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How to write an eye-catching UCAS Personal Statement What makes you different?

“I have run my own business since I was 14.” In some the entrepreneurial spirit starts early, and this Upper Sixth Form applicant for Business Management programmes had no problem in finding an eye-catching first sentence for a UCAS Personal Statement. I encourage all applicants to believe that they have a Unique Selling Point relevant to their proposed area of study, which should be highlighted with evidence early on, to differentiate them from those who profess hyperbolically that they have “always been fascinated/intrigued/captivated” and “will be a great asset to your department”.

“For several months I was ready at midnight to complete the online Cambridge Chemistry Challenge.” It might be thought that this level of commitment is unparalleled, but it isn’t. Moreover, academic passion can be shown in a variety of ways. The applicant who justifies a claim that “the most iconic cars also have interesting engines” by referring to the “426 Hemi made by Chrysler between 1964 and 1971” shows a deep-seated interest in the subject.

Show a genuine interest in research

A research project on the role played by British deception tactics in World War II provided an engaging entrée to an application for War Studies. A formally assessed project is not necessary, but a depth of reading that distinguishes an applicant from the mass certainly is. I recently heard of a UCAS adviser who urged applicants not to name books read, “as this wastes too many characters”. I strongly disagree. Applicants applying to “read” a subject at university and who give their opinions on a couple of books or articles that they have read, perhaps on either side of a debate in that subject, are in effect showing that they are undergraduates-in-waiting, ready to embrace the research-focused learning expected at the most research-intensive universities. Those of us who have read thousands of Personal Statements long ago realised that applicants who merely list several books have probably not read any of them.

Think across subject areas

Several years ago, when our daughter arrived at university, we were given a lecture by the Pro Vice Chancellor, in which he stressed that the new students needed to ditch their AS/A2 modular thinking and needed to explore links across categories. This is another way in which UCAS applicants can impress: “My interest in evolution and my love of computing led me to attend a university lecture about finding optimal solutions to problems using simulated evolution.”

Curiosity is sometimes sparked closer to home: “Following the financial crisis in 2008, the decision by the Government to reduce the size of the Army started my interest in economics. Would my father still have a job? Would the Army still provide him with a house? Would his pension be safe?”

Reflect on your experience

Testing an interest by spending a period in the workplace can also be a valuable catalyst and highlight the USP: “Shadowing the CEO of a business that creates musical speakers, I learned the importance of risk and reward.”

Applicants can use the opportunities that they are offered, such as this applicant for Spanish: “During my visit to Barcelona in June 2014 the abdication of King Juan Carlos was announced. I learnt from speaking with locals that some praised his role in steering the country from dictatorship to democracy, while others criticised him for being involved in recent scandals.” Sociology and Geography applicants should not ignore the fieldwork on their doorstep.

Similarly, Medicine applicants are likely to receive more credit for dealing with a wide variety of people by working in a café or on a supermarket checkout for several months than for spending a day or two in a hospital or GPs’ surgery.
As is the case with a UCAS Reference, a Personal Statement that begins with a sentence declaring a distinctive personal interest and then shows evidence of individual research and reflection will stand out from those that offer bland generalisations that any non-specialist could write. Moreover, one applicant mantra in a Personal Statement should be “Never start (or end) with a quotation”.


There’s more useful advice in this piece in the Telegraph from 21 September:

Posted by Phillip Rogerson on Wed, 8 Feb 2017

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Philip Rogerson read Classics at Oxford. He has taught in a wide range of institutions: from UN (refugee camps in Jordan) to university (Oxford). Philip has been an HMC/ISI inspector of schools and has was Director of Higher Education and Careers at Sherborne School from 1997 to 2017.

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