Think carefully about how you want to structure your personal statement. If your argument flows naturally and follows a logical order, this will impress admissions tutors and show them that you will do well on their course. After all, it’s a skill that will come in very handy when it’s time to write your essays and sit your exams over the next three or four years.
Basic personal statement structure tips
- Use paragraphs. This can be tricky as it will eat into the 47 lines available to you so don’t use lots of paragraphs but try to have a few. This will make your personal statement easier for the admissions tutor to read than one large block of writing.
- Have a clear beginning, middle and end. This will make help your personal statement flow naturally. For help with how to begin your personal statement, read our article on writing your opening sentence and, for help with the rest of your personal statement, read our article on what to include in your personal statement.
- Use the ABC method. When writing about each experience, use the ABC (action, benefit and course) structure. What is the activity, what skills and qualities have come from it and how does it relate to the course?
- Keep it short and sweet. You’re limited to 4,000 characters (47 lines) so use short, concise sentences and delete any unnecessary words.
Structure your personal statement to best show off your examples
There is no one set way to structure your personal statement. However, consider putting the most relevant and unique examples of your skills and experience towards the start of your personal statement. This can be more effective than working through all your examples in chronological or reverse chronological order.
For example, if you’re applying to study history you’ll probably want to make sure the school trip you went on to Auschwitz in year 12 has centre stage, rather than feeling you need to start with examples from year 13 or from when you were doing your GCSEs.
Read our article on what to include in your personal statement for more help on what to write about.
The three section approach to your personal statement
If you’re still not sure how you want to structure your personal statement, you might find it helpful to loosely split your personal statement into three sections. Jonathan Hardwick is a former head of sixth form and now a professional development manager at Inspiring Futures, a provider of careers information, advice and guidance to young people. He explains: ‘Your personal statement should cover three things. These are:
- why do you want to study the course?
- what have you done that makes you suitable for the course?
- what else have you done that makes you somebody who will contribute to the course and to the university?’
Section one: why do you want to study the course?
You need to explain to the admissions tutor your reasons for wanting to study this subject. If it’s a vocational course, such as nursing, think about what you like about this profession and why you think it’s the right career for you. If it’s an academic degree, such as geography or chemistry, why do you want to spend a long time studying this subject in detail? Think about what you’ve enjoyed so far and what you want to learn more about.
Section two: what have you done that makes you suitable for the course?
This is the biggest part of your personal statement. You’ll need to draw on your experiences to explain why you think you’d be a good student on the course and how you’ve developed the skills and knowledge needed.
If it’s a vocational course, think about what you’ve done that shows you’re engaging with the profession. Now is the time to mention any relevant work experience or voluntary work that you’ve done.
If it’s an academic subject, show that you’re going beyond what your teacher is telling you to do. If you’re doing an EPQ (an extended project) or you’ve done lots of extra reading, for example, tell the admissions tutor what you’ve done and how this has prepared you for the course. Or if you’re applying for a creative course, such as drama or music, write about what you’ve done outside the classroom. For example, for a creative writing course you could mention your blog or the poetry competition in which you were shortlisted for a prize.
Section three: what else have you done?
‘As a rule of thumb, 75% of your personal statement should be about your studies and your justifications for applying and 25% should be about your extracurricular activities,’ says Emma-Marie Fry, an area director at Inspiring Futures. Emma manages the careers guidance team in London and the south-east and goes into schools to deliver support to students.
A quarter of a personal statement is 1,000 characters (around 11–12 lines), so aim to roughly devote this amount of space to what else you’ve done. This is your chance to write about what you’ve done that perhaps isn’t so related to the course but makes you an interesting and well-rounded person. This could include any hobbies you enjoy in your spare time, paid employment or volunteering.
‘It’s important that you demonstrate why these interests and experiences are relevant to your application (for example, to show that you are able to balance your studies with your commitments) rather than just listing them,’ says Dr Helen Moggridge, a lecturer in geography at the University of Sheffield. Use your examples to show that you’ve developed important skills that will help you thrive at university. Good skills to highlight include independence, time management and organisation. So, for example, a Saturday job as a waitress may have improved your communication skills as well as your ability to work under pressure and prioritise urgent tasks. These skills will help you communicate with your lecturers and peers on your course, as well as juggling your coursework and exams.
Don't forget to use our course search to find the courses you want to apply to.
