How to make your personal statement stand out
Updated: Jan 31, 2019
Drafting a personal statement can be daunting. Students must showcase intellectual curiosity, study skills, and the commitment necessary to pursue an academically-rigorous degree. Not only do they need to demonstrate curiosity, logic, and determination – evidenced by detailed examples – but explain how they will contribute to university life and thrive in an independent-study environment. For highly competitive undergraduate courses, such as those at Oxbridge, medicine or dentistry degrees, an impressive personal statement is the key to interview.
Outlined below, is the structure for a stand-out personal statement - be punchy, stick within the word count (4000 characters, approximately 500 words), use PEEL (point, evidence, explain, link), and evidence wider reading.
The hardest part of writing is how to start. Instead of introducing yourself in the first line, make a statement about the course linking it to current affairs or wider reading. Explain why this fascinates you or how it has inspired your career aspirations. Tweaking the conventional format of personal statements will show you have creativity and strong writing skills.
Example 1: International Relations and Law
“We are living in a time of political unrest. The rise of populism has drawn attention to gross domestic inequality, placing blame on immigration and foreign influences. Political commitments to segregate whole countries, as seen in Brexit and the U.S presidential election, are ill-founded: evidence suggests the net fiscal effect of building a wall along the Mexican border, or capping UK immigration, is only negative – to the detriment of an already disaffected majority. Instead, governments should work within the context of globalisation, whereby countries are interconnected through trade, politics, and the exchange of thoughts and cultures. The alliances and conflict between countries, and how this evolves over time, fascinates me and has led me to interrogate my own world view. A dual degree in international relations and law would equip me with the skills to systematically evaluate current affairs, considering the perspectives of key stakeholders, and propose feasible solutions. This is essential for fulfilling my career ambition of working within a global company as an international advisor.”
Example 2: Sociology
“As a female in the UK, I face a gender pay gap of 20 per cent. This means that, on average, my hourly wage will be 20 per cent lower than an equally qualified male. Government action to tackle this discrepancy, by mandating larger employers to report wages of male and female employees, is a step in the right direction. However, the gender pay gap is a tiny piece of the jigsaw. Gender roles –expectations of appropriate female and male behaviour – are embedded in our society. The social construction of these roles, and how they evolve over time, fascinates me and has led me to interrogate my own world view. A sociology degree would equip me with the tools to systematically analyse my own perceptions and understand the influence of family and culture, political systems, and social norms on decision-making.”
Use the next paragraph to introduce yourself and explain why your degree is important. Consider how it will benefit you, society and any global impacts. To show you’re informed, be specific in the technical language you use.
Example: Education Studies
“I am attracted to teaching by the opportunity to make a difference. Despite progress in the past decade, too often, a child’s educational attainment is determined by their socio-economic background. The pivotal role of education in a child’s development places responsibility on a teacher to provide academic and pastoral support. For students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, this support means more than ever. The opportunity to help tackle social inequality by teaching in a more challenging school resonates with my internal motivations. The challenge of taking teaching beyond the classroom – by being a role model, providing continuity of care, and engaging students in extracurricular activities – inspires me to pursue a teaching career.”
This section should focus on your academic skills and work experience. Describe any roles of responsibility, for example as a Prefect or Team Leader, identify the skills you have learned, and explain how these will enable you to succeed at undergraduate level.
“I consider myself a highly motivated and dedicated individual. Balancing jobs during my year out, including childcare at a local nursery and bartending, demonstrates excellent time-management skills and the ability to work under pressure. I was privileged to have had the opportunity to travel and participated in a charity trip to a Swaziland school, where we installed a water tank, solar panels and taught English. The trip provided an immersive cultural experience in which education was valued highly. Children walked for miles to attend school, despite having materially little, and teachers were prized in the community. Participating in the trip required meeting a funds target as a team. I enjoyed the balance of teamwork and individual responsibility in organising charity fundraiser events, such as a Christmas pub quiz.”
The penultimate paragraph can be used to discuss extracurricular activities and the transferable skills you have learnt. Use the PEEL format of writing to demonstrate the relevance of each experience.
“Studying Psychology and Biology at A level involves the use of rigorous statistical methods. I have enjoyed the balance of qualitative and quantitative data analysis, with higher-level thinking on abstract concepts. Participating in an online Future Learn course on quantitative methods has developed my understanding of the requisites of experimental design. I have researched the application of this, for example through reading the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) blog. BIT explains how mixed-method approaches, for example Randomised Control Trials and qualitative focus groups, are used to develop evidence bases in the education and health-sector, with an aim to improve UK policy-design. In addition to research and analysis, my enjoyment of secondary education has derived from writing and journalistic tasks. To counter the often-negative portrayal of young people in the media, I write a blog to document inspirational stories of people aged 12-18 in my neighbourhood. The blog has been positively received by my local community and has provided the opportunity to engage people from a range of perspectives. I believe that strong communication skills and interpersonal ability are key to appreciating the context and application of psychology studies.”
Communicate your enthusiasm for the subject and summarise how the course will benefit you. Try to use varied vocabulary and short sentences to keep the reader’s attention.
Example 1: Engineering
“I am drawn to the innovative and exciting technological developments of the Aerospace Engineering industry. A university degree in Engineering offers not only access to a wealth of expertise, but encourages independent thought and lateral thinking, both of which will be fundamental to pursuing my career ambitions. I want to push the restraints of modern engineering, of what I am capable of doing and ultimately make a positive contribution to cutting-edge scientific research.”
Example 2: Psychology
“Empowering people from disadvantaged communities is a cause I feel strongly about. Not only is this my motivation for engaging in the NCS, but it is my reason for pursuing an ambitious career path. Psychology is a tool to understand my own perspective, but also explains the behaviour and judgements of others. Only through this understanding, can one truly drive change. Placing people at the centre of policy will be important in creating a more equal society and would make behavioural science a very enjoyable and worthwhile career.”
Finally, it’s important to be mindful of the UCAS deadlines.