Personal statements

Personal statement checklist #2 How to get writing

By Alan Bullock (Careers Adviser) - 17 June 2013

Source: Cardiff University

This is the tough part - turning your ideas, achievements and ambitions into a succinct, flowing personal statement that will help to sell yourself to a university admissions tutor. Here are five top tips to get you writing.

If you can’t think of anything to include in your personal statement yet, see part one of our personal statement guide  for some ideas on how to get started. You might also want to see what admissions tutors have to say about making your statement stand out.  

1. Get it down on paper

Use course information on university websites, the UCAS website (or take a look through and compare course pages on Which? University) to start focusing on the specific criteria courses or professions are looking for. Your suitability to the course should form the backbone of your personal statement, so start gathering material from your personal experience that relates to those criteria.

Get it down on paper any way you can. Try using mind-maps or spider diagrams. Alternatively go for bullet point notes, or scribble things down in a long stream of consciousness, which you can cut back to the 47 line / 4,000 character limit later on.

For a few pointers on what admissions tutors are looking for see our 10 things to put into your personal statement guide.

2. Gather your evidence

Think about your studies, wider reading, extra-curricular interests, achievements or experience that you want to put into your personal statement.

If you're applying to a degree course that’s training you for a specific profession (such as social work, speech therapy, primary teaching or dentistry), it’s important to demonstrate your commitment to a career in your chosen field and your understanding of what it involves, by giving an insight into what you’ve learned from your work experience, volunteering or any other research you’ve done. 

Other courses will expect you to have done some in-depth research into the subject and be able to talk about what you think and not just what you’ve done. Strike a sensible balance between your academic interests and your extra-curricular ones - a 2:1 ratio, 75/25 or 80/20 are generally perceived to be about right.

3. Turn your evidence into specific examples

Don’t just say what you did. Reflect critically on your experience, achievements or knowledge. So:

  • how did you develop the customer care skills that made you employee of the month?
  • how has basketball improved your teamwork, leadership or communication skills?     
  • how did you get Richard, who has dementia, to tell you about his life?
  • what is it that you admire about Cervantes’ novels or Katherine Dunham’s choreography?

Remember ABC:

Action = Explaining what have you done, achieved, read or experienced

Benefit = Reflecting on what have you learned or gained from it, or what you think about it

Course relevance = Making sure you convey why this makes you a good applicant for your chosen course (you don’t necessarily have to spell this out after each point – tutors can read between the lines).

4. Follow these dos and don’ts

Take a look at our guides to what to put into your personal statement and what not to put in, then select the content that will make the final cut. Follow these rules of thumb:

  • Don’t try and cram it all in – less is more
  • Don’t feel you have to stick to a formula
  • Don’t include anything already on the UCAS form, like what subjects you’re studying or what school or college you attend 
  • Don’t be afraid to mention how you have overcome a disability
  • Don’t keep using exclamation marks!
  • Don’t talk about the work experience you’re going to do next month – if possible, wait until you’ve done it
  • Don’t mention a university by name or you will upset the other four (unless you’re only applying to one)
  • Do break up the text by using paragraphs if possible
  • Do try to avoid using ‘I’ at the start of each sentence
  • Do mention your gap year plans if applying for deferred entry
  • Do try to be interesting and avoid stilted vocabulary and clichés
  • Do pay attention to spelling and grammar and avoid txtspk
  • Do ask your referee if they can include in their reference anything you don’t have room for in your statement
  • Do choose a strong opening
  • Do finish on a positive note 

5. Imagine you’re the admissions tutor

Read it back to yourself out loud – and get parents, friends and siblings to take a look through, too. Ask these questions:

  • Would you want a conversation with this person?
  • Would you want this person in your seminar group?
  • Would this person be able to defend and elaborate on what they’ve said if they’re invited to an interview?  
  • Does this person’s voice sound like yours?

Hopefully, you’ve got four yeses!