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Matthew Burns

HEADMASTER’S BLOG – HOW TO WRITE YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT

Sometime in September pupils all over the country are confronted by the need to complete their Personal Statement in the UCAS form. Its importance is evident to all and for many applicants it becomes a daunting prospect, even a barrier to application. For some pupils there is the challenge of writing so much, whilst others wonder how to write so little. Getting started without resorting to anodyne clichés is always difficult. So how to go about it?

The first thing is to be clear about what you are trying to do. Stop aiming for an offer or a place, start believing that you will be the best applicant admissions tutors have ever seen. This is a straightforward competition to be the best. Ask yourself what a model applicant might look like; motivation, interest, personality, resilience are all crucial characteristics to display. Make a note of these characteristics to refer to later.

The next thing is surely to find out what selection criteria admissions tutors are looking for. You cannot do too much research. Look through the subject websites of every university to which you are applying and read the sections on selection. Then make sure you read the general pages which relate to the university as a whole.

Too many applicants neglect the latter, ending up with wasted applications as they fail to meet some of the most basic requirements (e.g., the need to take all A levels at a single sitting). Have a hunt around to find out what previous applicants said about their application experience. Many schools keep records of previous applications and chat rooms such as The Student Room give an insight, even if it is not to be taken as gospel. 

When you feel you have competed your research, make a note of both the essential and desirable requirements. If you find you cannot meet the essential requirements of a particular course or university – don’t waste time on that application. 

Inevitably, the best applications are those from pupils who know what they want to study well in advance, have looked at the admissions criteria and have matched their activities accordingly. Aspirant vets frequently fall into this category. But beware that the most focused personal statement can become a bit one-dimensional. And boring. It’s important to inject a bit of colour to ensure the reader will want to meet or teach you.

Some subject areas regard a breadth of interests as an essential diversion from the intensity of the course or profession. By way of example, reference to sport may be an important adjunct to medical applications, albeit a brief one.Start the writing process by drawing up a table. Write down all the things that you do and have achieved on one side, then write down how they might link to your degree course on the other.

Interests in music represent fine motor skills, which are valuable in medical applications; backstage contribution to drama links to organisation, teamwork and timekeeping; charitable activities to moral purpose. Link your activities and achievement to the entry criteria and desirable characteristics so that it is clear that you have the skills, knowledge and interest that admissions tutors are looking for. This is a good time to build up phrases you want to use without the pressure of writing the statement itself. There’s nothing worse than writer’s block!

Finally, rank the points and phrases according to their importance as entry criteria so that you make sure the most important information is presented early on in your statement. 

At some point, all the planning and preparation has to turn into action. No-one can write a good personal statement for you, so here are a few tips for the process:
1. Always work on a computer to facilitate editing. Save and back up your work.
2. Don’t worry about the first sentence – just get something down and refine it later. 
3. Use your first draft to order the points and statements, don’t worry about the fluidity of the prose at this stage.
4. Now look at the balance of the statement – different people will offer different advice. I suggest one third should be related to your interest in the course applied for, one third to the practical qualities and experience you would bring to the course and the last third to your different interests. You may need to rebalance this according to your strengths and experiences, but don’t move too far away from this model.
5. Ask someone else to look at it at this stage, not to critique your writing but to tell you if it represents you properly – the chances are they will tell you several more things which you have missed about yourself. Don’t be shy – highlight your qualities.

Now you have the raw material for your personal statement it becomes your chance to express yourself. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, admissions tutors can spot the parent-written personal statement a mile off.  Avoid pompous and over-complicated language such as, “I, myself, consider…..” . There’s nothing wrong with “I believe…” and so on. 

When you have finished, by all means ask people whose judgement they value for their opinions, but don’t become slaves to them. And when you feel happy, don’t fuss about the most minute of details, press “Send”, enjoy the relief and get on with life! 

This may seem a lengthy process of research, preparation and writing. It needs to be because the personal statement is critical to unlocking the offer from a university. If you take nothing else from this article, set plenty of time aside for the process at the end of Year 12, through the summer holidays and at the start of Year 13.

Good Luck. 

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