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Personal statement - essay or creative writing?

Read our top tips on how to write a personal statement that will impress any admission officers.

“Describe yourself” has been universally agreed to be the most difficult interview question presented; we acquire the skills to talk about academic topics, current events, the latest movies, but are we ever trained to sell ourselves in an articulate manner? This is perhaps why the personal statement is such an art form and can be so tricky to get your head around.

Back to basics:

What exactly is the personal statement? Concisely, it is a 4,000-character (not word!) essay that supports a student’s UCAS application. As it is often assumed that a student will apply to the same, if not similar, course at different institutions, the personal statement is the one piece of extended writing that will be read by all the higher education institutions that the student is applying to. It needs to sell, inform and show admissions officers why they need to choose you.

This has its pros and cons, the pro’s being that you only need to write one to apply to (a maximum of) five courses. The cons being that it’s actually a bit more complex to write one general essay for five courses that may be slightly different. At Holland Park, we have plenty of subject specialists ranging from your traditional studies of Law, Medicine, Engineering, to more niche subjects like Fashion Design, Music, and Oriental Studies; if you would like a second opinion on your essay, feel free to contact our educational consultants who can provide you with an expert opinion on the right approach.

Still overwhelmed? Don’t fret, here are our top tips to write a personal statement that will “wow” any admissions officer!

Academic focus

Unlike the United States universities, who are hunting for how all-rounded and involved their candidates are, universities in the UK are interested primarily in your academic focus. As you will be specialising in a particular field, admissions officers are interested to see why you’ve picked the subject and what you’ve done so far to show your preparation for it. For Oxbridge and the other top Russell Group Universities, they are purely interested in your academic aptitude in that subject. In short, your personal statement should explain why you have decided to study your subject and what you have done to learn more about it.

Go beyond what you’re taught and use evidence

It is important, when showing your interest in your subject, to demonstrate how you have gone beyond the syllabus to learn more about it. This could be reading academic books or journals, going to lectures and talks outside of school or attending a relevant summer school. When admissions officers are reading your personal statement, they don’t want to see that you’ve just got the same experience as someone who’s studied the subject at A-Level.

However, if you have gone above and beyond your course, you also need to prove it – what have you done, read, learnt, thought about that demonstrates that? Make sure to give concrete and tangible examples to demonstrate your interest as doing so will give your personal statement precision and legitimacy.

The course is the focus

If you’ve played in your school orchestra for years, participated in plays, lead a science club or have done some MUN, that's great. There’s nothing stopping you from including your extra-curricular activities. Here’s the caveat though: keep it short and make sure it’s relevant to some transferable skills needed for your target course. Captaining the football team develops time management and leadership skills; debating competitions encourage you to communicate effectively and think on your feet; leading your school science club has driven you to look into the world of scientific research, CRISPR and genetic coding.

Don’t be fluffy – they’ve read it all before…

Admissions tutors are looking for a genuine and lively interest in their subject, but choose your words carefully. Don’t use words like ‘passion’ or ‘burning interest’ because these are “fluffy” words that don’t really say much! Every second person will be ‘passionate’ about their subject, and are ‘leaders, enthusiasts and creative.’ For example, avoid saying ‘biochemistry is a passion of mine.' I was always told never to use words like ‘passionate’ or ‘love’ in my personal statement, as truthfully, they sound like fillers and you don't have much space for that in your 4000-characters. Instead, what inspired you to develop an interest in your field? Does your interest drive you to do more, what is it about you that makes you better suited for this course than someone else?

That being said, do not write that you have known you wanted to read Biochemical Engineering since you were a toddler – again, unless that’s true. Admissions tutors can see straight through clichés and assertions like this so keep your language honest and precise; your energy for your subject will show in the variety of ways in which you have pursued it beyond the classroom.

Finally: never start or end with a quote from someone else. Not only is it a cliché, but your personal statement is about you, your thoughts, your actions – not someone else’s imposed on you.

Indeed, if would like further support and advice, do not hesitate to contact our Consultancy Department to speak about the personal statement services we offer via the enquiry form below or by calling +44 (0) 20 7034 0800.

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