personal statement and are reasonably happy with it, it is time to show it to teachers, advisors and family and ask for their constructive feedback and comments on it. Some advice will likely be simple – correcting any accidental spelling, grammatical or punctuation mistakes (ensure the corrections are right!), and suggesting rephrasing of unclear sentences – but some suggestions might be more substantial and require more consideration. Don’t take any criticism personally – people are genuinely trying to help by offering their opinions. If you seriously disagree with any suggestions in particular, you can choose to ignore them – it is your personal statement and you have to be happy with the final version you submit. Redraft as necessary, let a range of (trusted) people have a look at your new version and repeat this re-drafting process as long as you think the feedback you are getting is useful. It is generally not a good idea to post your personal statement online on forums or discussion boards, as anyone is then able to copy it and pass it off as their own.

If you have have gone over the 4000 character limit and there is still academic content you are adamant on keeping in your personal statement, ask your referee – usually a teacher or admissions/senior tutor at your school/college – if they can mention it in your reference, as an alternative approach.

Once you are happy with the final version of your personal statement, paste it into UCAS Apply before your school or college’s internal deadline, pay UCAS the £24 fee, and submit your application to your chosen universities. Good luck!

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