The infamous personal statement is the bane of every UK-bound university student. The personal statement is “up to 4,000 characters of text [that] shows you’d make a great student,” according to the UCAS, the U.K.’s version of the dreaded U.S. Common App. (Click here for information on how to fill out the other parts of the UCAS.)
The UCAS’s website offers a variety of informative videos on how to structure the perfect personal statement (click here to view them), however, they seem rather vague and difficult to understand for international students, who basically have fluffy college essays about memorable trips abroad and life obstacles coded in their DNA. FYI, no elaborate metaphors nor grotesque exaggerations need apply to the personal statement (you may breathe a sigh of relief now). Submitting your Common App essay on the UCAS (with the exception of a few schools, such as King’s College London and the University of St Andrews, who accept the Common App) will probably have U.K. admissions officers dialing a therapist for you.
So, to simplify your life, we’ll break the personal statement down for you into the exact format that is expected into digestible bits.
State Your Topic
Admissions officers will first ask: “why does this student want to study this subject?” While the easiest method would be to simply state “I want to study so-and-so because…,” it would also be the most cliche. So how do you start a personal descriptive essay that is not metaphoric, but catchy enough to capture attention, and manage to squeeze in the relevance about the subject you’re studying for as well? A phrase such as “Since the age of five I’ve been dreaming in Latin, and that is why I’d like to pursue Classics in university…” or “I first saw a whale breach on a whale watching tour when I was ten, and I thought ‘cool, I’d like to know how it does that,’ and that’s why I’d like to study biology…,” etc., etc.
Keep in mind this should be one short sentence, two if necessary. Don’t make it a metaphor. Don’t drag it on. Be quick and be to the point.
Then, connect it to your passions
Once admissions officers have a) established your initial motivations, and b) established what subject you’re interested in, they’ll ask “why does this student belong on our university?” You may be inclined to talk about your love for student government, or how important lacrosse is to you, but STOP! They want to know about why you belong in their university for their subject, and they often don’t consider your athleticism or your sparkling orations. They just want to know why you love studying what you’re applying for.
In the next 1-2 sentences, talk about your love for your subject. For example, a prospective maths applicant might say “I find myself drawn to the meticulousness of mathematics, and in my everyday life, I see numbers and formulas as solutions to problems as simple as cleaning my room…” and explain how you do that (obviously, don’t lie if you don’t see math problems in your room cleaning, but if you do…go for it!). Make sure this is connected to your subject…don’t stray! Showing genuine enthusiasm is the most important part of this section.
Mention your schoolwork and classes you took (keep the classes relevant, for example, if you’re applying for history, mentioning you took APUSH and political science will help your case, but mentioning your aptitude in AP Calc won’t help much). Talk about how those classes furthered your passion for the subject you’re applying for. Just a sentence or two–but mentioning academic excellence (such as any awards or commendations you may have picked up in your prospective major) will help, and of course, if you happen to pull that 5 on APUSH, definitely add that.
Talk about your background
Affirmative action doesn’t exist in the U.K., so mentioning your origins won’t help/hurt you, but if your background has prepared you for your studies, it’s important to mention that. For example, an ethnically Cambodian student who is looking to major genocide studies may mention how his/her background helped them become interested in their specific studies. Give yourself 3-4 sentences to express how you’ve grown as a person, but nothing sappy please–keep it in the academic arena. You may have gone through some tough times while growing up, but your personal statement is not the place to write about it. If you’ve gone through something you feel is worth mentioning, speak to the person who is writing your UCAS recommendation and ask them to add it to their reference–that is where the universities are looking for that type of information.
And go beyond
Universities love to see how you’ve extended your knowledge beyond the classroom. An easy way to prove you’ve done that is through reading books about your subject in your spare time. A good bulk of your personal statement should be focused on this specific point. If you’re applying for chemistry, mentioning your readings of new studies or on famous chemists will likely capture the attention of admissions officers. Or, if you’ve been successful in competitions (such as Science Olympiads or the Intel Science Fair, to name a few), it’s good to mention what else you’ve been up to in regards to your subject. Obviously, don’t just list accomplishments; make sure to explain what the experience did for you and what new ideas or thoughts popped into your head.
But don’t forget your extracurriculars!
There is a place for your student government and lacrosse activities! However, there’s kind of a catch…extracurriculars only matter if they’re relevant to your subject (do you see a pattern emerging here?). So, if you’re a history major, student government will look good on your application, but if you’re a science major, student government won’t do you much good. If you don’t have anything relevant, fear not, this is not a required part, but a section for 1-2 sentences if you did happen to do something that relates.
If you had a rewarding trip to Africa, you can mention it here. But also mention how it helped you grow, for example, volunteering helped give you a sense of civic duty, or writing in the school newspaper improved your writing skills and gave you awareness of more world events, etc.
Finally, wrap it up
Tie that personal statement up with a pretty pink bow before you ship it off to your dream schools across the Pond. In 1-2 sentences, rehash your statement and intentions. Pick out your key points and re-list them to enforce your hope to study in the university of your dreams. Of course, remember to proofread and get second opinions on your personal statement.
Check out Studential’s library of personal statements here for some examples of what successful personal statements look like.