So, you've raced through your UCAS form1, made your choices, and racked your brain to remember the grades you earned in every exam you ever sat. Now all that's left is the personal statement. Sounds easy, doesn't it? After all, how hard can it be to sum up your entire life and its achievements, and make yourself stand out from a crowd of hundreds2 in just 4,000 characters and 47 lines?
Your personal statement is, along with your predicted grades and your teachers' reference, the most important part of your UCAS form, and it's the only one over which you have complete control; teachers will predict grades and write references based mostly on your first year of Sixth Form/college, and there's relatively little you can do to change this now.
You have a rigidly enforced limit of 4,000 characters and 47 lines, whichever comes first3, and if you go over, the online form will cut you off mid-word. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the entire form, and most students find themselves cutting down their early drafts substantially. You can't meddle around with font or font size to gain an advantage, as the form will automatically convert anything you cut and paste into a standard font.
The box on the UCAS form times out after 35 minutes of being open, and doesn't have any spelling or grammar checkers, so it's strongly recommended you write in Word, Google Docs or your choice of word processor first, then copy and paste into the form when you're ready. Teachers prefer this, as it's easier for them to edit and make suggestions in this format rather than on the UCAS form.
Don't worry about paragraph breaks – these don't show up in the UCAS format and don't count towards your line limit – but do take care with your formatting once you copy and paste across. It can look a little wonky with only a few words per line, and this looks frankly awful.
Finally, this isn't the time to be modest, so lose that British reserve and talk yourself up!
So, What do I Write?
To begin with, write anything and everything. Just get something down, as one of the biggest obstacles for writing any kind of long prose is a blank screen. Write a skeleton or rough structure which you can fill in later, or write one killer paragraph which you can build around: it's entirely down to what works best for you. Broadly speaking, your personal statement wants to cover the following topics:
Why you want to do the course/courses you've applied for
Hopefully by now you've narrowed down your choices to one or two closely-related fields4 and you need to say why that is. What's making you want to give up anything from three to seven years of your life to study this subject, and where does this information come from? The last thing universities want is someone with no real interest in their subject and who will just drift along.
How your current subjects will help you in your chosen degree
If there's a particular module or topic in your current subjects that's closely related to the degree(s) you want to study then talk about it in as much detail as you can. If you've got a subject that seems a bit random and unrelated to your others, and the degree you want to study, it's particularly important to say how that relates. This will show the universities that you've made conscious choices in your studies and thought ahead. It also shows that you've researched the courses you've applied to5 and have a clear understanding of what you're letting yourself in for.
Any work experience you have in the field
Work experience is becoming a more and more important way to sift student applications. If you don't have any, you need to arrange some for the summer/Christmas/Easter holidays: speak to your careers advisor or Connexions PA6 for help with this. You can briefly mention paid work in the Employment section of the form, but your personal statement is the only place you can describe it in detail, as well as the only place you can mention voluntary work. Having work experience shows that you can act professionally and handle multiple workloads. It can also show you have knowledge of your subject in the wider world and what you could be doing after you've been awarded your degree. If you've been on visit days or if you've undertaken any project that involves working with a university, make sure to mention that here.
Your hobbies and extra-curricular activities
Universities want to see well-rounded individuals who can do more than just study, but remember that you have to make yourself stand out. Responsibilities in school or in your community show maturity and, as with work experience, an ability to handle different workloads and roles.
Introduction and conclusion.
This might sound obvious to some7, but if you're not used to writing extended prose you may forget that you need to have an introduction and conclusion, otherwise you're just writing a list. The introduction is normally tied in to why you want to study the subject, but it doesn't have to be, while the conclusion is normally just a summary consisting of a couple of lines.
Ultimately, your personal statement is all about you and that makes it difficult to give hard-and-fast rules about how much space to devote to each section: if everyone follows a strict formula then it's not personal to anyone. A general rule of thumb is that writing about the subject you want to study should take up a third, writing about the subjects you're studying now and work experience should be another third, and writing about yourself, including hobbies, should take up the rest. However, this is only a suggestion. The advice can be tweaked or ignored altogether, and if you have some impressive work experience or if you've spent a lot of time at university because of the subjects you want to study, then, absolutely, give them priority at the expense of other sections. There is a wealth of information on the UCAS website, with examples and videos on how to write the personal statement.
