This week’s blog post sees another opportunity to demonstrate our collective brain and share community knowledge. With so many of us slap bang in the middle of UCAS application season it made sense to focus on this subject and so I posed the question: “What one tip would you give to students when writing their personal statements?” Of course, it is never that straightforward. Most careers professionals would find it much easier to give a detailed list rather than just one single piece of advice. But this was an exercise in identifying the ‘repeat offenders’ – the elements of a personal statement that students get wrong over and over again. And so, our thoughts are collected below:
Take time to plan
It seems that the success of a personal statement often lies in the thinking and planning stages. There are huge benefits to be had from tapping into advice from the universities themselves (either at Open Days, websites or by phoning admissions departments) to learn what they want to see in their applications. From this point forwards, students should treat their personal statement like an essay – make use of prompt sheets or mind maps to gather all the initial information and build it up slowly, paragraph by paragraph. John Morrison very helpfully recommended the ‘ABC’ approach from the University of Manchester liaison team (what activity you did, the benefits you got from this, and how this related to the course) as a way of structuring paragraphs effectively.
First impressions count
Getting it right from the very beginning is paramount in setting the admissions tutors ‘mood’ for an application and this is why so many students, with good reason, struggle with that all-important opening paragraph. Many members pointed out the ubiquitous problem with unoriginal opening paragraphs and clichés. Starting your statement with phrases such as “I’ve always had a deep interest in….” is never going to grab the attention of the reader and set the statement aside as being original and different.
Show your interest (without using THAT word)
First and foremost, admissions tutors want to understand why applicants are interested in their course and so students should make this the main focus of their application. It may be a starting point, but it is simply not enough to stick to what they have learnt from their current course studies. Students should be able to show that their enthusiasm is genuine by demonstrating learning above and beyond the school curriculum. But they should also be careful how this is worded. Many of us were quick to point out the overuse of the word ‘passionate’ in personal statements. As Trisha Thorn points out, “admissions staff want to feel the passion, not keep seeing the word!”
Learn to reflect
Something that often distinguishes a great application from a good application is the student’s ability not just to list information of what they have done, but to be able to reflect on it; to show what their experiences have taught them and how they have grown and developed from it. Admissions staff want to know what they think, not just what they do, so being able to evaluate their learning at a higher level will make a student’s application much more convincing.
Use your words wisely
4,000 characters does not go far so students should learn to write succinctly -if a word isn’t adding any extra value then be ruthless and take it out. Going overboard with a thesaurus is likely not only to add unnecessary word count but to also interrupt the flow of what is being said. Other annoyances that were identified include listing information that is already apparent from the application form, overuse (or any use) of quotations, and, as Joanna Greatwich puts it “teaching grandma to suck eggs” – spending unnecessary space telling tutors what is involved in their course, without putting it in any kind of personal or meaningful context.
Get the balance right
Yes, it is fair to say that universities like their students to be well-rounded and to be able to present a range of extra-curricular hobbies and interests but this mustn’t happen at the expense of their academic interests. Students should be reminded that this is an academic application (perhaps with a strong vocational slant) and as such they should aim for an application which is for 70-75% academically biased. Put simply, the need to be an extra-curricular over-achiever can be vastly exaggerated by some applicants, yet this is not what will determine whether or not they receive an offer.
Play it safe – but not that safe
It is important, of course, that a statement is polished and error free (some amazing examples of howlers have been sent through to me – I’m wondering if these would make a future blog post of their own). Humour rarely translates, and ‘weird’ isn’t a selling point. Students should remember that this is a professional document after all. However, they should also be aware that sometimes the most polished personal statement can also be the least inspiring. The consensus opinion is that when admissions tutors read a statement, they want to able to sense the student as a unique individual with their own set of academic interests and experiences, not as a generic candidate who sounds like everyone else.
‘Be’ the admissions tutor
As Jacqueline Casson pointed out “I like to remind students that universities are not obliged to offer them a place, and that if they want a place… then they will need to impress them, and prove that they are better than other applicants.” This is a reminder for students to try and put themselves in the shoes of the admissions tutor – to try and read their completed application through the eyes of the decision-maker and ask themselves “have I done enough to convince them that I will be an interesting and motivated student to teach?” Encourage them to ask themselves if they have done enough to stand out from the hundreds of other students who may also have applied for that course. And, if not, what needs to change?
Of course, this is a snapshot only of what could be a much longer piece of writing. I would like to personally thank for the following Working Adviser community members who have contributed to this article:
Karen Betty, Alan Bullock, Jacqueline Casson, Rebecca Duncan, Shawn Fox, Martine Gillard, Joanna Greatwich, James Hankins, Jonathan Hardwick, Sam McCarthy, Cathy Moore, John Morrison, Sharon O’Connor, Liz Reece, Ben Robertson, Trisha Thorn.