How to reduce the stress of Personal Statement writing
It’s not surprising that applicants are daunted by the Personal Statement: they’ve never written anything like it before and they feel that there’s a lot at stake. As a result, they often feel that it has to be grand in style and content, and they can thus easily miss what might be useful evidence. The following tips might help.
1. The admissions’ tutor wants to see evidence of recent enthusiasm for the subject, especially of any research beyond an examination syllabus
Enthusiasm can be shown in a variety of ways, depending on the subject, including books or articles read and work experience.
At university students are expected to develop more self-directed learning, so mentioning a research project can send the message “I’m ready to take part in university study”. An Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is a good way of doing this, especially if the topic is relevant to the proposed university subject. However, a certified qualification such as an EPQ is not necessary, and I suggest that referring to any research in the first sentence of a Personal Statement can get the reader’s attention from the outset. An example might be: “I have recently been considering how radical Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was.” The applicant could then give a brief analysis of a couple of works read (one on either side of the debate): personal analysis followed by a personal conclusion gets far more credit than mere summary. There is no credit for just listing books read (almost certainly the applicant who does this has read none of them!) or referring vaguely to “I regularly read ‘New Scientist’”, but a discussion of specific articles about super materials that have followed in the wake of graphene is much more convincing.
Inspiration for a topic can be found by dipping into free online podcasts produced by some universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, and “The Guardian” or taking part in a free online course (MOOC – Massive Open Online Course). Look at the many MOOCs produced by universities on the Futurelearn platform (https://www.futurelearn.com/ ).
Notice that what is needed is evidence of recent enthusiasm. Exclude the word “always”, other hyperbolic words, such as “fascinated” or “captivated”, and any reference to primary school projects!
2. If you’re applying for a subject not currently studied, reassure the admissions’ tutor (and yourself) that you’ve done relevant research
An applicant for Engineering might consider undertaking a course (London universities offer many free one-day courses under London Tasters: http://www.london.ac.uk/tasters.html ) or trying to undertake work experience. If the latter is impossible, someone who works in engineering might be prepared to give a brief interview. Similarly, someone applying for Real Estate might try to have a chat with an estate agent, but the chat would be more meaningful if some preliminary research had been done on the national property market in the Property section of “The Daily Telegraph” or the local market by looking at the Rightmove website. Effort taken over this could impress enough to open a door to some work experience.
Medicine students tend to assume that shadowing a GP or consultant is vital. It isn’t. I have heard Medicine admissions’ staff on several occasions state that communication skills are best developed at a supermarket checkout or working in a café. Don’t consider these as too low status! It is what is learned in these jobs or in voluntary work with children or the elderly that it is crucial to express. Moreover, Medicine applicants would do well to remember that patients usually go to a doctor to have a problem solved, so any evidence of an interest in scientific problem solving (even if not strictly medical) is helpful.
For some subjects there are excellent paperback books available to test an interest in a subject not currently studied:
- Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story (Gabriel Weston) – each chapter raises issues facing a Medicine student, including dealing with colleagues as well as patients.
- What About Law? Studying Law at University (ed. Catherine Barnard, Janet O’Sullivan, Graham Virgo) – an excellent introduction to how lawyers approach a legal issue and the 7 compulsory areas in LLB degree programmes. This short book will sort out how serious a potential applicant is about studying Law: it will attract or deter.
- Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (Kate Fox) – an entertaining reminder that Social Anthropology does not just focus on peoples in distant lands.
3. Make full use of what is local
Don’t assume that local evidence is too parochial to make an impact. On the contrary, evidence of engaging with or observing one’s local community can make an application stand out.
Applicants for History, Sociology and Geography (physical and human) should consider what local issues might be incorporated. Business and Economics applicants might interview local businesses, including perhaps one in which they are currently a part-time employee, to discuss marketing strategies or the impact of financial decisions made by the government.
4. Consider how extra-curricular activities might be relevant
If someone is a keen supporter of a professional sport team and is applying for Business, why not look at the business strategy of that team? If the applicant has engaged in running a business, no matter on how small a scale, they might discuss how they dealt with problems encountered.
Admissions tutors want to see evidence of resilience and perseverance (ie students who will not leave as soon as they face a difficulty), so any evidence of “adhesive qualities”, sticking with an interest over a period of time, is reassuring. Playing an instrument for several years (whether or not grade exams. have been taken), will get credit, as will taking on responsibilities, like looking after younger siblings. The latter could also lead into a discussion about child development by a Psychology applicant.
It is good for an applicant to show awareness in extra-curricular activities of issues that might relate to the subject applied for. For instance, a geographer looking at landscape features on a DofE expedition and relating this to what had been learnt at school. Applicants tend to underestimate the evidence they have in this area.
5. Use your USP
Curiosity is a key attribute for a potential university applicant. One way to stand out from the crowd is to go beyond the modular thinking that has dominated A Level specifications in recent years and to make interesting links: for instance, comparing the propaganda methods of Stalin and the Roman emperor Augustus.
I encourage applicants to consider their Unique Selling Point, which they can highlight in a Personal Statement. In my experience they rarely recognize it themselves, but a few minutes’ discussion with an adviser can usually elicit something in their background and interests (subject-related or not) which can feature prominently in their application as relevant evidence.
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