Dos and Don'ts
As individual and unique as a personal statement should be, there are still some common errors you really want to avoid, as well as some good practice that will make sure your personal statement gets to the top of the pile.
Do spell check
Make sure you check your personal statement for spelling, punctuation and grammar, as a poorly written statement is going straight into the shredder. Take care to proofread your work, and don't just rely on a spell-checker, as these won't pick up on inappropriate words if they've been spelled correctly8. Do not, under any circumstances, write in l33t, and ensure all your I's are capitalised, as your teachers will hate going through and correcting each one; you want your teachers onside right now. A good test for a well-written personal statement is to read it aloud: a good statement will flow naturally, and not cause you to feel awkward or trip over your words.
Don't repeat yourself
You have a difficult character limit, so don't waste space by repeating yourself. The form contains an awful lot of information in the previous sections, so you don't need to repeat any of it – the admissions tutor already has it. The only time you should write about something which has been mentioned earlier is if you want to expand upon it and give a lot more detail. It's good to say, for example, 'My experience writing for h2g2.com has helped me with...'. Similarly, by all means describe how your subjects will make you a better student, but don't simply list them, as they already know that from the Education section.
Be yourself and be unique
Your personal statement has to be personal and it needs to sound authentic, so resist the temptation to sound 'smart'. Your grades will tell the admissions tutor how clever you are; your personal statement tells them about you; and it's a rare 18-year-old who uses the word 'obfuscate'. When talking about hobbies, make them relevant and a selling point: most teenagers enjoy going to the cinema with their friends, so that's not enough on its own. If you enjoy the nuance of storytelling, or look out for different film-making techniques, then say so. The one exception to this rule is humour. Humour is a risk, as what sounds hilarious to you might fall flat, or worse, be offensive to the person reading your statement. Generally it's best to steer clear and leave the jokes for Freshers' Week.
Avoid the clichés
Always make it easy for the person reading your statement to like you. A big part of that is not being boring or clichéd. One common opening paragraph is:
I have been passionately interested in this subject my entire life and I think will make an extremely good student because...
Teachers and admissions tutors loathe sentences like that, and may not pay much attention to the rest of the statement. Partially it's because it isn't true – very few people know what they want to do at university before their mid-teens, and claiming you wanted to be an optometrist, say, before you could walk rings false – but mostly it's because so many people say it that they get tired of reading it. The best way to avoid clichés is to be honest and be yourself.
Do write multiple drafts
Get others to check them, too. A good personal statement will have gone through a minimum of five drafts, and most need more. Show your drafts to as many people as possible, as each will pick up on new things, bring new expertise, or highlight mistakes others have missed. It's particularly important to show your personal statement to the person who will be writing your reference. You can highlight the bits you think are really important, and they can mention those in your reference. If you use technical language, you need to show it to an expert in that area, as they will be able to review your use of technical terms. While everyone will have their own opinions, it's important to remember that this statement is yours. If someone suggests something that doesn't seem like you, change or remove it.
Don't lie, or plagiarise
Just don't do it. You will get caught, and it may result in you being barred from using UCAS ever again9. University admissions tutors tend to be very experienced. They can tell when things don't add up, or when a student is lying. Remember, they don't have to give a reason for rejecting you, and you don't get a chance to appeal. Even worse than being rejected straight away is to be called for an interview in which you are asked to talk about something you said you're an expert in, but in truth you know nothing about. As for plagiarism, the UCAS software compares your statement against every other statement ever written, as well as those on 'Write your personal statement' websites. Suspected plagiarism is highlighted for both teachers and UCAS. Just don't do it.
So, you've drafted it more times than you can count, got approval from everyone, banished every typo, and brought your masterpiece within the character/line limit. Congratulations! Now all you have to do is save it, agree to the terms and conditions for UCAS, and send it to your teachers. Try not to laugh too loudly as they have to go through a similar process to write your reference.