It is impossible to speak about higher education and not to mention personal statements for university applications.
Personal statements seem somewhat like the enigmas of the undergraduate and master's world.
You can find thousands of pages informing you about the secret tips regarding them and hundreds of mentors stating that they have a blueprint that will make your personal statement stand out from the crowd.
As much as we agree that personal statements are important and need to be done well, we believe they are simpler and less mysterious than many present them to be.
In this article, we will give you key tips on how to make your personal statement stand out and most importantly, help you get into your dream university.
This article is co-written by University of Cambridge graduate Michal Slowak and Ryuji Moriya, who is a University of Glasgow graduate who received an offer to do a PhD study at the University of Cambridge.
What is a Personal Statement?
The personal statement is the fundamental part of your university application.
It is usually a short document (250 - 1000 words) in which you explain your motivations to study your chosen course and reasons why the university should accept you.
A key part of the personal statement is that it is one of the few documents in your application that you have complete control over.
You don’t have control over your grades once you receive them or your background, whereas a personal statement is a document where you can present yourself in the best and most creative way you can.
So, it’s THE part of the application that can make you stand out from the crowd and get you accepted to your dream course.
Your personal statement is where you can shine!
To make the most out of it, we’re presenting you with practical and proven tips on how to write an excellent personal statement for your chosen undergraduate or master’s university course.
Tip #1: Make a Plan Before You Start
We can’t emphasise enough the importance of planning.
It’s one of the most important tips we can give to anyone who wants to start their personal statement.
When you want to begin your personal statement, never start by writing but rather always start from planning.
Here’s a step-by-step process to make the most out of this tip.
The first and key step you must take is to plan what you want to cover—your achievements, education, grades, internships, interests or skills. Make a list of everything you want to talk about.
The next step should be to organise which ones to prioritise.
Remember that personal statements usually have word limits.
For example, when applying for UK undergraduate degrees in UCAS, the limit is 4000 characters or about 500 – 1000 words.
Most likely you will not be able to mention everything you want. Choose the most important and juicy bits and delete the rest.
The next step is to plan the structure and outline of the work.
Some people follow the classic structure where they simply list the details about themselves, while others start with a catchy phrase and build their story around that.
Regardless of what suits you most, plan it first to have a clear idea of what you should do.
Tip #2: Be Confident About Yourself and Your Achievements
A Personal Statement is a document where you have to shine.
As much as we would never recommend bragging, you have to be bold about your achievements!
Show the readers your confidence and don’t be shy or uncomfortable mentioning your successes.
Have you captained the sports club in your school? Or have you participated in a competition and won an award? Then write about it and link it to the course of your choice.
Some people downplay themselves in their personal statements to not sound cocky or not to flatter themselves too much.
This is a mistake.
This is the place and time to shine.
Tip #3: Show, Don’t Tell.
A classic and proven technique used by some of the greatest writers and novelists in history.
Whenever you speak about your achievements, features, strengths, or even weaknesses—"Show, don’t tell” is an important rule to apply.
The admission team will be reading hundreds if not thousands of personal statements per day and the last thing you want to do is bore the person.
Don’t speak about how hard-working and passionate you are—everyone can claim that.
Instead, show them that with a story or example—what have you done that shows that you are hardworking?
For example, if you have done a scientific project that your teacher liked, explain in your personal statement how you achieved it and the response from your peers. Then critically reflecting on it and then linking it to the courses you’re applying will guarantee to make an interesting personal statement worth reading.
Remember that anyone can speak about themselves in superlatives, but not everyone can back it up.
So, the point is to show, not to tell.
Tip #4: Make it Yours!
Arguably this is the most important tip we can give.
As much as there are hundreds of thousands of tips you can find online on how to structure, write, and plan your personal statement—don’t forget that it’s your personal statement and you must make it yours.
The university’s admission team read a few hundred personal statements per day.
They’re also humans.
They get tired.
It is not easy to impress them if they read the same thing over and over again.
For you to stand out, you have to be you and you have to be original.
Certain structures, words, and types of sentences are useful and they work.
Remember about factor X. Factor X is you, your experiences, your personality, your life, your character, your strengths, and your weaknesses.
Tell your life story, but only the relevant part and not everything!
If you bring yourself in the personal statement, then the chances for success will increase.
Everybody can say that they want to be a lawyer because of the unbelievable injustice in the world that they have seen when they were young.
Or you can say you were passionate about the subject since you were a child.
They’re overused and it’s a cliché.
The examiners will read 100 sentences like that per day.
If you bring your experiences, you have a chance to stand out.
Tip #5: Start Early
One of the biggest mistakes every prospective student makes is to start too late.
Some applicants will start their personal statement a few weeks before the deadline.
Rather, you should at least start three months before the deadline.
This way, you have time to digest and think about how to create the best personal statement. Also, the earlier you start, the more time you have to adjust things along the way.
Writing an excellent piece of work will naturally need time.
