The Ultimate Guide To Starting Your Personal Statement

by | 24 Aug, 2015 | Free Resources

One of the most difficult aspects of writing a personal statement is, unsurprisingly, starting it. Many students are overwhelmed by what needs to be done and don’t know where to start. The key to a great personal statement is to show, rather than tell, why you’re the ideal candidate.

To help, we’ve produced this guide that covers the essentials of personal statements. Along with this, we will discuss the best methods for preparing and fleshing out your writing.

The Basics

A personal statement uses a maximum of 4000 characters spread out over 47 lines. This roughly corresponds to 500-600 words that must effectively convey:

  • Enthusiasm
  • Commitment
  • Initiative
  • Academic ability
  • Understanding of subject
  • That you’re human! (i.e. your outside interests)

While there are many ways of expressing your achievements and skills, personal statements often follow a similar structure:

  1. An introduction
  2. The main body. Use 50-75% to showcase your interest and skills related to the course (e.g. work experience, outside reading) and the remainder to flesh you out as an individual (extracurricular activities, hobbies)
  3. A conclusion

1. Research

The first thing you should do is research your chosen subject and the universities you’d like to apply to. Explore the course requirements, structure and skills required and make a note of the key points. You can employ a wide range of sources, including websites, prospectuses, books and even current university students. Reflect upon:

  1. Why you want to study the subject
  2. The entry requirements for the subject
  3. The qualifications, talents and abilities you possess that will allow you to excel in the course

As well as being important for your personal statement, this will allow you to better appreciate your commitment and interest in the subject.

2. Write Down EVERYTHING You’ve Done

Write a bullet point list of every single activity/achievement you’ve done inside and outside secondary school. This is a crucial step that will allow you to plan your personal statement before actually beginning your writing. I really do mean everything and this can include:

  • Work experience e.g. jobs, shadowing schemes
  • Academic reading e.g. extended project, lectures attended, newspapers/magazines/journals read
  • Skills development e.g. Duke of Edinburgh Award, Young Enterprise, Combine Cadet Force
  • Academic achievements e.g. prizes
  • School activities e.g. prefect, school council
  • Sports e.g. sports teams, afterschool clubs, sports day

Do note that you will not need to include all of them in your personal statement. Later on, you should focus on the activities that are the most relevant to your course.

Link Activities To Skills

Next, imagine you had to use this list to write a CV – for each bullet point, mention the skills that you learnt/developed and how they can relate to your subject.

However, remember that not everything you’ve done can translate to skills. Instead, they may have developed your interest in the course e.g. shadowing schemes, lectures attended.

Categorise your activities

According to what you developed, split your activities 4 groups:

  1. Interest AND skills related to the course
  2. Interest in the course
  3. Skills related to the course
  4. Skills and interests unrelated to the course

This will help clarify the importance of the various items in your list. Generally, activities that developed your interest AND skills in the course should always be included. On the flip side, those unrelated to the course can be left out if you end up exceeding the character or line limit.

3. Begin Writing

I always recommend skipping the introduction and conclusion when first beginning your personal statement. Instead, focus on the main body. You now have 3 key pieces of information:

  • What the course requires
  • Activities you have undertaken that developed your interest in the subject
  • Relevant skills you’ve developed through your activities

Taken together, you can start constructing your personal statement. Using your list, find related activities and skills that you’ve learnt and group them together in a paragraph. Employ them to showcase your interest in the subject and why you’re the ideal candidate for the course.

Interest and skills Venn diagram.png

As an example, you may end up with the following structure for your paragraphs:

  1. Work experience and Voluntary work → skills and interests
  2. Magazines and Journals → interest in the subject
  3. Prefect, House Captain and Debating Society → skills development
  4. Sports and Performance in plays → interests outside the course

4. Refine

Once you’ve got your rough skeleton of the essay, it’s time to refine the paragraphs. Flesh out your activities and turn them from a list into a proper essay. Include reasons why the course appeals to you and couple them to how this interest developed through your various activities.

The activities should be further expanded and focussed upon, allowing you to fully express your passion for the subject. Show the skills you’ve developed/learnt/appreciated during your personal experiences.

For instance, if you undertook work experience and voluntary work, you can expand on what they involved and incorporate anecdotes to highlight particular points.

Show, Don’t Tell

The key to standing out is to SHOW, not TELL. Consider the following statements:

  1. I have outstanding communication skills, as shown by my weekly participation in the debating society
  2. I partake in the weekly debating society, where I enjoy expressing and developing ideas

Although (2) doesn’t outright state the skills that were developed, it provides a subtle introduction and backs it up with hard evidence. Hence, it has greater power and appears more impressive than simply stating the activity along with the skill.

However, do note that there is nothing wrong with explicitly stating what skills you developed every once in a while. Nevertheless, combining this with the more subtle approach separates good personal statements from great ones.

Wrapping Up

If you’ve followed this whole guide, you should now have a fully-fledged main body for your personal statement.

What should be left is the introduction and conclusion, which have not been discussed in this article. These sections are highly tailored to you and your subject – they illustrate why you have chosen the course, why you want to go to university, what you hope to gain etc. Over the course of writing the main body, you should gain an idea of what you want to include in the opening and closing paragraphs.

Finally, continue reading over your personal statement, redrafting and asking others for help until you believe it is the best literary piece you could ever produce. After all, it is your chance to shine and impress admissions tutors.

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