5 questions you need to ask when writing your personal statement

You have shortlisted the college or university courses you are interested in and have filled in your personal details and education and employment history. You have picked out your academic referees and gotten them to agree to write you references. But there is one thing left you have to deal with before submitting your college or university applications: the dreaded personal statement. 

It is the section on every college or university application that gets a collective ‘ugh’ from students universally. One might think it is because personal statements are in essence difficult to write, but the truth is it is not. A lot of the stress and hassle from writing personal statements come not as a result of the challenge or difficulty of writing an essay about yourself, but as a result of not knowing what to write in 4,000 words effectively. Knowing how exactly to go about doing that will not only take a significant load of your chest, but will also guarantee that your application will stand out more strongly amongst others.

So what do I do first?

It is useful to list out what exactly the college or university is looking for in a personal statement. Personal statements for UCAS applications generally do not have specific requirements, but if you are applying directly to an institution, you may or may not be expected to include specific details about your abilities, interests, and academic experience, along with a specific word count or page limit. In general, institutions will be looking out for your reasons for study and how the particular school or course you have chosen can help you achieve your personal goals, so make sure whatever information you include about yourself and your experiences relates back to why you have chosen that specific course and school. 

There is no right or wrong answer- most institutions are not looking for natural stars or prodigies; they just want to know how interested you are in the subject, whether you have a basic understanding of the subject you are signing up for, and whether you have the potential and drive to take this subject on at a tertiary level.

How do I know if what I am writing about meets what the institution is looking for?

If the institution has provided an outline or pointers you need to include in your personal statement, make sure you address them and do not go off-topic. Always stick the point and relate whatever you write back to your interest in the course. If there are no specific pointers you need to address, a good way to start off would be to share how you have come to develop your interest in the course or institution. Go on to explain what you have done in school or outside of school to gain knowledge on the subject. Share any academic and non-academic achievements you have gained in the subject so far, and then go on to highlight what you hope to learn about the subject in the long-run and how the course and institution you have chosen can help you achieve that. 

Do not ramble and make sure your writing maintains a throughline that maintains focus on your interest in continuing academic studies in the subject. Select any examples you want to include wisely and make sure every sentence you write goes towards supporting your application. Do not write vague, generalized statements that serve no purpose, and avoid using stock or cliché phrases that do little in telling the institution why you are fit for the course.

Can I use a template or reuse personal statements I used for applying to other courses?

To get straight to the point: no. One thing you need to always keep in mind when moving into the world of academia is that lifting or finding ‘inspiration’ from anything you Google-d online classifies as plagiarism. Universities take plagiarism seriously, with students getting marked down for plagiarized work, or in the worst-case scenario, facing expulsion from the university. Some universities put personal statements through computer programs that can detect similarities in phrases or sentences, so to be on the safe side, do not borrow templates from the internet or reuse personal statements. Customize your personal statements to each course or institution you are applying to, even if the courses are similar in subject. Writing a unique statement will not only make you stand out from the typical ‘template’ personal statements most students stand in, but showcase that you have put in effort into your application.

What can I include to make my application catch the university’s attention?

What are your unique selling points? What kind of experiences or achievements have you had – whether inside or outside of the school curriculum – that others do not have? And how does this relate back to your interest in this course and institution? Asking yourself questions like this will allow you to reconsider the content you include – or not include – in your personal statement to make it unique and unlike the rest. 

Regardless of whether your experiences in the subject are large-scale or small-scale, what matters the most is not how much you have achieved but what you have learnt from it and what you are going to do with it in university. Showcasing a clear understanding and maturity in your learning experiences will score you plus points and even put you ahead of other applicants who merely list their experiences without reflecting on them.

How do I know my personal statement is ready for submission?

Do not simply submit whatever first draft you have at hand. Run them by your peers and even your referees to make sure you have included whatever information you need to support your application effectively. Take any feedback into consideration and keep rewriting your personal statement until you reach one that is polished and structured and reflects the quality of writing a potential university student would write. Make sure the final draft is free of grammatical errors as even the smallest typos can set you back, especially if you are applying for a language course like English Literature. 

The process of writing a good personal statement takes time, so factor this into account before you decide to procrastinate submitting your UCAS applications. Admit it, it is quite tempting to, but getting to work on it and getting it over and done with as soon as possible will make the entire process a lot less painful.

Post by Faezah Zulkifli 

Faezah is a theatre artist and writer born in Singapore. She graduated with a BA in English and is currently based in London as an MA student at the Central School of Speech and Drama.