UCAS Personal Statements:
Why They Matter
Applying to top universities is a dizzying experience. These universities ask a lot of their applicants, so it can be difficult to understand all that they are asking for and to know how to get it right. This is no different for the Personal Statement, and in fact, it can be one of the hardest parts of the application to perfect.
Personal statements are a key part of university applications. They are an applicant’s chance to express their interest in their chosen course of study, and to profile their relevant knowledge and skills. They are required by all applicants applying to UK undergraduate-level degree, and applicants must use the same, single statement across all their university choices.
Personal statements are the perfect opportunity to stand out in a pool of applicants who also are applying with top grades. They provide an admission tutor their first insight into who lies behind the numerical data they receive about an applicant: All of a sudden, great grades, school statistics and test scores constellate around a picture of a unique individual, the kind of individual they would like to invite for an interview. So even for courses like Mathematics or Physics, which do not demand much work written in full prose, the personal statement can still make a real difference to an application.
Here is a breakdown of the different components of the statement, and some of our expert insight into what an admissions tutor is looking for in each part of these statements.
Introductions are difficult. Not only it is difficult to get started, but it is also difficult to know what kind of tone and content to bring into the introduction. Are the introductions meant to be academic, getting straight into analysis or explanation of a given topic? Are they meant to be inspirational, beginning with a moving story related to why an applicant is applying for a particular subject?
A great introduction will emphasise an applicant’s passion at the same time as grounding it in light discussion or example. For instance, rather than just saying, ‘I am interested in the way in which smaller phenomena contribute to large, historical trends and that is why I want to study History,’ you could write something like this:
Whilst the movement out of a feudal system can be understood from the angle of broader cultural and economic developments in the medieval world, we cannot lose sight of the significance of individuals and local movements who inspired and sparked change. I have been reading about the ‘Great Rumour’, a protest movement that was active across Hampshire, Surrey and Wiltshire in the 14th Century, and developing a more textured, particular picture of how peasant revolts like the Great Rumour operated only strengthens my desire to study History, for the way that it invites to understand how the large is contingent upon the small.
Here the key idea – that History is interesting because it gives us an appreciation of how macro-level patterns depend on the movements of micro-level players – is not only given a context that allows its full meaning to come through. It is also cast in a more authentic light, because it is grounded in an example that goes beyond the scope of any A-Level syllabus.
The paragraphs which compose the main body of the statements are the beating heart of the personal statement. A great main body paragraph will speak to a particular research theme, interest, or skill set. The hope is to showcase one’s abilities and understanding, but in a well-integrated fashion that shows an ability to organise content relative to a particular topic or question.
A poorly integrated paragraph will not speak to any understanding the applicant possesses, but rather will give the impression that the applicant’s interests and concerns are a chaotic mix of thoughts and ideas that they are not able to organise and piece together. But a well-integrated fashion will showcase understanding:
I also have a strong interest in applied mathematics, in particular probability theory and statistics. This was sparked in part by Hannah Fry’s Mathematics of Love, where she applied the Optimal Stopping Theorem in the world of dating. I want to gain a deeper understanding of statistical theory to understand why this works, and in what contexts an application of this theorem would be misplaced. Because a good understanding of probability theory serves as a solid foundation for grasping statistics. I have done some reading on the Kolmogorov axiomatisation of probability theory, I have found it useful to think in this rigorous manner to work through any misconceptions about probability I have.
A poorly integrated paragraph, although it will ooze with excitement, does not have the virtues of a well-integrated paragraph:
I am curious about a deeper understanding of magnetism works. But I am interested in ‘fields’ in general and how to model them. There are electric fields, magnetic fields and gravitational fields too. In quantum physics, there are quantum fields too. I am interested in quantum physics too and quantum mechanics because it uses more complex and unique mathematics than classical mechanics does. I have really enjoyed learning about linear algebra in my Further Pure modules and want to see their applications in Quantum Mechanics, so I worked my way through Leonard Susskind’s Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum.
It is important to learn how to manage one’s excitement and organise the academic content of a statement to produce balanced, impactful paragraphs.
Like a closing speech in a court of law, the conclusion of the personal statement is an applicant’s final chance to state their case – that is, why a university should take them – in a pithy manner, supported by the force of the main-body paragraphs.
It is therefore important to be assertive in tone, for example though a strong use of ‘I am’:
I am a peer supporter at my school, which means I dedicate my free periods to running an open clinic where students with study-related concerns can come and voice their concerns and troubleshoot their problems in the presence of an understanding ear. I am a positive influence on my peers, and I would be bringing to study of anthropology and archaeology not only passion and ability but a collegiate spirit. It is to these ends that I am confident a place on your course of study would not only allow me to bring out the best in myself but bring out the best in the young archaeologists and anthropologists I work with.
Confidence is a magnetic quality, and the best way of convincing a tutor that you would be a contribution to their academic context is to believe it!
As is the case with many things, getting started is 50% of the battle. The difficulty with personal statements is that they are a unique form, quite unlike any other kind of writing applicants will have encountered before, and so it is natural for applicants to feel out of their depths with starting the statement. Here are some tips for getting started:
Whilst some people work well against a deadline, a calm mind is often more inspired than a stressed one. Applicants who start early can play with ideas and questions that interest them some months before the deadline, reading around their subject to help develop their inchoate ideas. By the time they are asked to write their first draft, their mind will already be percolating with ideas.
Start with a Cliché
It is perfectly okay to start with a cliché. For instance, ‘The moment I knew I wanted to study […]’, whilst platitudinous, is a great prompt for just getting some words on to the page. Once the words start flowing and so will the ideas, and once inspiration hits, go back and cut the cliché. No one will ever know it was there!
Start in the Wrong Order
Start with the main body paragraphs before starting with the introduction. Crafting well-integrated, balanced paragraphs on different areas in an subject not only forces applicants to reflect on their interest, thinking about what aspects of their topic are most salient to them, but leaves them in a better position to see what ties all the pieces together.
Here at Oxford and Cambridge Tutors, we understand that the Personal Statement is a long-term project. We have designed a 4-hour package which guides and supports students through the process, helping them put the best of themselves on the page.
The program starts with an initial one-hour consultation a Personal Statement expert where students formulate an initial vision for their statement and a concrete plan for going forward.
A subject-specific tutor then works with the student to ensure these interests are as technically represented as they need be and are rich with academic detail. Students are directed to key readings and resources for academic extension.
The package also comes with a copy of our Personal Statement guide, packed with all that an applicant could need to feel directed through the process and have a clear sense of what a stellar Personal Statement looks like.
The sessions conclude in late September/early October with a further hour with the personal statement expert and a further hour with the subject-specific tutor to make sure that everything is in place for sending out a mature, impactful statement.