Writing the Personal Statement
This handout provides information about writing personal statements for academic and other positions.
Contributors:Jo Doran, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-03-07 02:18:40
The personal statement, your opportunity to sell yourself in the application process, generally falls into one of two categories:
1. The general, comprehensive personal statement:
This allows you maximum freedom in terms of what you write and is the type of statement often prepared for standard medical or law school application forms.
2. The response to very specific questions:
Often, business and graduate school applications ask specific questions, and your statement should respond specifically to the question being asked. Some business school applications favor multiple essays, typically asking for responses to three or more questions.
Questions to ask yourself before you write:
- What's special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?
- What details of your life (personal or family problems, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
- When did you become interested in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
- How have you learned about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
- If you have worked a lot during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that work contributed to your growth?
- What are your career goals?
- Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
- Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?
- What personal characteristics (for example, integrity, compassion, and/or persistence) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
- What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
- Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school—and more successful and effective in the profession or field than other applicants?
- What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?
Answer the questions that are asked
- If you are applying to several schools, you may find questions in each application that are somewhat similar.
- Don't be tempted to use the same statement for all applications. It is important to answer each question being asked, and if slightly different answers are needed, you should write separate statements. In every case, be sure your answer fits the question being asked.
Tell a story
- Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. One of the worst things you can do is to bore the admissions committee. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you'll be putting yourself ahead of the pack. If you distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.
- Don't, for example, state that you would make an excellent doctor unless you can back it up with specific reasons. Your desire to become a lawyer, engineer, or whatever should be logical, the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.
Find an angle
- If you're like most people, your life story lacks drama, so figuring out a way to make it interesting becomes the big challenge. Finding an angle or a "hook" is vital.
Concentrate on your opening paragraph
- The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It is here that you grab the reader's attention or lose it. This paragraph becomes the framework for the rest of the statement.
Tell what you know
- The middle section of your essay might detail your interest and experience in your particular field, as well as some of your knowledge of the field. Too many people graduate with little or no knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the profession or field they hope to enter. Be as specific as you can in relating what you know about the field and use the language professionals use in conveying this information. Refer to experiences (work, research, etc.), classes, conversations with people in the field, books you've read, seminars you've attended, or any other source of specific information about the career you want and why you're suited to it. Since you will have to select what you include in your statement, the choices you make are often an indication of your judgment.
Don't include some subjects
- There are certain things best left out of personal statements. For example, references to experiences or accomplishments in high school or earlier are generally not a good idea. Don't mention potentially controversial subjects (for example, controversial religious or political issues).
Do some research, if needed
- If a school wants to know why you're applying to it rather than another school, do some research to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.
Write well and correctly
- Be meticulous. Type and proofread your essay very carefully. Many admissions officers say that good written skills and command of correct use of language are important to them as they read these statements. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Adhere to stated word limits.
- A medical school applicant who writes that he is good at science and wants to help other people is not exactly expressing an original thought. Stay away from often-repeated or tired statements.
For more information on writing a personal statement, see the personal statement vidcast.
Selling yourself in under 4,000 characters to an academic you've never met is pretty daunting even for the most confident sixth-form student. So we've put together some dos and don'ts to make sure you show yourself in the best possible light.
Here are eight don'ts
• Don't spend ages trying to come up with a perfect, snappy first line – write anything and return to it later.
• Don't use cliches. According to the Ucas Guide to Getting into University and College, the most overused opening sentences this year were variations of "from a young age I have always been interested in…" This looks formulaic and is a waste of characters.
• Famous quotes should be avoided, as these will be found in countless other applications. For instance, this line by Coco Chanel was found in 189 applications for fashion courses this year: "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only."
• Don't list your interests, demonstrate them. Professor Alan Gange, head of the department of biological sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London, says: "Actually doing something, for example joining a national society or volunteering for a conservation organisation, tells me that students have a passion."
• Style matters. Don't be chatty and use slang, but on the other hand, don't be pretentious. Cathy Gilbert, director of customer strategy at Ucas, says: "If you try too hard to impress with long words that you are not confident using, the focus of your writing may be lost."
• Don't ask too many people for advice. Input from teachers is helpful, but it is important that the student's personality comes across.
Nicole Frith, 19, who has just started a BSc in Geography at the University of Durham, asked two teachers for advice on content. "I would seriously advise against asking teacher after teacher," she said. "There is no such thing as a perfect personal statement, and everyone has different opinions." Most admissions offices are happy to give general advice, and the Ucas website has video guides on how to plan and write your statement.
• Don't be tempted to let someone else write your personal statement for you. A recent news report says sixth-formers are paying up to £350 on the internet for personal statements written by university students. Ucas, which uses fraud detection software to identify cheating, warns of "serious consequences".
• Dont' skimp on paragraphs, despite their negative impact on line count. You want your statement to be readable.
And eight dos
• Organisation is the key. Caroline Apsey, 19, who started a medical degree at the University of Leeds this term, says: "Before I started writing, I made bullet points of everything I wanted to include, and ordered them from most important to least."
• Leave yourself plenty of time for editing. "Start writing early, so that you have lots of time to re-read it with fresh eyes," Caroline says. Then edit and edit and edit again.
• Be specific. Lee Hennessy, deputy head of admissions and recruitment at the University of Bath, says: "Don't just say, you're interested in a subject because it's interesting. Ask yourself, what it is, specifically, about the subject that interests you?"
Lee Marsden, associate dean of admissions for the faculty of arts and humanities at the University of East Anglia, agrees: "We want to know what excites the student: perhaps a book they have read or a play they have seen. There needs to be a hook."
• Show you are up to date with developments in your subject: perhaps you could analyse a recent journal article or news event.
"You need to tune in to what's current in your subject," says Louise Booth, assistant director of sixth form at Fulford school in York. "For example, if you're a politics candidate: have you been to see the prime minister or your local MP speak?"
• Around 80% of your statement should be dedicated to your studies and work experience, and 20% to extra-curricular activities. Hobbies are valuable, but must be used to reveal something relevant about the applicant.
"A simple 'I have done' list is not useful," says Helen Diffenthal, assistant principal for advice and guidance at the Sixth Form College, Farnborough. "Saying that you were captain of the cricket team doesn't make any difference unless you use it to show that you can manage your time effectively."
• Be original but treat humour with caution – jokes can fall flat.
"Original is excellent," says Gange. "I once saw a statement written in the style of a tabloid journalism article. It was factual and entertaining; the student gained a place here and got a first."
"We let through quirky statements if the student is quirky," says Booth. "Don't try to be funny if that's not you – it won't work."
• Correct spelling and grammar is vital, so use the spell-check on your computer and get other people, such as teachers, to proofread your statement.
• In the end, honesty is the best policy. Tell the admissions tutor, in your own words, why you deserve a place. "Just be yourself," says Nicole. "That worked for me."