— Helyn Gould
Across the globe, competition to get into universities is fierce. Even when applicants meet entry requirements, limited numbers of places can still mean those who make the grade are unsuccessful. Faced with applications of equal academic quality, university selectors turn to applicants’ personal statements to help them decide how to allocate places.
The first thing to remember is you have a limited character limit. For example, applications to undergraduate degrees at UK universities are made through the Universities and College Admissions Service (UCAS) and must be no more than 4,000 characters long. For postgraduate students, who make applications directly to universities, statements will have varying word limits, so you should check this in advance.
You should think of the personal statement as the cover letter to your application – which is akin to your CV with your academic credentials on it – so don’t repeat what’s already in that. You can also include any work experience within the employment section of the application, even if it was unpaid.
Your personal statement should be written in your natural voice and explain:
— Why you want to apply for that discipline of study
— Any relevant work experience
— What your career aspirations are and how you hope to apply the skills you learn
— Your interests and activities outside school/college/work
— Most importantly, how your skills and experience link to your study choice
Learn university’s/country’s culture: Your statement needs to convey your interest, motivation and enthusiasm for your chosen discipline and the personal qualities that would make you a good student. Learning a little about the culture and the values of the institutions you are applying to will give you insight into what they are looking for too.
Work experience: Before you put pen to paper – think about what initially sparked your interest in this subject, how has your interest and understanding evolved? Effectively explaining your motivation for a particular subject is important. Selectors want to understand what sparked your interest and what you have done to develop it. Explain the journey you have been on — any clubs at school, work experience, any online courses — making it specific to that discipline, and any specialism within it. What excites you about it?
By showing you are actively pursuing your interest, you are demonstrating that you can make the leap from school, where your education follows a set curriculum, to university where your learning is much more self-directed. Evidencing examples of how you’ve put this passion into practice are very helpful — so you should definitely highlight relevant work experience, volunteering or hobbies that have allowed you to gain knowledge and experience of your subject outside the classroom.
If you have a part-time job, think about how this applies to your chosen field of study and what you’ve learnt from it, rather than simply stating it as a fact. While it is helpful to give an indication of what your future aspirations in the subject are, don’t feel you need to have an exact career path plotted out. It’s more about showing an understanding of the pathways involved.
Highlight your initiative: Applicants often feel they need to demonstrate leadership skills – but at undergraduate level this isn’t something selectors are particularly expecting to see. Instead highlight your initiative, focus and creativity. It is better to demonstrate your collaborations skills – how you listen, negotiate, influence and inspire others as part of a team.
Value add: Also, don’t just think about explaining why you’re perfect for a particular programme of study – think about other qualities or skills you’d bring to the university community, beyond the academic.
This could be interests and skills in sports, volunteering, and democracy (for example acting as a class representative). There’s more to a degree than simply getting a qualification – it’s about personal development in that period in your life and the opportunities that come with it. Successful students not only achieve academically but are also involved and active within their university community.
Take feedback: Always ask someone to read over what you’ve written – to get their feedback and also to check for spelling and grammatical errors. You want to aim to write it well, but don’t obsess about the language too much. What selectors want to see is enthusiasm and understanding, rather than a perfect piece of prose – unless you’re apply for an English Literature course,
Finally, remember to be authentic. Don’t try to fit a stereotype or pretend to be someone you’re not. I’d even advise against trying to align you statement with other people’s personal statements. Instead, just be yourself.
(The writer is Deputy Associate Principal at University of Strathclyde, Glasgow)