This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be doing on advice for students – not just student parents, but anyone studying at university or hoping to do so. I should add that I’m not claiming to know everything, or to have all the answers – but these are the tips and tricks that have worked for me!
Arguably the most important – and the most difficult – part of a university application is the personal statement. You are given a maximum of 4,000 characters to sell yourself to universities. In that space, you need to outline your work experience, your academic skills, your extracurriculars, your interest in the topic and exactly why you think you’d be a great fit for the course. Simple, right?
Well, you’d think so – until you realise that the paragraph you’ve just read is 400 characters. That’s a tenth of the space you have to outline your entire academic career, just in that one paragraph. So you have to make every character count.
In addition to writing several successful personal statements (I changed my mind on what course I wanted to do a few times before settling on Theatre, okay?!), I then spent eighteen months as a Personal Statement Helper for The Student Room (until they started charging for the service, at which point I resigned, as a matter of principle), reviewing people’s personal statements and suggesting amendments and corrections.
So, if you’ve got this far and think “Hm, sounds like I can trust her advice”, read on – here are my tips for writing a successful personal statement.
- Avoid Cliches. Everyone wants to use them, because they think it makes them sound more enthusiastic about the subject, but please avoid cheesy, cliched words and phrases. The biggest culprit is ‘passionate’ – but let me tell you, nothing turns an admissions tutor off faster than seeing “I am passionate about human geography”. Yeah, you and the five hundred other people applying for that same course.
- Don’t Tell Me About Your Childhood. You may think it sounds impressive to say “I have been interested in renewable energy systems since I was a little girl”, but the admissions tutors won’t be impressed. Keep any mentions of “From a young age” out of your personal statement.
- SPaG. No, my keyboard hasn’t just had a fit – it’s an acronym for Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar. This is the most basic necessity for any personal statement – no university is going to accept you if you can’t display at least a basic level of skills in spelling, punctuation and grammar. They need to see that you’ll be able to write essays, after all!
- Keep It Relevant. Yes, it’s fantastic that you played the Angel Gabriel in your Year 3 nativity, but how is that going to help your application for a History degree? You only have 4,000 characters to sell yourself, remember – every bit of experience needs to be relevant. Even if you’re applying for a theatre degree, a school nativity isn’t going to be hugely impressive to your admissions tutors.
- Draft, Redraft and Redraft Again! Don’t just blurt out 4,000 characters onto the screen – make drafts of your statement, read it yourself, get others to read it – your teachers or, if you’re feeling flush, The Student Room’s Personal Statement team – and then redraft and redraft until you’re absolutely certain you’ve got it right.
- Know Your Extra-Curriculars. This links in to the point about relevancy. Some extra-curriculars look great on a personal statement, others don’t. If you’ve been part of a theatre group or a sports team for years, or you’ve written for a student newspaper, or you’ve done volunteering – great! If, however, your extra-curricular activities extend to being the resident drug dealer at your college, or running a successful adult film database, you may want to leave it out.
- Nobody Likes A Funny Guy. It’s important that your personal statement stands out and reflects your personality – but jokes are inadvisable. You never know if the admissions tutor will have the same sense of humour as you, and there’s no worse first impression than a joke falling flat.
- Don’t Quote. Hand in hand with the advice not to joke, don’t stick someone else’s quote in there, even if you do cite it. The admissions tutors want to read your words – it’s not Martin Luther King, Marilyn Monroe or Coco Chanel applying for the place on the Psychology degree at Glyndwr University.
- Be A Person, Not A Thesaurus. “I wholeheartedly perceive myself to have a particular proclivity for enthralling juvenile audiences with astounding displays of theatrical excellence” does not sound anywhere near as good as “My experience in theatre for young people involved ________”. If you wouldn’t say it in normal speech, don’t say it in your personal statement.
- Liar Liar Pants On Fire. It should go without saying really that lies (along with exaggeration and fibbing) are frowned upon by the admissions tutors – so don’t start claiming to be King of the World when you’re really just Tom from Dudley.
- Accentuate the Positives, Eliminate the Negatives. Don’t talk about why you got a B rather than an A in that AS Level mock – you’re trying to sell yourself, not excuse yourself. Focus on the great things that make you an excellent candidate for the course – without sounding like you’re Little Miss Big Head and straying into egotistical territory.
It’s a long process, and there’s a lot to remember, but it’s worth it to get the university offers you want. These days, more and more emphasis is being placed on the personal statement rather than your predicted grades, because so many people are predicted to achieve top grades. If you follow these tips, you should see your personal statement stand out for all the right reasons, rather than all the wrong ones.
Got another student-related topic you’d like to see me cover? Let me know in the comments!