Personal statements

Personal statement checklist #1 How to get started

By Alan Bullock (Careers Adviser) - 17 June 2013

Man sat reading a book in a library

When it comes to your personal statement, one of trickiest things is knowing where to start. Help is at hand. Here are some key tips on how to start pulling what you need together before you start writing.

1. Decide what you want to study

A personal statement will be impossible to write until you know what you want to study, because it needs to focus around your chosen courses.

However, while doing your research and making your decisions (you can start comparing courses and options right here on Which? University), be mindful of your statement right from the start. Read everything you can about the course itself, including details of the modules and what sort of thing you’ll be learning – it’ll help you to work out if it’s the right type of course for you and get you thinking about how your experience fits in what that path.

If you leave that thinking until the end, you might then discover that you are not as well-suited to it as you first thought.

2. Select your five choices (or up to five)

In most cases it’s best to make full use of all five UCAS choices. But if there is only one course that interests you and only one university you wish to attend, then it does mean you can focus your statement totally on that one choice.

3. If your five choices are the same course or similar…

If you’re applying for five criminology courses or five civil engineering courses, it will make writing your personal statement much easier as you can tailor everything you put in there to your course choice.

4. If you have chosen a mixture of courses…

If you’ve chosen three degree courses in computer science and two in computer games technology, then things become more complicated. In this case you will need to compose or blend your statement very carefully so that all five admissions tutors will feel it is relevant to his or her specific course. Always picture the person reading the statement at the other end – will it make sense to them, bearing in mind they won’t be able to see where else you’ve applied?

If you’re thinking of applying for totally different courses, like three degree courses in law and two in maths, then you should seek advice. It might just be possible to write a very clever statement that somehow engages with the skills and qualities required in both subject areas, but this is a risky strategy. If in doubt, consult an adviser or the universities themselves.

5. Top tips for medics, dentists and vets

If you are applying for medicine, dentistry or veterinary medicine, for each of which you can only apply to a maximum of four courses, it leaves a fifth choice free for a different course. In this case, keep the personal statement centred on the main courses you really want.

But you should spend time researching your fifth option carefully, too, in case you don’t get any offers. While some ‘fifth choice’ courses will happily consider you even though your statement needs to be totally focused on your main choice, others will show no mercy and will reject you.

Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules about this. Some courses within the biomedical sciences will be well versed in positively considering fifth choice applications and might be especially impressed if they can detect a subtle reference to some relevant interests within your statement. Various other scientific courses may take a similar view. Some courses may also consider you if you send a separate statement directly to them.

Most professional courses, from nursing to physiotherapy, will expect total commitment to their own profession and a flat rejection is probably on the cards if you put them as a fifth choice. Professional science-based courses like pharmacy might be prepared to consider you - but this totally depends on the admissions tutor concerned.

In all of these cases, don’t make assumptions. Do your research, check it out or seek advice.

6. If some or all your choices are joint or combined courses

If you are applying for joint honours or a combined degree - such as psychology and marketing - it’s important to engage with both subjects in your statement. In this particular case, the two subjects also have some quite strong connections with each other, so it will be even more effective if you draw some links between them.

If some of your choices are single honours and others are joint or combined, or if they are all joint but some of the combinations are different, then once again it’s more about blending your statement in a way that will appeal to everyone who reads it.

As head of admissions at Bournemouth University, Karen Pichlmann, says: “be thoughtful of the reader.”