© magann – Fotolia
Filling in Your Application
There is no substitute for reading the UCAS guidance and then going slowly and carefully through each section, checking back against the guidance as you go.
- The UCAS application may only be a few electronic screens but for some it can be a daunting prospect. For most applicants, what you (and your referee) say will be all the university uses to make a decision, so it is important to get it right.
This looks simple, and it is, but don't just fill in your current address and then forget about it. If your address changes, make sure you tell UCAS immediately – including your email address and mobile/telephone number.
- UCAS will automatically notify your university choices of the change. If you don't keep UCAS informed of your change of address you will find letters and emails (which might be offers or a confirmation of a place) go to the wrong address.
- If you are at boarding school tell UCAS when you go home for the summer.
- It is essential to keep UCAS informed of any changes to your email address. The majority of communication from universities will be by email (open day details, accommodation reminders, news, and even an offer of a place or alternative offer in Clearing).
- Make sure your email inbox can receive bulk emails and is not full, especially during results time in August. You may not use email much but Universities do!
It is important to ensure you get the details of the exams which you are due to be taking exactly right.
- If you are taking English Language and Literature, put the full title and not just English, even if everyone in your school or college calls it English.
- This is important because any mistakes could mean that UCAS cannot match your application with your examination results straightaway in the summer. This could result in a unnecessary delay in universities making their decisions.
- Listing the full module details of a BTEC award is also important to avoid confusion over precisely what subjects you have studied.
- If you are taking the examinations of another country do not try to give a UK equivalent. Always state exactly what you are doing and let the university decide the equivalence so as to avoid any confusion.
- If the column headings on the form are inappropriate, then ignore them.
Be honest. Never be tempted to massage your results to make them look a little better.
- UCAS has some extremely sophisticated fraud-busting techniques and admissions tutors are remarkably good at spotting rogue applications.
- If you are found to be giving false or incomplete information, you will be promptly ejected from UCAS and lose any chance of a place at university that year.
- Even if you manage to slip through all the detection devices, you are likely to be asked by the university to present your certificates. Any sign of tampering will be investigated with the examining board.
- When the examination board advises your would-be university that the ABB on your form was really DDD, you will politely be shown the door.
This is your chance to say anything you like, in your own words, to persuade admissions tutors that yours is the brightest and best application ever to have crossed their desk. You can write what you like. The key areas to include:
- Why you want to study your chosen subject.
- What particular qualities and experience you can bring to the course.
- Details of any work experience or voluntary activity, especially if it is relevant to your course.
- Any other evidence of extra-curriculur achievements.
- Details of any sponsorship or placements you have secured or applied for.
- Your career aspirations.
- Any wider aspects of life that make you an interesting and well-rounded student.
- If your first language is not English, describe any opportunities you have had to use English (such as an English-speaking school or work with a company that uses English).
If you plan to take a gap year, then you would be advised to make some mention of your plans and intentions in the personal statement and how the experience may assist you in your personal development or your appreciation of your subject. The university will not hold you to this, but it will indicate to the admissions tutor that you have given some thought to the value of the experience.
Remember that for most admissions tutors a large volume of applications will be on their screen or cross their desk.
- Many applicants will get advice about how to write the statement and see model examples.
- Somehow you have to make your personal statement stand out from the crowd. Be honest and be yourself.
- Try to avoid being too wacky – not all admissions tutors will share your sense of humour.
If there is anything about your application that is even slightly unusual, then explain why.
- If you want to defer your entry to the following year, say why and what you intend to do with your year out.
- If you are a mature student, explain why you want to enter, or return to higher education.
- In general, the more vocational the course, the more you need to emphasise your commitment to the profession and relevant experience you have gained.
- Conversely, the more academic the course, the more you need to enthuse about the subject and explain why you want to study it for the next few years.
As with examinations, be honest.
- If you say you are interested in philosophy and then get called for interview, you can almost guarantee that some learned professor will ask you a relevant question. If you can't talk sensibly about philosophy, you will look immature and will be unlikely to receive an offer.
- Be specific in what you write. Don't just say you did some voluntary work; describe what you learned through the experience.
- Avoid saying you are interested in reading – be specific and describe what you like to read and why.
There is no ideal way to structure your statement. It is a good idea to use paragraphs or sub-headings to make the presentation clear and easy for an admissions tutor to read.
