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The UCAS personal statement - don't be scared!

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 ( ).

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: ) 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.

Posted by Philip Rogerson on Tue, 6 Jun 2017

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Donald Trump and the orb of power

Want to save the world?

US President Donald Trump's first foreign trip in office upended the international order. He picked a side in the Sunni/Shia conflict, worried the Israelis and other nations about trusting him with their state secrets, continued his reduction of NATO to a merely transactional thing, and confirmed to European leaders that he'd rather cosy up to the world's strongmen than nurture America's oldest and most solid alliances.

German Chancellor Angela said, to an election rally after Trump had strutted off home: “The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent... We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.”

Meanwhile, Russia is winning its geopolitical chess game, after the weakening of Europe by the coming removal of the UK, and with the election of the disruptive, NATO-bashing Trump. And China, in promising a new huge infrastructure project – its “one belt, one road” Silk Route for the 21st Century – is driving at greater trade with the European Union (which may see any future Chinese deal-making with our island nation be an afterthought).

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on 30 May, (paywall), White House national security adviser HR McMaster and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn wrote: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a 'global community' but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

Young people in the UK may wonder how on Earth they can forge a future for themselves in this maelstrom, when the new “gig economy” makes even assembling burgers at McDonald's look like enviable job security and Brexit threatens to leave the UK behind other world powers and trading blocs.

What about those young people who believe there is, or at least should be, a “global community”? What career route is there for students who want to bring some order into this looming anarchy?

Here are some ideas for students who align with the view expressed in The Atlantic, in its critique of the White House's WSJ piece, that “You can have friends. Or you can have people you work with only when your immediate interests align. Those are not the same thing.”

I'll leave it to you to look at individual institutions and courses, their reputations and their course requirements. A Levels in languages, history, geography and economics may be advantageous, perhaps most of all in that they could reveal or reflect an interest and aptitude in a student.

International Studies

International Studies degrees try to develop an understanding, both historical and contemporary, of different cultures, societies, languages and political systems around the world. Continuing into postgraduate study may bring you into an arena in which you can propose solutions and courses of action and influence political decision-making at a high level.

This is closely related to International Relations, which looks specifically at the relationships between countries and societies.

Development Studies

More often found as a postgraduate opportunity than as a bachelor's degree, because it is highly inter-disciplinary, Development Studies looks at how political and economic factors explain, limit or enhance the development of the world's poorer nations. Issues like security, inequality, ecology, migration, public health and engineering all play into Development Studies.


Politics and Political Science degrees look at the development and workings of different political and governmental systems around the world and throughout history. They can, themselves, be quite politicised depending on where you study. They also have numerous sub-fields, like comparative politics and political economy, so look closely at the course content. Foreign policy and international relations may be a greater or lesser element of the degree.

A politics degree could bring many transferrable skills, not least in management.


They say that politics is how you want the world to work, and economics is how it actually works. Economics degrees look at how economies function (or not), through the behaviour and interactions of agents and markets, the use of resources and the application of public policy.

You don't necessarily have to have a maths brain to study economics, but it does help.

Strategic Studies

Normally only a postgraduate field, Strategic Studies looks at the interplay between international politics, diplomacy and economics, and military power, defense and intelligence. It has come to look more at “peace studies” as well as the study of conflict.

Often a route for someone who has studied in or alongside military service.

Aid careers

Working for an aid agency, development-focused non-governmental organisation or international agency is challenging, rewarding, sometimes dangerous and often harrowing. Aid agencies are crying out for workers from so many different fields that it's impossible to capture it all here, but some examples are:

  • Medicine
  • Engineering
  • Professions – law, accountancy
  • Management
  • Agriculture
  • Public relations, fundraising, lobbying

Languages will be really helpful if you want to work in international aid. Even if you don't end up earning a salary with an aid agency, volunteering for them is always a way to make a difference.


Language degrees go beyond mere translation and into studying culture, history and politics. They usually bring a period of study abroad.

Careers in journalism, international business (including tourism), diplomacy, law, international aid and development and teaching are all options with a language degree.



Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Thu, 1 Jun 2017

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Revision time!

Revision habits to set you up for uni

The internet is awash with advice on revising effectively. Much of it is good sense, and teachers will be urging their students to do the age-old things like starting it early, planning it out with a timetable that has goals and sensible downtime, and so on.

Some advice out there is questionable, but hey, if it works then so much the better:

Here are some less obvious things that pupils might take note of, and form into habits that will serve them well through to their university finals.


Eat, sleep, exercise

Revise in the morning

  • When you're at your freshest, mentally, and the temptations are fewer:
  • Plus, isn't it great to reach the afternoon knowing that you're either finished, or almost finished?
  • It's down to personal preference, of course, but if you do end up revising at night, don't sacrifice precious sleep for it.

Test yourself

  • Check you're achieving your goals, and find out where your gaps are, by doing past papers or old exam questions.
  • Get someone else to test you. But don't worry about how their revision is going, and don't give in to people who are going to be bad influences. Maybe use family members instead of friends? If they don't know the subject, you'll really have to explain yourself clearly – and it's a s if you're teaching them your subject, which helps your own recall.
  • By doing past papers, you'll be applying what you've learned. That's how uni works - they don't just want facts regurgitated, they want students to take that knowledge and use it.
  • Look at examiners' reports. These should be available wherever you find past papers on exam boards' websites, and will give insights into what examiners are looking for in good exam answers. As recommended here:

Switch up your study space

  • You want to work somewhere with few distractions. Check in with social media every now and then when you have a break, but otherwise steer clear. Put your gadgets in a different room if you can – you don't want Netflix or YouTube taking away your focus or tempting you to have longer breaks than you intended.
  • If you want to listen to music, make sure it's calming and not intrusive. As the Guardian points out here, music may not help at all:
  • Get lots of natural light. Move your furniture if you must. Tidy up and make the area comfortable, but not too comfortable.
  • If you have noisy family life going on around you, think about decamping somewhere quieter and calmer, like your local library. Ideally, you should let your family know when and where you'll be revising and ask them not to disturb you.