So don’t opt for laziness and procrastination. Even if you can only do fifteen minutes every day, in the course of a few months, it can add up to a considerable amount of time you spent writing and refining your personal statement.
Tip #6: Remember About the Structure
Think about the structure of your personal statement. Coming back to tip #1, you have to make sure you plan the structure from the start.
Are you applying for a master’s in biology? Then you can structure your personal statement based on your internship experience and reflect on how that helped you understand the subject better and link that to your course of choice.
What if you’re applying for an undergraduate in literature? You might want to start with a story about how you ended up reading your favourite book and critically reflect on what you learned and how you can improve. Then you can link it to how studying literature at university can help you improve this and follow your passion.
There is no right or wrong structure as long as it’s easy to follow and it’s logically coherent.
However, don’t copy the exact structure for a personal statement for a specific subject you found on Google.
There is a big chance a lot of people are using the same structure and you will likely not stand out.
Plus, plagiarism is a no-no.
Instead, tailor the structure so that it best showcases the achievements and skills.
Tip #7: Format Correctly
This can be done last during your final editing.
It may not be as important as the content but should be considered.
Use the correct font, size of the font, paragraph style, etc.
This may not be as important if the personal statement is written in a textbox like that of UCAS.
However, places require you to upload a PDF of the personal statement and in that case, the styling will be important.
Sometimes, you might be required to follow a certain styling format as written in the application guideline.
In that case, make sure you follow the correct format.
Tip #8: Never start with a Quote
Just don’t do it.
It appears pretentious and unprofessional and shows that you are an immature writer.
It is considered outdated and a gimmick.
They don’t add any value to your personal statement and the admission team immediately sees it.
Furthermore, you are not writing a political speech (which is also usually cliché), but a personal statement.
Quotes are ill-advised even if you don’t start with one in your personal statement. That’s unless it’s completely related to the topic or experience you’re writing about in the personal statement.
These quotes however are not the inspirational quotes you find on Google.
Otherwise, please, don’t do it.
Tip #9: Don’t speak about your weaknesses too much.
It is important to be unbiased and original and certainly also important to show that you are a real human being with weaknesses and strengths.
However, don’t exaggerate your weaknesses.
Speaking too much about your weaknesses is a mistake and a waste of time.
Recall that a personal statement is a place to shine.
You can mention some weaknesses to balance your whole document out, but we would recommend not doing it or keeping it at a minimum.
We would also not advise trying to act like you are speaking about weaknesses but actually speaking about strengths.
For example, “My biggest weakness is I am too hard-working” or “One of my weaknesses is that I care about the work too much”.
It doesn’t add any value to your personal statement and is overused.
Concentrate on your strengths.
However, if you’re talking about weaknesses, talk about how you improved or a detailed plan about how you can improve by studying the degree you’re applying to.
Tip # 10: Avoid Clichés
This is related to tip #4 on making it yours and tip #8 on never starting with a quote.
When you write, don’t use clichés.
Do not use overused sentences and formats.
Here are some examples below.
- “I loved ___ for as long as I remember…”
- “Since I was a child…”
- “My dream is to become ___”
Clichés can also be concepts, subjects, or books that are well-known in your subject.
For example in physics, some people might say they like physics because they read The Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.
Yes, it might be true and you can in this case back it up by critically reflecting on it.
But most of the time, people write it to sound smart.
In reality, the admission team can see right through it and would know immediately that you haven’t done your research in your chosen degree.
Nobody wants to read it and anyone reading it will know it’s unoriginal straight away.
Finally, clichés will make the admission team take your work not seriously.
Sometimes, you might have 90 great lines and one cliché.
Even one can sometimes kill your personal statement as the reader might give up reading after that one.
Tip #11: Do NOT plagiarise
We will repeat it as it can never be an understatement: NEVER plagiarise!
First of all, universities have very precise plagiarism software that can systematically check if you wrote it yourself.
Being caught with plagiarism in your personal statement is just embarrassing.
Your application will be cancelled before your documents will even reach the admission services.
Furthermore, certain universities belong to certain leagues (e.g. Ivy League or Russell group) and being caught plagiarising at one university can contribute to the news spreading to others.
That would be a tragedy.
Besides it being illegal, plagiarism also shows how unoriginal and uncreative you are.
If you must cheat at the level of writing about yourself, then they will know you will cheat in your academic work.
Please, never plagiarise.
Tip #12: Be succinct
Succinctness and sticking to a word count are virtues of a personal statement.
Your goal is to sell yourself the best you with very few words.
Do not write long and flamboyant sentences filled with adjectives—be sharp and succinct.
The goal is to mention as much as you can and create a profile of a person you want them to see.
Every word matters and every line is important. Do not waste it on something unnecessary.
Our tip for being succinct is the following: after you have finished your personal statement, read it again and highlight everything that is not important, could be shortened or could be edited.
Do it again and again until you come up with a final, succinct and to-the-point piece of work that will get you to any university you want.
Tip #13: Use simple language
This is a simple yet important tip that surprisingly prospective students don’t do.
