It's a Personal Thing

12th October 2018

For most second year Sixth Formers thinking of applying to university, the countdown has begun. Indeed, for those applying to Oxbridge, or for almost all courses in medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine/science, the process is just about at an end, and they can rest easy(ish!). For the vast majority, though, who still have big decisions to make about their futures, this is the time of year for attending open days, for firming up on the course(s) that appeal, and checking out the entry requirements, with a view to crafting the perfect personal statement – that essential part of the UCAS application process which, for some would-be students, can cause more nerves and angst than three or four A Levels put together. Lisa Botwright offers some timely tips and advice….

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” wrote iconic writer and poet Maya Angelou. It’s a profound and inspiring statement about the value of self-expression and the need to articulate our life experiences – but is there any merit in my using it in a feature about UCAS personal statements?

The first point about a great application is that it needs to reflect your own ability, experience, hopes and aspirations within just 4000 characters – that’s around a page of typed A4, so not really a great deal of space; with such a small word count, empty aphorisms or contextless quotes are out. Since interviews are a much less common part of the admission process now, your written statement might be the only chance you get to ‘talk’ directly to your chosen universities, and to sell yourself with validity and authority. They will want to know what you think, rather than Gandhi, Barak Obama, Confucius or, indeed, Maya Angelou.

But what if you don’t know what you think? What if you want the place so badly that you’re tying yourself up in knots and finding youself incapable of articulating why? Or what if, arguably worse, you’re ambivalent, and you’re only applying to x,y,z because you’re not sure what else to do… How can you make your lack of specific experience sound relevant?

An impeccably crafted, succinct account of your passion and suitability for your end goal, written with confidence (without arrogance) and infused with an engaging sense of flow is… exactly… very daunting. Moreover, the same statement will be read by every university; so it needs to be universally relevant and notable. No pressure there, then.

Even UCAS admits “it’s really scary”, or as Stuart Balnaves, Head of Learner Experience at UCAS, puts it: “Those three words – UCAS personal statement – can strike fear into students’ hearts”… but there are practical ways to make the process easier.

The first thing to do is to relax; there’s no need to get everything right in the first draft. Give yourself plenty of time and aim for a tortoise-like process of self-reflection, rather than a hare-brained sprint to get it finished. Begin, as early as possible, by brainstorming anything you think might be relevant. As well as trying to explain exactly why you want to read English at Exeter or Biological Sciences at Birmingham, you’ll also need to show evidence of your suitability, so come up with as many examples as possible. Write down everything you’ve done or achieved: from your first paper-round to your Year 11 public speaking award; then you can sift through to organise it all according to relevance. Ordering your thoughts in this way means you’re already half way there, and will help you counteract the ‘tyranny of the blank page’ when you begin to write for real.

As with any good piece of writing, your personal statement should have a coherent structure: a traditional beginning, middle and end. According to Andrew Parkin, Principal of St Dominic’s Sixth Form College in Harrow-on-the-Hill and Headteacher Representative for UCAS (read: someone who’s seen a lot of personal statements), “the beginning is all about your vision and the middle is what you’ve done so far towards realising that vision.” The compositions that stand out, he continues, “are where research and independent learning are presented in a succinct way, demonstrating the ability of the candidate and their willingness to go the extra mile.”

He believes strongly in the importance of conveying a sense of excitement. “What I like to see is passion and love of the subject. Take music, for instance. I want to know what instrument you play, and if you enjoy performing; whether you’re part of a rock band or an orchestra.” It needs to be relevant: “Applying for Medicine at Cambridge is very different to applying for Fine Art at Central St Martin’s.”

Ask yourself why you want to apply, and make your answer sound positive. Saying that you want to read English because you can’t think of anything else to do isn’t going to cut it; championing the value of literature in broadening your horizons is another thing entirely. But be authentic in your writing, and try not to waffle. In an effort to impress, it’s tempting to over-use your thesaurus, but plain, simple language is best. Similarly, be careful when using humour to make a point. While it’s important for your personality to shine through, comedy can come across as glib or inappropriate – and who knows what the reader’s sense of humour is like? Nuance can be very hard to pick up from a printed page.

Liz Hunt, Undergraduate Admissions Manager at the University of Sheffield, also cautions against ‘rambling’: “Some students try to tell you their life story,” she says, “and sometimes this can be quite useful, but it needs to be relevant rambling – it needs to tell admissions tutors why you have decided on a particular subject.”

A university wants to see that you understand what the course entails, that you have a good awareness of the pressures and commitment needed. They will already have set out the academic criteria for their course when they ask for particular A Level subjects and grades, but this is your opportunity to show them how you have the right personal qualities and mindset to be a good fit. Have you volunteered in the local community? How has your Saturday job developed your teamwork and sense of responsibility? And, importantly, what steps have your taken to find out more about your chosen course… have you undertaken some relevant work experience, for example? Have you contributed to blogs, or attended talks or events?

One of the hardest things to get right is the balance between smugness and confidence, Andrew Parkin tells me. “In my experience, I’ve found young people struggle to write about themselves, and aren’t particularly good at selling themselves. The statements must have a sense of humility, but must also stand out from the crowd.” If you’re concerned about this, stick to specific, solid examples about your talents and achievements. ‘I was proud to win first place in a poetry competition, is a far cry from, ‘I’ve always been great at creative writing’.

If you’re still stuck, there are some useful resources online to get you started, such as the personal statement builder on Which? University (which.co.uk/tools/personal-statement-builder), which asks some great, pointed questions. But whatever you do, don’t be tempted to cheat by copying anyone else’s statement or taking too much inspiration from the internet. UCAS uses a program called Copycatch to identify similarities in statements and notifies the universities if it picks up anything suspicious.

And finally, when you’ve written a couple of drafts (or even more) and you’re ready to sit back and think, ‘yes, not bad’, check it through really carefully for spelling or grammar mistakes. The last thing you need is for typos to mar all that hard work. Ask your parents to read it and ask your teachers to read it. Most good schools and sixth form colleges will offer a huge amount of support and may already have assigned a tutor or mentor for one-to-one feedback, so take on board any advice and input they can give you.

Lastly, good luck. As Maya Angelou once said, ‘nothing will work unless you do’ – but that’s irrelevant, remember. This isn’t about her experiences… it’s all about yours.

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