Expert Insights

Putting the ‘personal’ back into personal statements

Published 28th June 2019

Putting the ‘personal’ back into personal statements

With Year 12 students starting to think about their autumnal applications for university entry in 2020 (the UCAS deadline is 15 January 2020, or 15 October 2019 for students applying for Oxbridge or Medicine), here are three tips for writing engaging personal statements.

I commonly get asked a version of the following question when advising students on their personal statements: “Should I mention book X in my personal statement, even though I haven’t read it yet?”

I understand the mentality behind this question. There is huge pressure to stand out. You want to appear well-read in your subject, and show that you have gone beyond the school curriculum.

But it misses the point. The personal statement should be just that: personal. Rather than reflect an idealised reading list and the perceived expectations of admissions tutors, the personal statement should evoke the academic journey that led you to this point. It is curiosity and originality of thought that universities are looking for, not conformity.

Here are three suggestions for producing a more individual statement:

1. Describe your “Herculaneum” moment

The moment I knew that I wanted to study Ancient History at university was when I visited Herculaneum on a school trip. The ruins of the Roman town are buried in the ash of Vesuvius, immediately beneath Ercolano in Italy, built physically on top of the town. For me, there could have been no more powerful visual metaphor for the relationship between the present and the past, the latter always just below the surface.

You will likely have had a similar moment of realisation that led you to your chosen subject. It might be somewhere you visited, a conversation you had, a book you read, an experiment you conducted. Bring this moment to life and illustrate how university will represent the next step in a lifelong journey of learning.

2. Show that you aren’t afraid to ask questions

Curiosity is one of the qualities that most excites admissions tutors. Rather than pretend that you already have all the answers, use your personal statement to highlight all the questions and issues you want to investigate and explore in your degree.

Perhaps you are fascinated by the psychology of crowds, and why people behave the way they do in groups. Maybe you want to unlock the mysteries of Taoist philosophy, an opportunity that school will hardly give you. Whatever it is, let the admissions team know!

3. Keep it genuine

My answer to the question I referred to at the start of this blog should hopefully be obvious. No, don’t mention a book if you haven’t read it! Remember that the most important thing in the personal statement is to reflect you.

The reality of your academic passion will almost certainly be more intriguing and appealing than trying to conform to expectations. On top of this, admissions tutors can see through attempts to play to the gallery.

So, if in doubt, just remember to keep it personal.

If you feel that you or your child need assistance with bringing out the best of this personal touch, our University Consultants, Oya Christie-Miller (for US applications) & Sarah McWatters (for UK applications) will be delighted to help you.

Please do email to request a convenient time for us to get in touch with more information.

"I was going to write to you in any event to say that Sarah has been brilliant. She has provided an outstanding service, of the highest standard and advice that has been invaluable. She has been available at all hours and always provided rapid and helpful responses. Furthermore, she was able to almost miraculously to step in and resolve a last-minute crisis just before the deadline for filing T's form – only because she is so conscientious and reads her emails at all times, and has enormous experience. We have all ben immensely impressed and are very, very grateful. We feel we owe her a deep debt of gratitude."
Mrs. S

Oya Christie-Miller
Universities Consultant
(for US applications)

Sarah McWatters

Universities Consultant
(for UK applications)