How to write a personal statement: 10 things to put in yours
No two personal statements should be the same (the clue is in the personal!). But there ARE certain rules to approaching it, regardless of your subject.
- What is a personal statement?
- Why is your personal statement important?
- How is your personal statement used by universities?
- How do you write a personal statement?
- How long does a personal statement have to be?
What 10 things should your personal statement include
Firstly, what is a personal statement?A personal statement is like a short reflective essay you write about why you’re the perfect candidate for the undergraduate degree course/s you’re applying to.
It’s a key part of your Ucas application – alongside your predicted or achieved A-level, Highers, BTEC etc. grades – and is read by admissions tutors at the universities you apply to, who’ll decide whether to offer you a place or not.
It’s important to note that you only write one personal statement, which is seen by all the universities you apply to.
Also, a university personal statement works differently to a personal statement you'd write when applying to a job – so don't confuse the two.
Why is your personal statement important?While many students may apply to the same university course with the same grades as you, they aren’t you as a person, with your skills, experiences and thoughts. You need to stand out as a real person to an admissions tutor, as opposed to one of the many applicant numbers that will pass before their eyes.
Your personal statement is where you can distinguish yourself from these other candidates. It’s where you can fill in the picture a tutor has of you in their head, and where you can leave a real impression that makes them want to meet you, or offer you a place.
Drafting your statement? Build your draft and get tailored tips - try our tool.
How is your personal statement used by universities?At the end of the day, you still need to meet the formal entry requirements of a course, as laid out by the university. However, if the final spot on a course comes down to you and someone else with the same grades, what you write in your statement could nab it for you.
If you're invited to attend an interview, your personal statement is an opportunity to shape what you will be asked about – very useful if the thought of an interview terrifies you! At the very least, something in your statement could serve as a friendly icebreaker to ease you in.
If you fall slightly short of the grades you need on results day, it’s a distinct possibility that your personal statement could clinch your place for you. Universities will often prefer to give it to you if your statement shows the kind of commitment and enthusiasm they’re looking for, rather than offer it to someone else who didn’t apply to them first time around.
If you do find yourself in Clearing after results day, the universities you call will be able to see your personal statement. Therefore, your statement can help you make a big impression quickly during this fast-paced, short-notice interview process. In fact, we recommend re-reading your personal statement in the lead-up to results day to remind yourself why you would make a strong candidate – this could be a real confidence boost if you don’t get the grades you need.
How do you write a personal statement?There is no definitive one-method-fits-all approach to writing your personal statement. But here are some pointers to guide you:
It’s not a sprint…You’ll likely go through a few drafts before you get the polished final version that you submit as part of your Ucas application. So don’t expect to thrash it out in a weekend.
While the Ucas application deadline for most courses is 15 January, your school may have an internal deadline before then, which you need to get your statement in by. Check when this is and work backwards from there, giving yourself enough time to get any personal statement help from teachers or careers advisers – they become pretty busy around that time of the year!
It’s pretty much impossible to start your personal statement without a degree subject in mind (e.g. English or biology). It would be like applying to an unknown job by simply stating your general strengths or interests as a person – these won’t all necessarily correlate to those demanded by the subject.
Start with your subject
While you could pull together a rough draft while you’re researching, it’s much easier to write your statement with a good idea of your five Ucas choices.
It’s easier with a few courses in mind
Again, remember that your one personal statement goes to all the universities you apply to, so making specific references might not be the best idea.
You can search for courses for the subject you’re interested and to learn about the modules offered, to get a sense of what a course would involve.
This doesn’t mean pouring your heart out or emotionally blackmailing an admissions tutor.
The key word is ‘personal’
But it does mean your personal statement should reflect why you’re the right candidate for the courses you’re applying to, based on your experiences, skills and understanding; after all, these makes you unique.
Can you guess what the magic word is?
So while you can ask a friend for their advice or look at statement templates online, what works for someone else won’t necessarily work for you. Make sure you tie any feedback back to you and the courses you’re applying to.
Plus, any personal statements that show signs of plagiarism (i.e. copying from another statement) will be flagged by Ucas’ system. The universities you’ve applied to will be notified too. Obviously that won’t impress them and it may affect your chances of being accepted.
You have been warned...
Oxbridge vs non-OxbridgeThings vary a little when it comes to writing a personal statement for Oxford or Cambridge, compared to other universities (and not just when you need to get your application in by).
Oxbridge personal statements tend to be more academic-centric and are a platform for you to discuss your understanding and thoughts on material that you’ve been exposed to, within your subject - theories, works, topics, issues.
How long should a personal statement be?You have a maximum of 4,000 characters and 47 lines to write your personal statement.
That might seem a lot (or maybe not enough) from the outset, but your perspective might change as you begin writing and have to boil down all those relevant thoughts, skills and experiences.
It’s best to draft your statement and get it finalised in a Word document, and then copy this over to Ucas’ system to submit it, rather than make changes afterwards.
