Personal statements & applying to uni

Personal statements: make your experience count

By Rebecca Hughes (Digital content producer, Which? University) - 17 June 2013

Source: Pearson College

You don’t need to have tonnes of work experience to sell yourself to university admissions tutors. Whatever your experience, here’s how to make the most of it.

According to a report by education charity the Sutton Trust - which analysed more than 300 personal statements - there's lots of variation in the types of work experience applicants list in their personal statement. It highlighted that pupils from independent schools are more likely to have placement opportunities in prestigious companies than those from state schools.

But even if your stint as a volunteer or your Saturday job doesn't sound as glamorous as a high-flying internship with a big company, it's important to make whatever level of work experience you have really count, highlighting how skills you've developed through your experience are relevant to the course you're applying to.

We've used some real-life examples from the Sutton Trust's report to help illustrate our tips...

The 'dream' work experience gig

'I've worked for a designer in London, as a model… On the trading floor of a London broker’s firm… With my local BBC radio station… Events planning with a corporate five-star country hotel… In the marketing team of a leading City law firm… Most recently managing a small gastro pub.' 

Even an impressive list of work experience placements isn’t an asset to your personal statement unless you reflect on what it was you did, what you learnt from it and how it’s relevant to the course you're applying to - name-dropping alone won't impress an admissions tutor.
  • Don’t just list everything you did – random lists are a pet hate of admissions tutors. Instead, pull out a particular activity that’s relevant and demonstrates your skills and qualities.
  • Stay focused - impress admissions tutors by using your work experience example to answer the all-important question 'why should we give you a place on this course?'

The 'back to reality' experience

'I have two part-time jobs in the hotel and catering industry.' 

'Last year I worked in Aldi and in a local bakery, which gave me experience of dealing with a variety of customers' demands.'

It's far more likely that you will have had a part-time job in a shop than in a top company, but that doesn't mean you can't demonstrate your potential to admissions tutors. 
  • Be specific - describe a situation you've dealt with. What was it you did to handle the situation? What did you learn? Which skills have you developed as a result?
  • Keep it relevant to the course - think about the skills you've acquired that will be useful to your degree work. If you've developed strong communication skills as a result of interacting with customers, then mention how you would put them to good use when presenting your ideas in seminars or arguing persuasively in essays. 

Extra-curricular stuff counts - but keep it relevant

'I try to follow Manchester United Football Club as much as I possibly can as I have a keen interest in football. I regularly watch Match of the Day and I enjoy the diversity of the Champions League.'

'My main interests include spending time with friends, watching films, going to the gym, reading up on the latest fashion and attending gigs. I attend a lot of gigs and the experience and thrill of the atmosphere puts me on a complete high.'

Talking about other interests or hobbies helps inject some personality into your statement - but before it goes in, ask yourself 'so what?'. Less can be more - only include it if it's relevant.


Polishing up your personal statement

Now you've got the work experience part of your personal statement covered, make sure the rest of your application is just as impressive. The Sutton Trust found clear spelling and writing errors were three times more likely to occur in statements from students in sixth form colleges than independent schools.

Whatever school or college you go to, some final checks can help to ensure you're getting the basics right.
  • Proof read! Spelling and grammar errors could make even the most glowing statement look sloppy. Get a fresh pair of eyes to look over your statement before you hit submit; if a teacher isn't around, ask parents, siblings, friends, a neighbour - they might notice something you've missed after so many drafts.
  • Don't limit selling yourself to work experience - remember to sell your academic strengths too.
  • Go for a balanced tone of voice: not too casual, but avoiding stilted and stiff vocabulary.
  • Imagine you're the admissions tutor - would you want this person in your seminar group? 
For more top tips, take a look at this guide to writing your personal statement

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