1. Boring opening paragraph
Pity the poor admissions tutor sitting at a desk groaning under the weight of UCAS forms. Every year they have the task of reading (and rating) hundreds of personal statements. How many of these begin with “I am looking forward to studying xyz at university because…” or “Since I was in primary school I’ve always wanted to be an xyz…” We always say about interviews that first impressions count and it is no different with personal statements.
There is a tricky balance to be struck here between being uber-whacky and ultra-conservative. Humour, for example, is likely to fall flat unless it is particularly clever and subtle. But you don’t want to risk being so safe that your statement lacks impact, leaving the admissions tutor to merely skim through the rest of the document. You need to give them a reason to read on with a sense of expectation.
The aim is to make a positive impact in your opening paragraph so that the reader sits up and takes notice without thinking “Uh-oh, here we go with another screw-ball!” There is no formula for this. Whether you decide to make your opening gambit passionate, informative, original or humorous is your judgment call but do try to make it personal to you, authentic and eye-catching.
2. Overly brief Statement
UCAS has given you 47 lines (or 4,000 characters) for a reason – they expect you to use them. If not all of them, then the vast majority. If you cannot do this then you need to go back to the drawing board as you have clearly not devoted sufficient time to thinking the whole thing through and hence are not going into the detail that will be expected of you.
There are always students who think that academic standards alone are going to be enough to get you onto the course of your choice. This is simply not true. Even with an A2 prediction of 4 A*s, a 5 line personal statement will never be enough. And nor will 25, or even 35 lines. 45, however, and you’re in with a good chance.
If you are really struggling with the length of your personal statement then get it reviewed by a careers adviser or teacher. they should be able to spot areas that you have either missed out completely or that you need to expand upon. In fact, it is always a good idea to get your statement checked out by someone in the know!
3. Unnatural, verbose language
Lots of flowery, high-faluting language is not going to impress. It will be very obvious to the reader of your statement that this isn’t how you normally communicate. Keep it clear and concise. That will make it much easier (and more enjoyable) for the admissions tutor to read.
And avoid plagiarism like the plague! It is crucial that every applicant understands that their personal statement will be scrutinised by anti-plagiarism software and if it finds a suspicious number of similarities with other personal statements (either submitted in the past or current on the internet) this will be flagged up and, in a worst case scenario, your application will be rejected because of it. The software used by universities really is very clever. ‘Borrowing’ a sentence and using your thesaurus to change 2 or 3 or the words in it will get picked up. So while you may want to read examples of other people’s statements to spark ideas make sure that you approach your own from a clean slate. That way, the words that you write will truly be your own.
4. Poor spelling and grammar
Think back to that admissions tutor weighed down with a massive pile of forms. If he or she has many more applications than places to offer, then at the front of their mind will be looking for reasons to reject applicants not reasons to make an offer. The easiest, most straightforward way of doing this is to eliminate the candidates with unacceptable levels of spelling and grammatical errors. Even if the statement has good content it is going to scream out “this is a careless and rushed attempt”. What does that say about your likely approach to work at university? Do not rely on spell-checking alone. This is not fool-proof. read your finished statement through with a fine-toothed comb before asking two other people to do the same. Be aware that spell checkers have a habit of using American spellings when making corrections!
5. Lack of structure
In the academic world structured writing is important. The great majority of degrees are going to involve some essay writing and you should realise that your personal statement is likely to be viewed partly as a demonstration of how you are able to put together a well-structured piece of writing. It needs to have a natural flow with a proper start, middle and end.
That is not to say that you must adhere to a strict order or structure but rather that you spend sufficient time planning and drafting your statement in the same way you would if you were writing an essay. aim to present your statement in its optimum order so that it creates the most impact and is easy for the admissions tutor to read and follow. Remember that they don’t have the background knowledge about you that you have, so you may need to spell things out a little more clearly than you might at first think, particularly with regard to the sequence of events.
Many students don’t realise that their statements should have a clear ending. In the same way that an essay ends with a conclusion. Don’t just leave it hanging in mid-air. We talk a lot about first impressions, but last impressions also count. You don’t necessarily need a whole paragraph here – perhaps just a few sentences reiterating what going to university means to you and what you are hoping to gain from the experience.
When it comes to layout it is tempting to make the most of all 47 available lines of the personal statement by limiting the number of paragraphs used but the trouble with this is that it will be difficult for the admissions tutor to read. A statement broken up into bite-sized chunks will always be more appealing to them so you need to strike a balance between breaking it up into enough paragraphs and not wasting loads of space with empty lines.
6. Re-listing information already provided
This is a tell-tale sign that the applicant doesn’t have enough interesting things to say – usually because they have not put sufficient thought into planning their statement.
Information such as your name, your school and where you live is simply not needed, unless it happens to be particularly relevant to the ‘story’ you are telling. This is not to say that you must never repeat information given on other parts of the form. Take for example giving information about the skills you developed during your A level course. “Studying History at A level strengthened my interest in the role of historians as shapers of national mythology as well as broadening my interest in other European cultures….” is fine. What isn’t fine is a simple list like: “I studied AS levels in History, Geography, English Literature and Spanish.” Or “My part time work has included roles at Sainsburys and a local bike shop”. And don’t even think about taking up a whole paragraph listing your GCSE subjects and grades!
Furthermore, don’t fall into the trap of listing the topics or modules covered by the course you are applying for. Far from making it look like you have researched the course well, it will look as though you copied it straight from the website because you couldn’t think of anything else to say.
