How to write a personal statement
Getting into university is no walk in the park…
You have to first decide what exactly you want to study (which isn’t easy if you have a number of niche subjects!), then shortlist a set of universities you feel are best suited to you (after battling between big questions like whether to stay at home or the internal battle between a university’s reputation versus their nightlife!), and then of course you have to make sure you meet the conditions of your offer (i.e. getting those all important grades)! On this long road of hurdles, there’s one that can give you a head-start: your personal statement.
Your personal statement is a chance for you to do something you would not usually do… Blow your own trumpet! It’s an opportunity for you to truly capture exactly what is so unique about you and your academic journey. It’s your chance to stand out! Your personal statement can be a real game changer and a chance for you to even out the playing field if you feel what you lack in a grade or two is compensated in your work experiences/hobbies and/or other interests. I have many friends who have been made offers from their top choice universities despite not being in their advertised grade bracket, purely due to impressive personal statements. This is not to say that three C’s will get you into Oxbridge because you’ve emphasised your love for Beethoven or an internship shadowing David Cameron, as competitiveness in academia will only continue to soar. However, whilst it is true that it is important to be an all-rounder to have a chance at a top university, the impact of a succinct and articulate personal statement should not be underestimated.
There are many ways to write a personal statement and its important to keep it as original as possible because no two personal statements will ever be the same and it is your writing style that will carry the most original flair. Here is the structure I used for my personal statement, after looking through various examples I felt this was the best style.
1. Start off with the most attention grabbing sentence you could ever possibly think of…
This first step requires a lot of delicate thought, ask yourself what is your most remarkable achievement that relates to your chosen subject. For example, my opening sentence was:
“In my opening speech to Michelle Obama, on her visit to my secondary school in 2009, I spoke about the need to tackle voter apathy, and the opportunity for education to be utilised as a solution.”
I then went on to elaborate my passion for Political affairs and why I believed an International Politics degree would be the best course of study for me. This is exactly what your opening sentence should do, it should grant your entire personal statement a body with it as the ‘head’ if you like, something that can be referred back to as a reminder to both yourself and the reader of why you want to study your chosen degree. Its important to remember that the first paragraph is your ‘character’ paragraph. It should be used as a window into the part of your brain that decided why you chose your degree, and as such should be a short and sweet composition of the main reasons you chose your course of study. My best friend’s opening sentence was this:
“As a child I would often break things, just so I could put them back together and sometimes even create something completely different, kind of like engineering.”
Granted that his opening statement isn’t as neat as mine, but the impact is the same right? Its about finding the balance between portraying yourself as a little eccentric but determined, whilst beginning your personal statement on a note that nobody else would have.
A rough outline of how many words your introductory character paragraph should be is about 100-150 words which is not much at all as your middle two paragraphs should be the meatiest, so being concise will be the main challenge. On that note, a key tip to bear in mind is that you will most definitely go through at least 6 draft processes so don’t stress out about having to edit again and again, that’s what your after!
Read more for No’s 2, 3 and 4….
2. Go onto analyse your subjects and how your skills have advanced…
Your personal statement should essentially evolve into a series of justifications for the choices you have made in your academic career so far. Use this paragraph to justify why you chose the A2 subjects that you did, what skills you have gained from taking this subject and how these particular skills have equipped you to succeed and achieve your potential in your chosen course of study at university. For example, here is an excerpt from my personal statement of my second paragraph:
“Taking a trio of essay based subjects has advanced my analysis skills as well as my ability to construct and defend my line of argument, whilst improving my evaluative skills of the opposing arguments. English Literature, History and Politics have allowed me to form a set of intrinsic lenses in my interpretive toolkit that will allow me to fully grasp the more fast-paced nature of university texts and learning forums.”
This is also a good opportunity to explain any outlier subjects you may have taken that do not necessarily compliment some of your subjects. For example, many of my friends took Maths or a Science subject alongside two essay based subject, this requires justification as the university admissions team will want to know why you’ve chosen such a subject. This is primarily because A-Levels are your first chance at narrowing down your interests thus a subject that is greatly different to your other choices wont be a disadvantage so long as you can justify why you chose it. If written carefully, a contrasting subject justification could be an impressive example of being confident in your ability to evenly distribute your work ethic across a range of subjects.
3. It’s all about the work experiences, internships, volunteering…
As competition between students increases this is yet another opportunity for you to prove that you are an all-rounder and are hungry to succeed. Therefore proactivity in obtaining work experience orientated around your chosen course of study further reiterates your dedication and suitability for the course. For example, this is an excerpt from my third paragraph:
“In my first year I shadowed Jennette Arnolds, the Chair of the London Assembly, and wrote letters to her constituents regarding their concerns about the impact of the speed limit on Blackfriars Bridge for cyclists. The following year, I interned at the Cabinet Office and was able to gain an insight into the policy making process. I was able to match the theory gathered from my Politics lessons to the reality of a chaotic Cabinet dealing with the summer riots, which emphasised my suitability to the Political world as I work extremely well in the face of challenges and pressure. Both internships were extremely eye opening as it proved to me that my passion lies with the Politics concerning the international stage opposed to the local/national level.”
It is important to state your role during the work experience you undertook, and highlight the most important parts. If you are as proactive as myself and find yourself in a dilemma of choosing between a selection of the many work experiences/volunteering opportunities you grasped, then shortlist the most important ones that will stand out. Remember, you will also attach a CV through which you can state all of your other work experiences so the impact of those will not go unlooked.
On the other hand, if you were too busy studying (or socialising!) and were unable to seek work experience due to other commitments, then you can use any form of experience which gave you an opportunity to expand your skill set that will equip you for your future career. It shouldn’t matter if its not as recent, so long as you really capture the essence of how these experiences allowed you to narrow down your career choices.
4. Last chance to squeeze that last bit of character in…
Use your last 150 words to get across any hobbies but ensure that you end the paragraph with a sentence reiterating your aspirations and suitability for your course. This was mine:
“For therapeutic purposes I became a self-taught baker and have recently mastered the art of making choux pastry and meringues. I strongly believe in giving back to the community, which is why I have been elected Head Girl and am also on the College Council. Additionally, I fundraise for a range of charities by putting my baking skills to use, and mentor underachieving students from my ethnic minority. As the eldest of 5 I have always sought to set the benchmark, thus admission into a Russell Group university will allow the younger generation in my family to aim just as high. I aspire to make society more representative of women and ethnic minorities, both in academia and in the Political arena. I believe my work ethic supplemented by my skill-set will allow me to be the perfect student at your institution and equip me to achieve my full potential.”
Remember to mention anything you feel will help portray a little insight into your amazing personality because like I said at the start, it is our differences that make us unique! Another top tip is to remember its all about justification, reiteration, aspiration, justification and reiteration!
Hopefully after placing yourself under the microscope in analysing each of your academic choices so far has served as an important reminder of just how far you’ve come and how close your goals are. The very best of luck to all of you, and just remember everything happens for a reason so as long as you submit a personal statement your proud of, the offers you gain as a result of that will be a testament of your hard work!
Article by Farida Ahmed