How to Write an Undergraduate Personal Statement – Part 1
1st in a 2-part series about personal statements
Students who are applying for an undergraduate degree in the UK do so through a centralised portal called Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). In addition to academic transcripts for grade 11, predicted grades, university choices and a letter of recommendation (LOR), students are also required to submit a personal statement.
This 4000 character statement, which cannot exceed 47 lines, will cover:
- Who you are – a character insight not gleaned through your transcripts
- Why you are pursuing the course – how you got interested in it
- What have you done academically to prepare for it – establishing a strong foundation
- What are your interests and extracurricular activities and how this connects back to your course – the skill set you have to study your intended major
As there will be several well-qualified students also applying to the same course, the personal statement is a crucial cog in the wheel. It can help you showcase your strengths and enable the admissions team to form a profile of you beyond your grades. While displaying your interest in your chosen course, the personal statement can also demonstrate to the colleges that you have the right skills for studying it at the undergraduate level. Almost everything you write about should be directed back to its relevance to your course.
Your personal statement will be seen by all the colleges to which you are applying, so ensure that you do not mention any specifics about any particular institution. Also, make sure that you select the same or similar courses in each college. If you apply to different courses, for example, History at King’s College and Chemistry at UCL, then you will not be able to effectively justify why you want to study either. You will have to split the statement, which may lead to neither university being convinced that you are genuinely passionate about their course and you are unlikely to receive an offer of admission.
When it comes to structuring your personal statement, it is advisable to break it up into five parts:
Para 1: The Hook/Your Voice
The opening statement is about announcing yourself and making a good first impression. Your language represents you, so make sure it’s crisp and clear. Most importantly, make it personal. Start with an incident or emotion which grabs the reader’s attention. The anecdote should explain from where the interest in your chosen subject stems. Be specific, do not make generic statements and avoid clichés. Also, make sure it is relevant. Do not write about a movie that you watched when you were five and how that inspired you. Talk about recent experiences that fueled your interest. Remember, each word counts so go deep and fast!
✖ “From an early age, I have been fascinated by the workings of life. The human body is a remarkable machine with many diverse systems. I am intrigued to know more about the machinations that make up such a complex life form.”
✔ “I made my way to Hillary’s house after hearing about her alcoholic father’s incarceration. Seeing her tearfulness and at a loss for words, I took her hand and held it, hoping to make things more bearable. She squeezed back gently in reply, ‘thank you’. My silent gesture seemed to confer a soundless message of comfort, encouragement and support.”
Para 2 – Why This Course/What Have You Done to Prepare for It?
This forms the core of your statement as UK colleges focus most on academic rigour. Be honest and showcase why you want to pursue this course. Was it your favourite subject in school? Do you want to eventually work in that field? Did a personal experience drive your decision? Be original in how you communicate your interest. Don’t wax eloquent on how amazing you are at the subject of your choice. Instead, showcase how your inclination toward it grew and what you did to foster it. To cite an example:
✖ “I was the highest scorer in French in school and I wish to pursue it in university too.”
✔ “What I like most about studying French is getting to grips with a new culture. I enjoy the challenge of trying to read French literature, listen to French songs and watch French movies and plays in their original forms.”
Use this section to also talk about the principal skills you have developed through academic study pertaining to your subject choice. You can cite your grade 11-12 subjects and exhibit how they have fueled your interest or helped you gain a skill. For example, if you are aspiring to study economics and have studied A-Level mathematics, that will certainly give you the quantitative skills you need to study economics at university. If you are an IBDP student and have written an extended essay in the subject for which you are applying or you completed an EPQ in an area of interest, it is a sure-fire way to indicate interest. Remember to give context though and not just state the title. Elucidate the process of research and your observations. Show intellectual curiosity and creative thinking ability. This is a good space to also mention additional reading or extra courses that you may have taken. Be sure not to write generic statements such as “I read National Geographic and it has helped me to develop a passion for geography.” Be as specific as you can by mentioning the name of the article and connecting it back to your intended purpose. For example:
✖ “I have always loved numbers and solving problems and have excelled at math competitions in school.”
