This article will give your students an insight into the things that higher education institutions look for in applications.
For further guidance and support, keep your eyes peeled for the new edition of How to Complete Your UCAS Application 2022 Entry written in association with UCAS.
Considering that approximately 50,000 courses are offered by around 400 universities and colleges, it is ESSENTIAL that you carefully check requirements of courses that interest you. While it is impossible to know the precise details of what each admissions tutor looks for, all will be looking for students who are genuinely enthusiastic and committed to their chosen subject(s), with the ability to succeed at university.
Qualification entrance requirements aside, the UCAS personal statement and your academic reference are of paramount importance in university applications. A significant number of applicants are rejected by universities for non-academic reasons e.g., poorly written personal statements that show insufficient understanding of the subject(s) being applied for, or lack of evidence of motivation to study them. It is important to keep this in mind when planning and writing your personal statement.
While the qualifications you have already gained and your predicted grades will provide some evidence of your abilities (hopefully supported by your academic reference), the personal statement is your real opportunity to speak for yourself.
If you are invited to an interview, you may be asked about things you have written in your personal statement. Therefore, it is vital that you only include things you would be willing to discuss and avoid lying or exaggerating as you may well be caught out!
Every applicant has different strengths, skills and experiences to offer, so personal statements vary from person to person. There is no one correct format, but whatever your background and whatever you are applying for, the personal statement is your opportunity to provide admissions staff with good reasons why they should make you an offer of a place, and to stand out from other applications they receive. Below are guidance points to get you started:
- Reading out loud what you have written can eliminate repeating words and phrases and help the statement to flow more smoothly.
- Fully explain why you are applying for your chosen subject at higher education level. Just stating “I have been interested in subject XXXX for many years” does not tell admissions staff very much or provide any proof of your interest. Try to pinpoint exactly what it is that interests you about the subject, and what you hope to gain from studying it at higher education level. You could mention aspects of your current studies that you enjoy, especially where they relate to the subject you are hoping to study, and any research and reading you have done beyond what is expected on your current course. If you can include a critical evaluation of what you have read, even better!
- If you apply for a subject you have not studied before, explain what ignited your interest and what has led you to want to study it at university. It is important to show that you have a realistic understanding of what the subject involves.
- If applying for a joint or combined course (i.e., in two or more subjects), you need to address each subject in your personal statement. If you are applying for two very different subjects, you will need to explain your reasons for that, and show that there is logic behind your choice. Failing to do this may give the impression that the subjects have been randomly chosen and your commitment to both may be in question, or it may appear that you are not sure of what you want to study.
- Remember to mention experiences that are relevant to your subject, such as work experience, work shadowing, employment, or extra-curricular projects you have done. Link what you learned from such experiences to the courses you are applying for.
- Identify the knowledge and skills you have developed that are related to your chosen subject and include these in your application. Give clear examples of evidence to support any statements you make, such as skills gained from part-time work, and what you have learned about yourself from this experience. This is particularly important when applying for subjects such as medicine or nursing, for example.
- Include details of other achievements, such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, or participation in the National Citizen Service and skills you have developed from these, and qualifications not mentioned elsewhere, such as music grades or sports awards.
- Mention any positions of responsibility held at school/college or in your life outside of school/college, e.g., captaincy of a sports team, committee membership, prefect, or form/year captain.
- State any interests, hobbies, or voluntary activities that link to your chosen courses. Such activities also say something about you as a person, and how you choose to use your time. They can also demonstrate that you have certain skills or qualities, e.g., leadership ability, determination, initiative and commitment, that will help you fit into university life successfully.
- Explain where you hope the course will lead you; mention any future career aims if you have them. This is particularly important if you are applying for a vocational course linked to a particular career.
- Give yourself plenty of time to write your personal statement – it will probably take longer than you expect.
Once you start composing your statement, you can decide which of your ideas are worth including, and which are not so important. To help you prioritise, for each piece of information you have listed, ask yourself: –
- how relevant is this to my chosen course?
- how does it support my application?
- what does it say about me?
You will need to decide how to order and present the information. Try to start with a sentence that will get the reader’s attention, but avoid over-used quotes, phrases and clichés. It will take time to develop and refine your personal statement. Show drafts to people who you think could give helpful advice. Even writing something, then going back to it later with fresh eyes can be helpful (I speak from personal experience as a writer!) Here are some general hints:
- Structure your personal statement and make it easier for the admissions tutor to read, using clear paragraphs. You can use headings (and bullets) but be aware that these can take up space.
- Keep sentences short and to the point – put down what you want to say, and then try to say the same thing using fewer words while still conveying the same information. Avoid long, over-complicated sentences.
- Avoid beginning every sentence with ‘I’ – switch sentences around if necessary.
- Keep the style formal – avoid slang words or abbreviations, and NEVER use ‘text speak’ (some people have!)
- To get noticed, you might be tempted to create a personal statement that is quirky and different, or that includes humorous remarks, but be aware that this is a high-risk strategy. Best advice is to err on the side of caution and keep it more formal.
- Do not just list experiences, skills, or qualities. Giving one good example of how an experience has developed your understanding of your chosen subject is more interesting to read and more illustrative than a long list of experiences, for example.
- Do not repeat yourself by making the same point twice in different ways – you need to make the most of the 4,000 characters! Make sure every sentence conveys a different message and, for each sentence, keep answering the three questions mentioned in the previous section.
- Check, check and check again! Spelling and grammatical errors give a poor impression, especially when applying for courses such as English literature! Pay particular attention to the spelling of the subject you want to do. The word “psychology” for example, is OFTEN misspelt!
NEVER copy another personal statement! To deter plagiarism (copying), UCAS uses a similarity detection system and will notify your chosen universities if they identify a significant similarity between your personal statement and any others that they hold on record.
You can find advice on the UCAS website and in various books and other materials that may be available in your school or college. There are also plenty of people who can help you. Teachers, careers advisers, parents and perhaps other members of your family and friends, are all people you could turn to.
Take advantage of all the advice available, but do not let others persuade you to include words or write in a style that you are uncomfortable with. Everyone will have slightly different views on exactly what to include and how best to present your statement. Listen to their suggestions, but make sure the result is your statement – unique and personal to you. Good luck!
Ray is a qualified Careers Adviser for the National Careers Service West Midlands. Ray has extensive experience of providing advice and guidance to young people, having been practising for more than 25 years.