A personal statement is not your written English exam.
Do not show that you have learned a lot of difficult words.
You will not impress anyone with that and it is distracting.
One of the most important aspects of a good personal statement is its clarity. Write simply and be clear.
Tip #14: Show you are passionate
This goes hand-in-hand with tip #3 regarding showing but not telling.
After reading many personal statements that our clients and students send us, we see one recurring theme—they don’t show passion.
By this, saying in the personal statement you are passionate about X because Y is not enough.
It is important to sell yourself the best you can.
You have to highlight your strengths and show your confidence.
But remember that you are going to that university for a reason! The reason is studying and your personal statement should be organised around your studies, interests, and your passion.
Speak about what you love in your subject, speak about what keeps you up at night and what you would like to discover or learn about in your field.
For example, if you study history, don’t write about how willing you are to ‘uncover historical truth’ (this is a cliché).
Rather show how interested you are in researching the reason for Bacon’s Rebellion during the 17th century that you first learned about in a museum.
Remember that you show your passion and enthusiasm and fill your personal statement with it!
Tip #15: Start and end powerfully
The beginning and end of a personal statement are very important.
In the beginning, you need to gain the reader’s attention and at the end, you need to emphasise your presence.
Start and end with strong, powerful and confident sentences.
People who read your personal statements in most cases will mainly remember the personal statement’s beginning and end. Because the admission team read hundreds of personal statements, only a handful of people will remember the entire section.
Knowing that, remember to start and finish strong to leave an impression.
Tip #16: Revise, Revise, Revise.
When writing your personal statement, you might develop tunnel vision after spending countless hours writing it.
Most of the time, taking a break and coming back to it the next day may help you spot mistakes.
Therefore, it would be optimal to come back every day and revise your personal statement multiple times to ensure you aren’t making any mistakes.
One tip to revise your work is to read it out loud rather than subvocalizing it.
You would be quite surprised how many mistakes you can uncover by reading it out loud.
If you’re embarrassed reading it out loud, then we would recommend putting it through a text-to-speech. Here’s a free text-to-speech you can use.
Copy-paste your personal statement and you can hear your personal statement.
Tip #17: Use A Grammar Checking Software
If you have too many grammatical and spelling mistakes in your personal statement, then not only is it distracting to the admission team, but also they will not take you seriously.
If you got a friend or family member who is proficient in grammar, then you should ask that person to check it for you.
However, personally, we use Grammarly, which is free for basic grammar checks.
We even use the premium version for writing all our articles (including this one!) and when responding to emails.
We highly recommend it not just for writing your personal statement but also for writing in general.
You will be surprised by how many grammatical mistakes you make when using it in your personal statement. You can check it out here.
Tip #18: Always have a proof-reader
Regardless of how well you write, always have proofreaders reading your work.
When we write, and especially when we write about ourselves it is very easy to be biased.
Sometimes you might write something that looks perfect to you but isn’t such good quality due to tunnel vision.
Therefore, we highly recommend that you get yourself at least several people to proofread your personal statement.
Having somebody who can point out your mistakes and show you what you have done wrong is very important.
It will help even more if your proofreader knows the subject well.
Tip #19: Tailor the application to each school.
Every application you write should be tailored to the school you apply to.
One of the biggest mistakes is writing one personal statement and sending it everywhere.
First of all, the people who read it can see it.
Second of all, it sends a message that you are not as interested in studying at that school if you didn’t even tailor your personal statement for it.
We are not saying that if you apply to 10 schools you have to write 10 completely different personal statements.
That would be ridiculous.
What we are saying is that you should tailor each statement to each school.
If you are applying for law at Cambridge, then explain why you want to study law at Cambridge, which professors you like, and what is it at Cambridge that you want to do.
Be specific and show them you want to be at Cambridge!
They will appreciate it!
However, we also recognise that in certain application portals such as UCAS, you can only send a single personal statement to several universities.
In this case, ask the question—what are some similarities between these universities?
Then, include them in your personal statement or you can focus more on the subject you are applying for.
Tip #20: Use the advice and help of professionals like us!
If you want to have a great personal statement—seek professional help.
This is the ultimate tip we could give you to write an excellent personal statement to go to your dream school.
Note that it is illegal to have someone write your personal statement, and even if it was legal, you should not do it.
It must be yours.
However, it is completely fine to have someone advise you on writing a personal statement and proofread it as part of your university application.
Fortunately, we and our consultants at Edunade can help you not only write an excellent personal statement but also provide you with holistic assistance in applying to any university.
All of our consultants, thanks to their achievements and personal statements, have gotten into some of the best universities in the world.
We can help you get a place in any university, regardless of your experience or grades.
Interested? If so, please start by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will provide you with a free consultation to determine what kind of help you need.
A personal statement is an important piece of writing to show your passion, enthusiasm, and talents to the university’s admission team.
Here, we provided you with 20 practical tips on how to write an excellent personal statement for university.
Anyway, happy writing!