Four ideas for your personal statement

Whilst the UK and even education seems to have had the pause button hit again, students applying to the top universities in the UK have just ten days to complete their personal statement – here is our Director of University Admissions’ top tips on how to write those trickiest of 4,000 characters:

The Personal Statement is the key part of the UK university application process. I’m not suggesting that grades aren’t important. Grades allow the student to be part of the conversation but it is the personal statement that will differentiate them. 

Four Ideas for the Personal Statement

I write the four ideas rather than paragraphs because I don’t want to be too prescriptive with the way in which the student expresses oneself – after all it is a personal statement. But students must remember how this particular essay is personal. It is not in the sense that the university wants to hear all about the student but rather about the student’s personal relationship or journey with the subject to which they are applying.

1. Where does the interest come from/what was the spark?

This is usually the idea that students find most difficult to define. The advice here is that students do not have to attempt to make this more profound than it is. It could be that they’ve only determined what they were most interested in through their reading over the last 6 months – so they should describe that progress. It might simply be that it’s the subject that has captivated them most since their GCSEs. It might have been a cool science experiment in Y8, reading an article about Steve Jobs or seeing Dippy the Dinosaur at the Natural History museum. The reader wants to understand what prompted the student to be interested in exploring this particular discipline. 

2. How have they demonstrated that interest?

Primarily this will be demonstrated through the student’s reading. We want the student to refer to specific texts and ideas and then to engage with those ideas critically. What is it that they have to say about the idea developed by the author? What theories have they read that counter the idea? Where do they come down on the issue and what and how did they then further investigate?

3. Demonstrate current understanding of the subject and something that they want to explore further

Students should highlight something specific in one of their current courses or current reading that they want to understand more about it. They can then use this or a related area that is a more unique part of the subject to perhaps grab the attention of a particular university. For example, if the LSE focuses on a certain field that KCL is not so well renowned for and the student expresses that they have a desire to learn more about this topic, that could serve to pique the interest of one university over another. 

4. Extracurriculars

The personal statement and the application to apply to the UK’s most elite institutions is overwhelmingly an academic endeavour – as is the experience of studying at one of these famous institutions. Therefore the personal statement should mirror this. 

IF a student elects to write about an extracurricular interest, it would be advisable that this is kept to just a few lines and that it is closely related to the student’s chosen discipline or that it is, in some way, demonstrative of their academic prowess. The activity or experience would have to be quite compelling if it was not directly connected with the student’s desired field of study. 

A word on style

Precise language and concise expression should be the applicant’s goal. Students should be clear that they know the meaning of each word used in their personal statement and that each sentence communicates exactly the intended message. Students should also aim to be as economical with their use of language as possible. It will lead to a clearer and more impactful personal statement. 

A final note…

It is not easy to determine to which university course a student wants to commit. Ultimately, they will begin to understand that they are not bound by this decision for evermore; that their career, and their life, is unlikely to be linear and that this should be embraced. There are many routes that they can travel on this journey that may or may not lead to what they think is the the next staging post or destination. Therefore, they should reflect on things that have importance to them now and that hold their interest. Then, engage in as much reading as possible about them as an acid test for whether that subject will be a compelling start to their academic and lifelong journey of discovery. 

Good luck and best wishes for a year in which we can all express ourselves a little more.

by James Higgins, Bonas MacFarlane, Director of University Admissions