5 Mistakes That Will Destroy Your Personal Statement

by 17 Aug, 2016Free Resources

Man writing wishing help

A personal statement is both a piece of art as well as a prescribed science. The 4000 character limit offers a high degree of flexibility when it comes to structuring, expressing and reflecting upon your desire to pursue a particular field of study. Conversely, personal statements often follow a similar logical flow of information: introduction, main body and a conclusion.

With such a framework, the possibilities of producing mistakes are endless and includes, but not limited to, simple errors, clichés or boring writing. Apart from not exhibiting your work in the best light, these mistakes reflect poorly upon your enthusiasm for a subject.

Therefore, I will be illustrating the biggest and most frequent mistakes we find in personal statements whilst demonstrating methods of avoiding these pitfalls.

1. Clichés, Idioms and Quotes

The Example

Ever since I was a child, I have always wanted to write an article on mistakes found in personal statements. Of these, clichés stick out like a sore thumb and is further magnified by their early appearance, especially in the introduction.

For instance, let’s examine ‘From a young age…’. According to UCAS and The Telegraph [1], its variations are some of the most overused opening sentences:

  • From a young age I have always been interested in …
  • From an early age I have always been interested in …
  • For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with …
  • For as long as I can remember I have been interested in …

Apart from its dubious nature, it would not be terribly exciting when read hundreds of times.

The Solution: Simply DON’T Use Them

Avoid these bland expressions and stick to more imaginative writing. Although this may require brainstorming to find suitable replacements, the end result would put you in a great position when submitting your application. Quotes should be avoided because of their subjective nature; also, they take up valuable characters that could have been used to flesh out your skills/activities/passion instead.

Alternatively, if it’s not possible to conjure an alternative expression, I would advise you to stick to normal, ‘boring’ expressions instead; these remain more interesting than reading a cliché and often have the bonus of offering better fluency.

2. Boring Words

The Example

The correct balance of structure, activities and description doesn’t necessarily produce fascinating personal statements. Good personal statements require passion for the subject. Unfortunately, this is somewhat hampered by the use of boring (or again, clichéd) words.

For instance, take ‘passionate’ or ‘fascinating’. Apart from being immensely overused, they don’t actually convey much information. Both indicate interest, with passionate being overstated whilst fascinating is, quite simply, not fascinating. ‘Good’ is especially obscure, boring and lacks any real clarity.

The Solution: Show Your Passion (But Don’t Mention The Word)

So how can you spruce up your sentences? Seek out more specific descriptions. For example, this can be done using a thesaurus to search for words precisely tailored to your sentence.

3. Abnormal Sentence Length

The Example

Extremely long sentences also disrupt fluency and are quite boring to read because of the absence of any breaks and often suffer from the collection of several points into one sentence without due reflection.

Short ones are bad too.

Although this is not as common as the other mistakes mentioned in this article, it can manifest itself within a particular section or paragraph and impede the readers’ flow.

Long sentences are often due to either:

  • Combining the description of an activity and its reflection in one sentence
  • Listing of many activities in one sentence

Conversely, short sentences also usually arise from the listing of activities but separating them into distinct sentences.

The Solution: Don’t Forget to Describe

I would recommend picking a certain activity and placing it at the beginning of a paragraph. Thereafter, describe what it involved and what you learnt (spread out over several sentences) before moving on to the next activity.

You may also have a collection of relevant activities which you feel do not require explaining or reflecting. To include them in a single sentence, it is best to follow the rule of 3 for maximum impact i.e. only include three activities in a single sentence. For instance:

“My skills were further developed by my involvement in the student council, football team and chess.”

4. Simply Listing

The Example

So far, I’ve described a few common errors. My article has also given examples, provided suggestions for improvement and highlighted the importance of avoiding these mistakes. I will now focus on a more subtle mishap: listing activities without descriptions.

Clearly, creating bullet lists is impossible on the online UCAS application. Nevertheless, it’s certainly possible to produce boring lists in sentences, with each item separated by commas or full stops. This may flow well but does result in an incredibly dry experience for the reader. It also fails to illustrate what you learn from your experiences and the proof of your skills.

The Solution: Flesh Out Your Writing

You don’t need to climb Mount Everest every week while simultaneously juggling on a unicycle to be an interesting candidate (although that would certainly stand out!).

Our top tip would be to pick 2-3 of your best activities and focus on them. Include:

  • What they involved
  • What you learnt
  • How it relates to your chosen subject

Each of these reflecting experiences can be inserted between ‘lists’. As a result, this creates a welcome break and assists in fleshing you out as an individual.

This approach may require some sacrifices in terms of the number of total activities; such a sacrifice is worth it and would assist in focusing your personal statement on the most pertinent facts.

A personal statement with several examples of great information will always be better than one filled with activities but without descriptive/reflective information.

5. Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar

The Example

Spelling and grammar is the greatest mistakes One can find in a personal statements. They are extremely easy to spot and indicate a lack of adequate proofreading. This consequently translates to an absence of interest for your chosen subject.

There is a reason we’ve left the best (or worst) to last: it is shockingly common and extremely easy to notice by an admission tutor.

The Solution: Proofread

We don’t have many tips for these mistakes other than:

  1. Proofread
  2. Proofread again
  3. Proofread again

This could be done by repeatedly reading your personal statement, asking someone else to read it or using proofreading software (although this may not be perfectly accurate, as exemplified by autocorrect). If English isn’t your first language, it is best to get hold of a native English speaker to proofread your writing.

Wrapping Up

We’ve covered a few important mistakes in this article. Personal statements are your chance to impress admissions tutors. Although there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do this, there are mistakes that repeatedly appear and can easily be avoided with relative ease.

Take the time to hunt and fix these common errors, allowing you to shine and stand out from the competition.


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