✔ “The precision of math suits my nature. I like detail, understanding complex information and the pleasurable challenge of problem-solving. I applied to multiple competitions…”
Para 3 – Work Experience
UK colleges value hands-on experience. So after proving your academic prowess, highlight the skills and learning you may have gained from any work experience in the same field. Rather than stating facts, expand on the experience and learning curve. For example, instead of just narrating that last summer you worked in a biochemistry laboratory and this fuelled an interest in biochemistry, explain in detail what your internship actually entailed. Did you help in the lab? What were your responsibilities? What was the outcome? A more insightful statement would be to say that “Last summer, I worked at a diagnostic lab where I learned the process to determine viral loads (HIV) in a patients’ blood. I saw the application of theories such as the Polymerase Chain Reaction implemented in the lab and this consolidated my understanding. Moreover, interacting with the lab technicians and understanding first-hand the applications of biochemistry, I am even more determined to pursue this at the undergraduate level.” A great follow up to this would be to perhaps touch upon your professional goals post-college. Another example would be:
✖ “For my summer internship, I went to Germany and worked as a teaching assistant in a school with kids under the age of ten. This helped improve my language skills and helped me understand the country and its people better.”
✔ “In Germany, I gained a wide cultural and linguistic understanding as well as a great love of Germany and her language. I worked in a primary school in Oberhausen, where I taught groups of children independently and conducted lessons as well as assisted the teacher. I continue to converse on a daily basis with my Koln-based friends through Skype.”
Para 4 – Extracurriculars
Your extracurricular activities will give admissions officers a more holistic understanding of your personality and interests. However, as you paint your profile and relate them and other general experiences such as travel, make sure you route them back to championing your suitability for the course you want to study. For example:
✖ “I love to travel and visit historical places and understand how history has shaped things.”
✔ “In Rhodes, I was struck by the cast defences of the medieval town–and by the collision of Christian and Islamic cultures.”
✖ “Basketball was my favourite sport in school and I played for my team for six years.”
✔ “As a keen basketball player, I was able to develop my teamwork abilities as well as learn essential skills on how to cope with success and failure which will benefit in XX degree…”
Be careful to display skill sets learnt alongside describing the activity. For example, unless you are applying for music, do not just mention that you are at grade 8 in piano. Instead, discuss what this has taught you and how this will help you in your degree. For example ”Having learned the piano for over eight years and passed all my examinations with a distinction, I have always strived for the best by practising regularly until I perfect a piece. In addition, I have played in numerous concerts and even an orchestra where teamwork is essential. The ‘practice till perfect attitude’ as well as collaborative skills I have learned while playing with 50 other people in the Philharmonic orchestra will fare me well as a biology student in the UK.”
Para 5 – Core Skills/Conclusion
As you wrap up your personal statement, communicate your strengths. Give an air of finality where the reader should have a sense that this is the end of an argument. Try to bring the reader back to the beginning of your statement in the form of a circular structure. Below is such an example:
- Opening statement: “When I was fourteen, I witnessed my first operation: an appendix removal. Since that day, I endeavoured to experience veterinary practice as often as possible.”
- Closing statement: “I believe, without doubt, the veterinary profession is for me. And I look forward to the day that I perform my professional appendix removal.”
End on a final short para on why you want to study in the UK and possible future plans. If you are applying as an international student, write a sentence or two about why the UK is your ideal destination for study. Here, be careful to avoid clichés and choose an authentic and personal reason. What career paths have you thought of pursuing? Are there any resources the UK is world-renowned for? Is the location of the country that is appealing? Remember this is not set in stone and no one will hold you to what you write, but thinking ahead and sharing your future plans again emphasises to the universities that you are genuinely interested in that course and have done due diligence.
Make sure to read Part 2 that gives you some tips on good writing. Do you want to know more about studying in the UK? Our blog has a lot of articles including, what not to do when writing your personal statement, a primer on clearing and adjustment as well as firm and insurance choices. If you require any further assistance, get in touch with us.