- Try to keep within the word count. Like everyone else you have only 450 words or so (45 lines, 4,000 characters max) in which to make your statement, so keep it clear and concise.
- If you have to say more than any additional material needs to be sent directly to the universities to which you have applied. Wait until you have received your application number from UCAS so that you can include this with your papers.
- Do not send additional papers to UCAS.
- UCAS Apply will let you paste in your personal statement from another source. It is, therefore, a good idea to prepare it in advance and check it thoroughly before entering it into your UCAS application.
Do not, under any circumstances, be tempted to plagiarise your personal statement.
- UCAS now use detection software on all applications.
- If there is evidence that your application is not your own work, any offers you receive can be withdrawn and universities will be informed of the level of information copied or plagiarised.
The personal statement is important and it will be read.
- Academic achievement and the possibly the reference from your tutor/adviser at school/college is regarded by many people to be more important.
- Give yourself plenty of time in which to prepare it.
- With brainstorming and re-reading/editing, at this level of education you ought to be able to produce a piece of work which accurately reflects you.
- All of us have positive attributes and motivations – its just a case of teasing them out and expressing them on the statement.
Read Personal Statements – an Insider's View, with more do's and dont's.
Choice of courses
By the time you fill in your application, you should have your choice of courses ready.
- You are allowed 5 choices. You don't have to use them all. If you only make one choice there is a lower application fee.
- If you want to apply for medicine, dentistry or veterinary science/medicine, you are only allowed to use four choices for these courses.
- Each university will only see details of its own application and so they will not know where else you have applied or whether all the courses in your application are the same. The form is therefore classed as 'blind'.
Remember that you only get to write one personal statement, so if you opt for radically different courses (e.g. Physics at Oxford, Film Studies at Essex, History at Sheffield and Politics at Aston) it will be difficult to construct a personal statement that demonstrates your enthusiasm for all of them equally.
- If your choices are so varied perhaps you need to ask yourself some honest questions about where your passions truly lie – otherwise you may find yourself in an unhappy place in the future.
- Better to wait 12 months and get a clearer understanding of who you are and what you wish to achieve.
Students who are applying to university as part of UCAS Extra may wish to email a revised personal statement to their chosen university.
- This is not currently possible via UCAS Apply itself but any email or correspondence should include your UCAS applicant number for easy cross referencing.
- Clearing/Adjustment applicants are also welcome (and advised) to submit a revised personal statement.
© Artur Marciniec, Fotolia
Finishing your application
In all sections of your application, make sure the grammar and punctuation are correct – check your application carefully.
- It is a good idea to show it to someone else as a final check. Don't rely on a computer – it won't spot the subtle differences between organic chemistry and orgasmic chemistry, for example.
- When you have finally finished, print out a copy and arrange for your referee (usually someone from your school or college) to add their reference and follow the instructions about ways in which you can pay the fee. In 2015 it is £23 for 2–5 choices or £12 for 1 choice.
- International applicants will need to have access to a credit card to make the payment.
Your application can arrive at UCAS any time between 1 September and 15 January (or 15 October if Oxford or Cambridge or any medical, dental or veterinary course is among your choices – see the Application Timetable for this and other exceptions).
- In some circumstances there can be a small advantage in applying early – before Christmas is advised.
- If you apply after the appropriate deadline your application will still be processed by UCAS but universities do not have to consider it. They can, if they wish, reject you on the grounds that they have received enough applications already.
- However, if you are applying for one of the less competitive courses or are applying from outside the European Union you will probably find your application is treated just like those that arrived on time, and many universities may make allowances for mature applicants engaged on one-year Access Diplomas.
Should I apply early?
Universities are required by UCAS rules to treat all applications received by the appropriate deadline on an equal basis.
- If you are applying for a low-demand subject you will probably get equal treatment, even if your application arrives well after the deadline. Nonetheless this is a risky strategy which is ill-advised.
- Occasionally, a very popular university may experience a sudden increase in applications in very high-demand subjects such as medicine, English or law.
- This only becomes apparent after the university has started making offers. It will then be faced with a choice of either carrying on making offers in the same way and ending up with an intake way above target or tightening up its criteria and admitting the correct number.
- This situation is very rare, but the conclusion is that applying early never does any harm while applying later to high-demand subjects very occasionally might – the early bird catches the worm.
Next page: Personal Statements – an Insider's View