7. Lack of academic focus
Detailing your hobbies, interests, extra-curricular activities and achievements will help to create a rounded picture of you and help to make your personal statement more memorable, but it will never be more important than your academic suitability. You should aim to devote no less than 70% of your statement to your academic abilities and interests, including information on any directly relevant work experience.
Here are some possibilities:
- What interests you about the course? Do some research on this. Look beyond just the titles of the courses you are applying to and gain inspiration from the individual modules covered, bearing in mind that these may vary greatly from one course to the next and you may need to identify common themes. Are there areas of special interest that you could highlight?
- The broader context of the course you are applying to. What is its relevance to society? Why is it important that it is studied? What are the topical issues relating to the subject that particular interest you and that are newsworthy at the moment? This is where reading journals and periodicals comes into its own. Show that you have an understanding of the subject that goes deeper than just the purely academic.
- What you have learnt from your current studies and how this has shaped you as a student. This may include both specific areas of knowledge (particularly if it is relevant to the course you are going on to study) or broader skills developed such as research and analytical skills, team working, presentation skills etc. You may wish to pick out specific examples – talking about an assignment that you found particularly interesting and what you learnt from it. Similarly, you may want to talk about any workshops, professional seminars, visits etc that particularly motivated you.
- What your career aims are (assuming you have some) and any directly relevant vocational experience that you have gained. This may include work experience, internships, and prior or current employment. Make sure you are writing not just about what you did but, more importantly, the skills you learned and what it has taught you about yourself and the area of work that you wish to go into. Be aware that, unless you are applying for a vocational degree subject, it is not a problem if you don’t yet have any specific career ideas – there is plenty of time for that.
Of course it is perfectly OK to include information about hobbies, extra-curricular interests and achievements as well. These can be what makes a statement truly unique. Just remember the 70% rule and don’t let it dominate. First and foremost this is a piece of writing about why you are suited to an academic course of study.
8. Too career focused
There is a danger that applicants for courses such as journalism, law, accountancy will treat their UCAS form as a job application. If you are applying for a course that has vocational relevance but is not vocational in the sense of being a required part of professional training then remember that admissions tutors are academics. They thrive on the theory and the teaching of their subjects. First and foremost the decision they will be making will be based upon the question “do I think this student is interested in studying xyz for the next 3 or 4 years, and do I think they will be an interesting and capable student to teach?” So focus on why you are looking forward to studying their course and the skills you think it will help you to develop. It is not really of interest to them whether you end up working in an area directly related to your degree subject. After all, the vast majority of students don’t!
Obviously if your course is a vocational one such as social work or pharmacy, then of course you will want to show that you have a good understanding of what the career involves, along with detail of work experience you have done which has allowed you to gain this insight. But you will also need to show a similar understanding of what the course entails, and a genuine interest in the learning the theory.
9. Lack of passion for the subject
When reading through the personal statement, an admissions tutor will be looking out for those who are genuinely passionate about the subject, who they believe will contribute to discussion and who are therefore interesting and rewarding to teach. “I am applying to study xyz at university because it’s been my favourite A level” just doesn’t cut it. The onus is on you to convince them why you should be selected for the course. It is not enough to show a fleeting interest from previous academic studies alone. You need to go full out to prove that your interest is deeper than this.
When they have finished reading through your statement the admissions tutor will be asking themselves “Do I really believe that the student is excited by the thought of studying this subject at university?”
So, what can you do to make your application, and your enthusiasm, really stand out? The main thing is to show an understanding of your subject beyond your current texts and modules. Get reading. Find an area of the subject that really fascinates you and do everything you can to find out more about it. Subscribe to relevant journals (most libraries will have copies if they are not available online). Read the national press paying particular attention to articles and developments relating to your subject interests. Look beyond the purely academic interest and apply your subject to society – think about why is it important that this subject is studied and what are the important issues or developments that are taking place at the moment?
If you haven’t already, start attending relevant events. There are a large number of free public events available that will do wonders for your knowledge, and your personal statement. The British Council hold a list of useful scientific events and festivals happening all over the UK. Use the internet to find out what is available near you. Lots of universities will be offering summer schools and taster days that will provide you with an excellent opportunity to broaden your knowledge and show that all-important enthusiasm when it comes to completing your UCAS applications.
If your chosen degree subject is vocational, do what you can to broaden your knowledge through work experience. This will be very much expected in certain degree disciplines like teaching, social work and medicine and highly desirable in many others. One of the important things here is that you are given an opportunity to understand the realities of the career that you are ultimately aiming for, and that you can reflect this “reality check” in your personal statement whilst continuing to show enthusiasm for working in the profession. If you are finding it difficult to secure work experience, then find out about relevant careers events, seminars and open days. Use these as a way to get information directly from current professionals.
10. Too generic
In far too many cases an admissions tutor will say to themselves after reading through a personal statement “but, I don’t feel I know anything about you. I have no sense of who you really are”. In these cases, the issue is usually that the personal statement has been just too generic. In these instances it may well follow a solid structure and contain all the elements that it should, but there is something missing. That hard to define sense of personality, enthusiasm and insight that will set your application apart from the rest.
What is a tutor to make of someone who says their interests include “reading, going to the cinema, and socialising with friends”? Do they really know any more about you having read that? Your personal statement should make you stand out from the crowd. That is why it is called a personal statement. It is up to you to decide how to go about selling yourself as a potential student. As I said earlier there is no rigid formula for writing a good personal statement. The most important thing is to be true to yourself and to write an interesting, honest and insightful statement that communicates clearly and succinctly to the tutor who you are and why they will enjoy teaching you.
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