A core part of your undergraduate application across various disciplines, the Personal Statement is an in-depth, original essay about why you want to apply for a particular degree, course, or discipline at a university. This 4000-character piece details your academic interests and personal, strengthening your appeal and setting your profile apart.
As the UCAS website states: “An undergraduate personal statement is a chance to get noticed for the unique talents and experiences you have. It’s an important part of the application process as it’s an opportunity to talk about yourself and your passions, outside of your grades.”
Crafting a standout Personal Statement can be intimidating. However, with ample research, planning, and revision, you can write a sharp, concise Personal Statement that impactfully highlights your story. The following blog contains everything you need to know before you start planning your essay.
How is a Personal Statement different from a standard supplemental college essay?
Since your Personal Statement is submitted to and evaluated by all schools to which you apply, it has a broader scope. In other words, unlike a standard supplemental essay, it does not require tailoring to a particular institution.
Does your Personal Statement matter?
The idea that grades alone determine your success with admissions is largely a myth. With over 750,000 candidates applying each year, entry into courses—especially the popular ones—is fairly competitive.
Your Personal Statement is “the only part of your application you have direct control over,” and therefore offers the opportunity to stand out in a pool of applicants with near identical or top scores. Additionally, they provide admissions officers insight into the person behind the statistics, giving them a holistic understanding of individuality, personality, and suitability for a course. You can utilize this crucial space to present evidence of your skills and achievements.
Here are 10 things you should know before you write a Personal Statement for college:
1. The UCAS Guidelines
UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, is an independent charity, and the UK’s shared admissions service for higher education. In addition to providing information, advice, and guidance for university applications, UCAS also provides a compendium of useful guidelines and recommendations for writing your Personal Statement.
Above all, UCAS emphasizes planning. Working within the 4000-character (roughly 600 words) limit means that you have no room for cliches, mundane information, or unnecessary expositions. Before you begin writing, you should take plenty of time to list or outline things that you want an admissions officer to know about you. Also, reading your intended course description will give you a good idea of what different universities are looking for.
For more advice straight from the horse’s mouth, make sure to head over to the UCAS website, and explore helpful tools such as the Personal Statement Builder.
2. Choosing Your Subject
Why do you want to study your chosen subject specifically in the UK?
This is the central question that informs any good Personal Statement. Consider your interests and strengths, as well as your chosen university’s values and your long-term career plans. Demonstrating informed enthusiasm for your intended course is one of your key tasks. To do so, you should strike a healthy balance between a subject that excites you the most, and one with which you have impressive experiences both in and out of the classroom.
Remember, most Personal Statements for competitive courses are read by a tutor in the department to which you are applying. Don’t be afraid to show off your technical competence and expertise in the subject, all the while keeping it relevant to your program’s offerings.
Is there a particular instance that showcases your relationship to your chosen subject? Use that as a starting point to craft an engaging story.
3. Deciding the Theme
Once your subject is locked in, you can start building a compelling theme for your Personal Statement to make it compelling and cohesive. Even though the main subject of your Personal Statement is you, having a strong theme will help make the best case for yourself while holding the listener’s interest.
It will also help you evaluate what to include and what to omit. Reflect further on your academic, personal, and extracurricular experiences, and determine what moments have had the most significant impact on your journey. Experiences that show off unique qualities like creativity, resilience, willpower, or empathy will incorporate a sense of natural growth and transformation in your essay. Are you an English Literature aspirant with a passion for mythology? Or an aspiring economist who wishes to boost SMEs in developing nations?
Whatever the theme, it should align well with the activities and experiences you intend to mention.
4. Structuring Your Personal Statement
A good Personal Statement comprises a catchy, but authentic opening; a bold, but informative body; and a passionate, but strategic ending.
Don’t overthink your introduction. Rely on a personal anecdote, a thought-provoking question, or a riveting statement to clearly establish your enthusiasm for your subject. Your opening paragraph should also affirm your motivation and genuine interest in this field.
The body of your Personal Statement should not be a resumaic list of achievements, but a thought-out narrative that presents relevant academic and non-academic interests in escalating order of significance.
5. Reading Sample Statements
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing Personal Statements. Although most successful applicants tend to share values like academic rigor, determination, and flair, the contents of their essays differ vastly based on their experiences and their targeted universities. To familiarize yourself with the concise, yet lucid language and tight structure of a Personal Statement, spend some time reading different kinds of samples.
Now, while it is a bad idea to copy someone else’s theme or structure, you can use examples as a practical guide to synthesizing your first-hand experiences.
6. Being Original
Admissions committees are looking for authentic insight into your passions, experiences, and motivations.
In 2022, UCAS received 683,650 applications from across the world and used a dedicated Verification Team and custom software to check each application for plagiarism. Plagiarizing your personal statement casts a shadow over your credibility as an application, and can severely hurt your chances of being accepted into a program. Moreover, a record of academic misconduct can have long-lasting negative consequences.
So, give yourself enough time to brainstorm, plan, outline, write, and revise an essay that is both memorable and completely unique to you!
7. Show, Not Tell!
Instead of making broad, sweeping statements about your profile, provide specific examples and anecdotes that powerfully showcase these abilities. From academic immersions to relevant extracurricular and work experiences, there are several engaging ways to illustrate your skills and values.
For example, don’t write “I am passionate about my subject, and I’m driven and organized.”
Instead, write “I volunteered at the community center every morning, further fueling my desire to pursue sociology. Within a year, I was promoted to group leader, and tasked with ensuring x and y.”
Here’s an extended guide to “show, don’t tell.”
8. Eliminating Clutter
Once you have a satisfactory draft prepared, your job as an editor will begin. In this stage, deciding what to eliminate is just as crucial as deciding what to include. Alongside the contents of your essay, the “craft” you employ while writing it also reflects on your candidacy.
The most common mistakes students make are writing about a subject that isn’t a good fit, using ornate language, endlessly listing achievements, overusing quotes or using them out of context, repeating oneself across different paragraphs, making grammatical or formatting errors, adding too many personal stories, fabricating material, and relying on shock value.
For the ideal flow, tone, and structure, all your sub-sections must build on the previous one, demonstrating evolution without reiterating the premise.
9. Feedback and Revisions
Before you hit that “submit” button, seek feedback on your draft from trusted teachers, counselors, family members, and peers. An objective review can help you better identify weak spots, check for technical errors, adjust your style, and avoid repetitions. After months of working on this piece, proofreading might not be the first thing on your mind, but it is an unskippable step that can make all the difference. Make sure to follow UK English conventions, and stay strictly within the stipulated character count.
It is crucial to prepare your first draft weeks in advance, so it can go through a rigorous process of review and revision until it reads as both candid and refined.
10. Be You
At the end of the day, you are writing your Personal Statement to demonstrate competence and stand out. These are ambitious goals, and can only be achieved if you bank on the unique context of your life and academic journey. Don’t attempt to blindly emulate every good example you read, instead, use them as guides to represent your own story.
As Chloe NG, HE Career Coach at Manchester Metropolitan University says: “Try to include something unique and memorable about yourself. Admission teams receive thousands of applications each day, so give them a reason to read yours more than once.”
One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you wish to strengthen your profile, consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.
Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students. Last year, we had 150 students on full need-based financial aid!
Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.