Some admissions tutors will recommend that you leave a blank line to separate paragraphs, as any indentation or formatting will be stripped out. Others will argue that each blank line will count as one of your 47 lines to play with. Rather than leave a blank line, try and finish your paragraphs midway along the line. That way it looks as if it’s still a paragraph.
- Going over the limit? Cut these from your statement.
Ten must-haves for your personal statement
1. Explain why you want to study the courseWhat motivates you to take this course further, at a university level? Talk about how your interest developed, what you’ve done to pursue it or how you’ve drawn inspiration from your current studies. Try to avoid overusing the word ‘passion’ when doing so.
If you want to get something specific out of the course, provided it's reasonable, say so.
2. Explain how you're right for the courseProvide evidence to show that not only do you meet the selection criteria, but also that you’ve researched the course (or profession) and understand what studying the subject at university-level will involve. Also, show that you're prepared for this by giving examples, such as having worked as part of a diverse group.
- Got a course in mind? Search and learn more about it.
3. Say what you’ve done outside the classroomOutline how you’ve pursued your interest in your chosen subject beyond your current syllabus and developed your understanding as a result. But don’t just give a long list of things you’ve done; it’s important that you give your critical views or reflections too, so admissions tutors can see how you think.
Here, you could talk about specific books, quality newspapers, websites, blogs, periodicals or scientific journals you’ve read. Or you could discuss films, documentaries, blogs, radio programmes, podcasts and public lectures you’ve watched or listened to.
Also, try to avoid the things everyone else will mention so you stand out.
Reflect on your experiences, explaining what you’ve learnt from them or how they’ve helped develop your interest in the subject.
4. Why it’s relevant to your course...
It could be work experience, volunteering, a university taster session or outreach programme, summer schools, museum, gallery or theatre visits, archaeological digs, visits to the local courts, travel, competitions or a maths challenge. It’s not about quantity and it doesn’t have to be particularly special. The key thing is showing what you took away from it.
Watch now: Personal statement dos and don'ts
Reflecting on relevant experience or observations will be essential for some professional courses where, in effect, you’re applying for the career as well as the course:
5. … And relevant to your chosen career
Yes, you can – and admissions tutors will want to hear about them!
6. Can you demonstrate transferable skills?
It could be your ability to work independently, teamwork, good time management, problem-solving, leadership, listening or organisational skills. Often universities will set these out in the description for a course. You just need to look for them.
But don’t simply rattle off all the skills you think you have. Think about which ones relate most readily to the course you’re applying to – another reason to search for your course and read up about it, as you write your statement. Then demonstrate how you’ve developed, used and continued to strengthen these.
7. Expand on the most relevant ones
Again, admissions tutors want to hear about specific examples, like:
- positions of responsibility (what did you achieve, how has it improved your self-confidence?)
- Young Enterprise, Duke of Edinburgh's Award (what was the biggest challenge, how did you overcome it?)
- volunteering or a part-time job (what have you observed, what extra responsibilities have you taken on, what skills have you demonstrated yourself?)
8. Show that you’re a critical thinkerUniversity is all about being able to think independently and analytically, so being able to demonstrate that you’re already working in such a way is a big plus point.
Briefly explaining how one of your A-level subjects, a BTEC assignment, placement, or additional studies such as the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) has made you think more critically could be a way of doing this.
Mention what your longer term goals are if you can do it in an interesting way and you’ve got a specific path in mind. If you do, then try to show a spark of individuality or imagination.
9. What’s the long-term plan?
If you’re not sure yet, just talk about what you’re looking forward to at uni and what you want to gain from your course or from university life.
If you’re applying for deferred entry, do mention your gap year plans if you’ve made a firm decision to take a year out. Most courses are happy for you to take a gap year – but they will want to know, briefly, how you plan to spend it.
It can be difficult to get started with your personal statement, but don’t panic. Start with your strengths, focus on your enthusiasm for the course and talk positively about yourself.
10. Keep it positive
Try our personal statement builder to get your ideas down on paper, and take it from there.
Meanwhile, our light-hearted video below might help relax some of those nerves…
Watch now: Which? staff read their old personal statements
Personal statement dos and don’ts: summary
- Do tailor it to your subject, showing your understanding and interest so far (and even what you want to learn more about).
- Don’t make a long list of things you’ve done/read/watched without explaining how these developed this understanding.
- Do research what skills and qualities the courses you’re applying to, demand and show how you already have these.
- Don’t mention irrelevant or general hobbies; you want to stand out but not in the wrong way.
- Do mention any career or post-uni paths you’re considering; but on the other hand, if you prefer to keep your future options open, then it’s OK to leave this out.
- Don’t leave your statement to the last minute; give yourself time to draft and re-draft, plus share with others for feedback.
Read about more personal statement must-haves to help your chances of impressing an admissions tutor. Alternatively, you might want to consider what shouldn’t go into your personal statement.