The Art of Writing a Personal Statement
Applying to uni is such a pain, but the bit just before you apply is the most painful. The part when everyone and their mother is lecturing you on what you have to do, contradicting and meandering and, well, boring.
To help you out a bit, I thought I’d add a more practical edge to the discussion with some tips on how to tackle that ‘personal statement’ thing that everyone seems to care about so much. But I’ll do it in stages because the path to a good personal statement is an arduous one, flanked by prickly bushes and paved with cracked, mismatched stones.
So, we’ll start with starting.
What is a Personal Statement?
If, like me, you zoned out during those talks, you may be struggling to put your finger on what the personal statement actually is. Firstly, good job. That’s what uni feels like. Secondly, don’t worry because I’ll tell you.
The personal statement is a short essay of 4,000 characters and 47 lines, that you submit to the UCAS web portal, along with your grades and references. UCAS will then distribute all this information to each of the universities or colleges that you’re applying to.
The personal statement is the more nuanced, human part of the application process. It’s the bit that’s supposed to convey a flavour of who you are as a student and why you’re a good fit for the course and institution. And that’s why there’s so much buzz about this – it’s the unique bit that stands out.
It’s also really difficult to condense all your uniqueness into 4,000 characters…
At this point in your education, it would be really helpful if you knew what courses you’d be applying for! It can be a vague ‘biology’ if you like, as long as it’s something you want to do and you have a rough idea of why you want to do it.
You’ll also need to do a little bit of Googling to find out what these universities are looking for. Their websites may outline an ideal applicant, or a list of attributes they want you to have. Alternatively, you might have to infer what they want by looking at the structure of the courses you’re applying for.
If it involves a lot of coursework, they’re obviously hoping their prospective students are organised. If it’s a long, hard course, they’ll want to invest their time in someone committed and deeply interested. You get the idea.
Finally, you’ll need to know yourself and how you best express your ideas. Contrary to what my teachers said, ‘style’ is not a dirty word. And the 4,000 character limit is just about enough for some flair. Don’t handcuff yourself to a style just yet though, because there are some caveats that I’ll come back to. Just have a think about the kind of tone and structure you might want to use, for now.
Motivating Yourself: Start Early
Starting mine was daunting. Like a great, black monolith on the horizon. Forbidding, yet pressing. Given that your post-16 education will be happening to you at the same time (which is a challenge in itself), it’s tempting to leave your personal statement until just before the application deadline.
Please, for your sanity, start early. As soon as you have your GCSE results, if possible. Those 4,000 characters are extremely valuable, a distillation of why you believe you’re better than the rest. They need to be as strong as possible, and that will probably involve getting a load of mates, teachers and family to give it a read.
And you’re going to need to re-write bits, because something that looks good by lamplight on a Wednesday night, might not stand up to the cold scrutiny of morning. Don’t waste those characters by idling your time away.
Beginning soon after your GCSE results also allows you to update it with the stuff you’ll do during your academic year. Maybe you did some volunteering at Christmas and it taught you something profound about yeast. Or you won a poetry competition to demonstrate your love of Wordsworth. If you’ve already got a first draft, you’ll at least have some idea of where to slot this new addition.
In short, if you’re prone to procrastination, you’ll need to have a brutal talk with yourself about why this personal statement is important to you. Why going to uni to study this subject is important to you. Why getting this thing started early is going to make your post-16 study so much smoother and save you a lot of stress.
Make yourself start early. Doesn’t matter how you do it – just find a way.
That First, Post-GCSE Draft
Here we are. Find yourself a place to think and a means to write. Use whatever works for you. Laptop, notepad, phone. The important thing is getting those words down.
Now, remember what I was saying about style?
The first draft is all about style. Since you’ve not accrued much content yet and you’re starting early (I hope), you can focus on how the whole essay is going to flow and feel.
So how do you want to do this?
While the possibilities are technically endless, you’re limited by what a potential admissions officer will find palatable. Yes, it most definitely is arbitrary, but that’s the game we have to play.
However, this is your first draft. You’re utterly free to try out something completely mad and true to you, so long as you get plenty of feedback well before the submission deadline. A diluted version of your real, written voice is better than something completely inauthentic.
In sum, every one of those 4,000 characters is an opportunity. To get the most out of them, it pays to start as early as you can, with a style-over-substance draft, before you start hunting for real substance. Pick a style that’s true to you, and the whole process will be that little bit less painful, while the finished product will read as a sincere reflection of who you are. Just make sure you get a few people to read over that first draft to rein you in a little!
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