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UCAS Personal Statements

Personal Development

Just after half-term our Lower Sixth students benefitted from a UCAS Conference. They spent two days off-timetable, listening to helpful careers advice from Old Stopfordians, meeting their UCAS Advisers and acquainting themselves with the UCAS website and other sources of information about higher education applications and university life.

Over the next few months, they will need to begin their applications. This is daunting even for the most self-confident student, sure of what course they wish to tackle. For most, uncertainty about university and subject will continue to preoccupy them together with nagging doubts for some about whether university is the right future for them at all with apprenticeships increasingly accessible and attractive. The UCAS Advisers are expert at encouraging and informing to help the students to narrow down the huge range of options, cut through the prevarication and begin the task.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the university application is the Personal Statement. The ground rules seem clear enough. The statement should focus on conveying why you wish to do the course and why you will be successful on it. About 70% of the 4000 characters or 47 lines available should be dedicated to this task. This just leaves a few short sentences to squeeze in something of one’s other interests and life. Admissions Tutors consistently say that the Personal Statement really does have an impact on whether they make a student an offer of a place and that they are not solely deciding on the basis of the predicted A-Level grades.

But how to start? How to stand out from the crowd without appearing to brag? The search for the ‘killer opening’ begins. Perhaps ‘My deep-rooted ambition to read Medicine stems from a childhood spent helping my parents to save lives’ is too cliched.

‘I wish to study Economics in the hope of becoming extremely rich’ seems too direct. Whereas ‘I wish to study Economics in order to promote the welfare of humanity’ is perhaps just too idealistic.

‘My love of Theology stems from a recognition that it is the easiest subject to secure entry to Oxford University.’ This shows pragmatism but is unlikely to endear anyone to a university Admissions Tutor.

UCAS publish the most common (and hackneyed) opening phrases so it is best to avoid: ‘From a young age…’, ‘For as long as I can remember…’, ‘I am applying for this course because…’, ‘I have always been interested in…’ or ‘Throughout my life I have always enjoyed…’. The challenge to find something genuine, succinct and that engages the tired Admissions Tutor is considerable and may be best attempted after the main statement is written. Quotes are always a bad choice as the Admissions Tutor will be more interested in the student’s thoughts than someone else’s.

Once underway, most of the statement should focus on the student’s motivation, with extra reading, relevant work experience and enthusiasm sparked by discussion, inspiring people and visits all pressed into service to support the argument.

Hobbies can be squeezed in towards the end to demonstrate some individuality. It still helps though to think about the skills developed through the activity and how these support the application rather than simply giving a long list of sporting honours. The temptation to include phrases such as: ‘Going to the cinema’, ‘Seeing friends’, ‘Going for long walks’ or ‘Going out’ should be resisted as they add nothing to any description of skills. Equally, including the unusual or bizarre in an attempt to stand out may backfire, if it is irrelevant to the course, as it may not make the hoped-for impression.

Many allegedly successful UCAS statements are freely available on-line but the temptation to lift sections must be resisted. UCAS have a database of every personal statement submitted and each new statement is checked against this. If more than 10% of the text matches a previous effort by someone else the university will be notified, an embarrassment that is unlikely to boost the student’s chances.

The final challenge is to produce an exciting end to the statement. The best ones, like a well-written essay, reinforce the main points made earlier, but without repetition, and leave the Admissions Tutor in no doubt of the student’s enthusiasm and suitability for the desired course.

I look forward to seeing plenty of successful applications, featuring expertly-crafted personal statements, in the autumn.