Top Tips for UCAS Personal Statements

Our Head of Sixth Form, Steve Smith, gives some excellent advice in this blog on how to draft a really strong UCAS personal statement.

Steve Smith 2017 List

The UCAS personal statement is always the greatest hurdle when it comes to submitting UCAS applications in a timely fashion.  In four years as Head of Sixth Form I have proof-read over 300 personal statements and many more before that in previous roles as Head of Geography and as a Sixth Form Tutor. 

There are many preconceptions about what the personal statement should be and many of these are outdated or just plain wrong.  I cannot claim to know how to write the perfect personal statement, but I can at least give some starting points and hopefully clear up a few of the myths that are out there...

The course is everything

Your personal statement needs to target the course you intend to study.  This might seem obvious, but it is complicated by the fact that you can only write one personal statement and you will be using it to apply to up to five university choices.  As a result, there is no scope to target, for example, a History degree at one university and a Geography degree at another.  It would be impossible to write a personal statement that focused enough on both of these subjects.  To further complicate matters, some applicants might consider applying for a combined honours degree.  For example, ‘History and Geography’ is a degree course offered by many universities.  For a lot of applicants, finding five courses with the same or similar titles is the first hurdle to overcome before committing to writing a personal statement.

There is no set structure

But… you are limited to 4000 characters or 47 lines (whichever comes first).  There is also no need to worry about font size or formatting - all of this is taken care of on the online application.  I often get asked what the theme or purpose of each paragraph should be but the reality is that there are hundreds of ways to write the personal statement and in many ways the more creative you can be, the more that your application will stand out.  There are many very useful tools to get you started, but nowhere better than the UCAS website itself. One key fact to remember is that almost all of it should focus on your academic suitability for the course - at least 75% and upwards of 90% for the most competitive courses. 

It is not an indication of academic ability

This might sound strange, but this element of the application process is taken care of by your predicted grades and by the UCAS reference.  The personal statement is, instead, supposed to provide evidence of the students knowledge of the course and their interest and motivation for study in their chosen field. All of this is linked to two key questions that admissions tutors will be considering when reading the personal statement...

… what is the likelihood of this student successfully completing the course? 

… is this student teachable?

It is not a character reference

These days are long gone. You might spend every weekend volunteering in a care home, you read to children in the local library twice a week and perhaps you are the captain of all the major sports teams at your school. Whilst all of these activities are admirable, they give no indication of your suitability for academic study. Equally, positions of responsibility such as being a school prefect.  If the reason you want to be a prefect is because it will look good on your UCAS application then you are sadly mistaken (and probably shouldn’t be a prefect anyway!).  This is not to say that these commitments and positions of responsibility should not be referred to in the personal statement, but they should be considered in a way that reflects upon the skills you have acquired through taking part in these activities and how they could be applied to academic study at university.  The key message is that no matter how good your personal statement is, it will never be a substitute for poor grades.

Nothing you achieve in your final year of school will feature

I always start the Lower Sixth induction in the same way.  I stand in front of our Lower Sixth pupils and tell them that they have 34 weeks of school (one academic year), to  ‘build’ their profile for the personal statement.  Any plans that you have to boost your academic profile such as online learning, summer schools, work experience, joining clubs or societies all need to be completed by the end of the Lower Sixth year. Pupils need to remember that the UCAS application is submitted at the beginning of Upper Sixth, not the end. Nothing that is achieved in the Upper Sixth year will make it onto the UCAS application and once the application is sent, it cannot be updated or changed. In terms of university applications, the Lower Sixth year is far more important than the Upper Sixth. 

You do not need an opinion from everyone

Every year, pupils fall into the trap of asking too many people, and too often, to give their opinion on their personal statement.  There is little point in writing one paragraph and then showing it to multiple members of staff all of whom will have their own ideas about how it can be improved, often contradicting each other entirely.  This can slow down the process significantly.  The best thing that you can do is commit to writing a complete first draft before seeking advice and then you should be very selective about who you choose. I urge pupils never to ask more than two people, usually their tutor and then a relevant subject specialist. As Head of Sixth Form I proof-read every single personal statement before it is sent to UCAS. This three stage check ensures that any errors are picked up long before personal statements are scrutinised by the universities. 

And finally..

My best piece of advice is to decide what degree you wish to pursue early in Lower Sixth and then make sure that you are doing everything you can to ‘build’ a personal statement profile that targets your chosen degree. Having a list of accomplishments, extra reading, essay competitions, online courses and targeted work experience will put you in a very comfortable position to start writing a personal statement.  When it comes to proofreading all the personal statements, it is always quite clear to me who has ‘played the long game’ and who has only just started considering courses at the point of making their application.