IB Educator Alethea Bleyberg shares tips for writing the UCAS personal statement that will have admissions tutors impressed with your submission
Alethea Bleyberg has already shared her knowledge on choosing IB Diploma subjects, how to study for exams, and managing home learning. Here, she’s giving us some tips for writing the UCAS personal statement, so that you can wow the pants of the admissions tutors and get into your dream university.
7 tips for writing the UCAS personal statement
As the summer draws nearer, students who are about to go into their last year of school will be preparing their university applications. For many students in Hong Kong, British universities are a fail-safe choice because of their strong brand recognition, excellent quality of education and high level of international student support. Another advantage to applying to the UK is the centralised application process through UCAS which makes applying relatively simple and less time-consuming than some other destinations as only one personal statement is required which is sent to all five universities the student applies to. However, this also means that one piece of writing has an outsized effect on all applications so pull up a pew for some top notch advice on how to write a winning personal statement.
1. Understand how UCAS works
The personal statement cannot exceed 4,000 characters or 47 lines of text, whichever is reached first. There is no circumventing this rule as the system will not allow you to submit a statement that is even one character over the limit. Therefore, every sentence must have a purpose. The same personal statement is sent to all five universities so you cannot mention any university by name and you should not tailor your statement to any one of your choices. For this reason, it makes sense to apply to the same, or very similar courses, at all five universities.
2. Know what admissions tutors are looking for
The vast majority of your 4,000 characters should be spent on explaining why you are interested in the subject(s) you are applying for and how your studies to date have prepared you to undertake an undergraduate degree in this field. While most universities provide similar courses in, for example, Engineering or Psychology, in reality there will be differences between universities in how those courses are structured, what content is covered, and how students are assessed.
While the UCAS website is a great starting point, you really need to research the university and faculty websites for each course you are interested in to find out more about the course options as well as the leading professors and lecturers in the faculty and their research interests. Once you have found programmes of study that truly align with your interests, it will be much easier to articulate why you are a good fit for the specific courses you are applying for.
3. Plan and structure your statement
A good rule of thumb is that 75-80 per cent of the personal statement should be dedicated to explaining your interest in, and academic preparation for, your chosen field of study. The rest of your personal statement is dedicated to explaining how your extracurricular activities have developed key skills that will contribute to your academic success.
Before starting to write, brainstorm and mind map your key ideas and organise them in a logical order. Prioritise academics over after-school activities, and your school subjects that are most closely aligned to your proposed course of study over ones that are less relevant. A common structure is as follows:
Opening sentences (here you can explain your motivation for choosing your course by linking it to a current event, global issue or interest in entering a specific profession)
Link your three or four most important school subjects to your intended course of study and explain what knowledge and skills you have developed so far to support your studies in this area
Choose just one or two after-school activities or volunteer/work experiences and explain how they have developed skills that will contribute to your academic success
Students often don’t know how to start their statement. I suggest that, as with most pieces of writing, you write the body first and leave the opening till last. In your opening sentences you should aim to grab the reader’s attention positively but do not resort to platitudes (see below in Things to Avoid!).
4. Show rather than tell
Students often like to make bold declarations about their knowledge and skills in their personal statements but claims about ability need to be supported by evidence of achievements. For instance, if you claim to be strong at History, support that claim with evidence relating to your academic performance in an essay, piece of coursework /IA or exam. Summarise the topics of coursework essays, your IA titles or Extended Essay research question, and be specific about the subject-specific skills toolkit you have developed such as source analysis, critical assessment of different perspectives, and historical argumentation. Richness and detail in your examples are much more convincing to an admissions tutor than bold claims without substantiation.
5. Tailor the extracurricular activities you mention to the skills needed to succeed in your subject
Most students in Hong Kong have extremely busy schedules and can boast of having many hobbies, after school activities and service projects to their name. There is not enough space to document them all in your personal statement so you must be selective.
Discuss only the ones which are most directly relevant to the course you are applying to. For example, if you are applying to study International Relations, you may have participated in Model United Nations in order to learn more about international diplomacy and global issues, and to develop public speaking skills. Don’t just list activities without explaining what skills you developed from them and give concrete examples of achievements where possible. Skills such as the ability to contribute to teams, work consistently towards long-term goals, and manage time effectively are all skills any student will need.
6. Show some personal flair and individuality
The personal statement is your one opportunity to communicate with the tutors directly. In reading your statement, the admissions team should get a sense of who you are as a person, what matters to you, and what you could contribute to the university. As someone who reads a lot of personal statements, what I look for is that the student has been able to impart something of what makes them an individual, and has been able to leave a positive impression through telling a coherent story about who they are. Perhaps you have lived in ten different countries, are a Rubik’s cube champion, or have overcome the challenges of having a learning disability. If those details have shaped your approach to your studies in some way, make sure to include them in your statement.
7. Proofread, edit, and then proofread again
The personal statement also serves as a sample of your writing to admissions tutors. The accuracy and quality of your writing is, therefore, important. This is a formal piece of writing so avoid contractions and run-on sentences. Don’t use colloquialisms such as ‘got’ or ‘gonna’. Use linking words and phrases to make logical transitions between sentences and paragraphs. Try to vary your word choices by using synonyms to avoid repeating often-used words and phrases. Use an academic phrasebank to help you where necessary.
AND 3 THINGS TO AVOID…
Clichés, quotes and platitudes
“Ever since I was a child” is the most common opening phrase in personal statements according to UCAS, and variations around this theme are seen in thousands of personal statements each year. Apart from the fact that this raises serious questions about the authenticity of the statement, it is also likely not to be true and is also just plain boring. Rather than saying, “Ever since I was little I’ve wanted to be a doctor,” say something like, “I have been working towards my ambition of becoming a doctor through undertaking two internships in hospitals in the last year as well as taking two science subjects and maths at A level.” Steer clear of words like ‘passion’ and ‘dream’, as well as inspirational quotes; they are not stylistically appropriate for British applications.
Exaggeration, lies or plagiarism
It should go without saying but you should not exaggerate or lie about your achievements. Any information you provide in your personal statement will be checked against your transcript and your school reference. If admissions tutors are in any doubt about any of your qualifications, they will contact your school for corroboration. If universities have any doubts about your personal integrity, they will not make you an offer. Similarly, do not copy any part of your personal statement from another source. UCAS has powerful plagiarism software and every year thousands of statements are found to contain sections plagiarised from examples on the internet.
The key to writing a successful personal statement is using language concisely so you can say all you need to within 4,000 characters. Therefore, don’t list information which is given in other parts of your application such as the subject you are applying for or which subjects you are taking at school. Use nouns where possible i.e. “Concision is essential” instead of “Being concise is essential”. Use a thesaurus to look for shorter adjectives with the same meaning. Cut out hedging language such as “I feel / think / believe”; it’s your statement so it’s clear that any stated opinions are your own.