Here are some more potentially useful links:


Good luck! You got this.

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Mon, 22 May 2017

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EC President Juncker by Martin Schulz - CreativeCommons BY-NC-ND 2.0

Juncker mentality

When Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commssion, quipped to the recent State of the Union conference in Italy that English was “losing its importance in Europe”, he hit a nerve.

It was doubtless the very nerve he intended to hit.

English is the only truly international language the world has right now, thanks largely to America's dominance of business and aviation.

Nobody's going to stop being able to speak English overnight. As Michael Skapinker wrote in reaction to Juncker in the Financial Times: “If there is to be any decline in English’s status as the EU’s lingua franca, it is more than a generation away.”

But, as Skapinker also observed, just because you can speak a language, it doesn't mean you like it.

Our Brexit negotiators had better have good language skills, because I can't imagine their EU counterparts volunteering to conduct proceedings in English. Indeed, they would be neglecting their duty to the EU and its nations if they did. It's their job to make life hard for us.

The All Party Parliamentary Working Group on Modern Languages recognised this need when it called, last autumn, for a national plan to produce linguists in the light of Brexit.

Katrin Kohl, Professor of German Literature at the University of Oxford, says in this blog post that Brexit makes it harder to implement the most obvious solution to the “downward spiral” of language learning in the UK: recruiting language teachers from mainland Europe.

International businesses from Anglophone countries have bases in the UK because we speak English and are in Europe. Inevitably, they will move to the mainland because the more important of those two factors – the one that makes money – is being within the world's largest trading bloc.

So yes, over a generation, English will lose its importance in Europe. It's hard to imagine that MFL teaching in UK schools and universities won't uptick accordingly in that time. But that won't come soon enough to meet our immediate language needs as we try to make favourable deals with the EU and non-Anglophone nations around the world.

Juncker's prod was enjoyably mischievous, mocking Brexiteers' Basil Fawlty-esque attitude to Europe and weird, blind optimism that somehow everything will be okay if we just believe in ourselves. He was also, perhaps, poking fun at the American Empire's slapstick decline and fall, its descent into Trumpish clumsiness.

It's pointless being outraged by Juncker's comments. Europe is simply looking to a future without the UK in it. They want to get on with their lives after the divorce.

Far better to recognise that Juncker was doing us a favour, warning us that our over-reliance on English is a big problem in the short term, and that we ought to be planning now for the long term.

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Thu, 11 May 2017

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Polling card

Voting matters

In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum last year, it seemed that young people had missed an opportunity by failing to vote for the future in Europe that they wanted.

Around 70% of the UK's almost 6 million 18- to 24-year-olds are registered to vote, but a SkyData projection the morning after the referendum had turnout in this age group at just 36%.

Had those "missing" young people bothered to vote, the story went, it would have been enough to overturn the Leave majority of just over 1.25 million. And with YouGov reporting that 71% of this age group wanted to remain in Europe, it was tempting to conclude that they had collectively shot themselves in their great big lazy foot.

Statistics being just north of "damned lies", of course, later surveys saw things rather differently. Research by Opinium and the London School of Economics, for instance, reckoned that a much higher proportion of 18-to-24s  - 64% of them - may have voted.

Furthermore, Michael Bruter, professor of political science and European politics at the LSE who analysed this research, said: "Allowing 16-to-17-year-olds a vote would have added nearly 1.6 million potential citizens to the electorate... On balance, the results of our surveys on the turnout of 18-to-24-year-olds would suggest that it would not have been enough to overturn the result of the referendum … but it would have almost certainly reduced the advantage of Leave to such a point (likely less than 500,000 votes) that the very concept of a majority would have been highly controversial."

How ever it really shook down - and we may never know for sure because, quite rightly, that's between individuals and their ballot boxes - it's clear that young people can and do make a difference.

And if the Opinium survey is right, then it gives the lie to the long-standing belief that young people don't vote. Overall turnout in the 2015 General Election was 66% - roughly the same as for young people in the Brexit referendum. Indeed, 100,000 under-25s are reckoned to have registered to vote in the three days after the 8 June General Election was called.

Get registered

If there is a stumbling block for young people in staking their claim to part of our electoral landscape, it may be in getting registered to vote.

Fortunately, that's now easier than ever in the internet age. Just go here:

It takes about five minutes and you'll want your National Insurance Number handy. Simples.

It's too late to register for the 4 May local elections, if you haven't already, but you have until 22 May for the 8 June General Election. You need to be 18, or turning 18 before polling day.

Where to register?

This can trip students up. Should they register at home, or at their uni address?

The answer, according to the Electoral Commission, is both.

If a local election is going to happen during term time, you can get a postal vote for your home council(s) and still vote in person in your university town.

(You can only vote once in any election, though, so for a General Election simply vote in the place you'll be on polling day - or get a postal vote if you intend to be off travelling, passed out in a festival field, or whatever.)


It's possible that, with so many people predicting a foregone conclusion in the coming election, turnout will be low. It's an opportunity for young people to sway things in their favour if they can get out and vote en bloc.

In an age of university fees of £9000 and upwards, starter homes costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, zero-hours contracts and, yes, old folk wanting to avoid pesky foreigners, maybe those citizenship and general studies lessons consigned to dark corners of the school timetable won't seem like filler after all.



Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Fri, 28 Apr 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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