What Makes a Good Personal Statement?

Hi, I’m Emily and I’m in my second year of English Literature, here at the University of Birmingham. It wasn’t long ago that I was applying for university and I would love to have known what the academics had to say about making a great personal statement. I’m here today to ask them for you.

I really hope it helps. What I look for in a statement is to find someone who’s interesting and interested and by that what I mean is that someone who comes across, you know, who comes out of the page, they come alive when you read it so you think to yourself yeah, I really want to meet this person. But then also interested in the kind of course that they’re going for, so you know, trying to apply what they’ve done in their life, what they’ve achieved, the kind of experiences they’ve had and they can apply that to where they want to go with their studies. So you know, so they’re both interesting and interested. You only really get one chance to make a first impression and what you really do want to do is impress upon the person that’s going to read it and we as academics do read them.

You want to impress both your passion for the subject but you also want to show that you’ve spent some time and taken some care over your personal statement and show that you’ve got the sort of skills that are going to lead you to being a good academic and a good student. I like them to be specific. We get a lot of general personal statements just the run of the mill, maybe they’ve done some research on the internet and they’re just copying what other people have done, but obviously putting it into their own words.

We can see that, we’re really looking for the personality, the motivation to come through. So tell us about your experiences, tell us about you, not just about a general personal statement. For the Policy, Politics and Economics programme it’s about what’s going on in the real world now.

So if I see a student who kind of sees something in the news or reads something in a newspaper and they’ve begun to engage with that, they’ve begun to kind of look at that and say ‘that’s important and how does that affect my life? ‘, that’s what I’d like to see in a personal statement. So, you know, being involved in maybe a political movement and that’s political with a small ‘p’, maybe a sort of protest movement, maybe just about working with say writing a blog or working for a local newspaper. Those sorts of things would be really useful as part of a personal statement. I’m looking for teamwork.

Now that could be working in a shop, helping in the Brownies, it could be working in a pub, anywhere where they’re working with either other adults or with children, helping looking after other people. I’m looking for commitment, so they’re doing it for a long period of time rather than just six weeks to be able to put down on their UCAS form. For a Medicine applicant, work experience is vital. It’s providing us with evidence of the qualities that are inherent in order to perform well in whatever environment they’re working in.

So this could be volunteering in a nursing home or a care home or a hospice, or perhaps working as a ward volunteer or helping out with a group of adults with disabilities. It is that kind of activity that we are looking for. They could also offer work shadowing experiences but whatever they do, it is important that they are observing the professionals in action in those environments to observe the qualities that those professionals are exhibiting, but helping them to work well and effectively in their engagement with patients. It’s quite difficult, or very difficult, to get work experience in chemical engineering because of health and safety involved, so if you’re very lucky you may know someone that could allow you into a chemical plant so you can experience that environment, but we are quite keen on just looking at any work experience that you’ve done.

So even for example the old-age cliché, if you’ve worked in McDonalds, tell us what that gave you, reflect on that experience and try and put it into how you could use it in a chemical engineering environment such as teamwork for example and motivation, working with other people. Students who have applied for both single and joint honours courses need to talk about both in their personal statement. I’d recommend something like, as an opening line, ‘I’ve applied for a variety of single and joint honours courses involving’, say, English and French. An institution doesn’t get to see what other courses you’ve applied for elsewhere so by putting that as the first line, you tell the Admissions Tutor reading your statement the reason why they might be reading something about a subject for which they haven’t applied at that particular institution. As a lecturer in Criminology, the best example I can think of as a personal statement that came to me was actually one that started off by saying ‘I had absolutely no interest in criminology’.

It went on to say ‘my interest was actually gauged and changed when I watched a news report and it was about young people in custody who were committing suicide and self-harming and when I saw that programme, it made me think I want to do something in the future that stops that from happening’. I thought that that was absolutely brilliant. The other reason I say that is one of the things I really don’t want to read in the personal statement ‘I have always been interested in criminology’ because quite frankly I find that difficult to believe. Most people who come to the subject have a limited level of understanding and won’t have studied it before, so I’d much rather see someone who’s passionate about what it might entail and gives me some examples of how they’ve thought about engaging with it, that they read crime related stories in the newspaper, that they’ve read some true crime books that they’re interested in crime film, but I don’t expect students to come necessarily being an expert in the subject. I do expect them to come with a passion for it. Start writing your personal statement early.

Your school or college will encourage you to do this. It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect but getting something on paper will really help in the future.

If you have a particular interest in your subject discipline, such as the Civil War in History, then evidence that.

It shows your Admissions Tutors that you’re looking deeper than you’re A-Levels and that you’re really interested in your subject. Work experience is a great way to show off your skills. If it’s a necessary part of your course and your entry requirements, then plan ahead to secure your placement. Remember, not to just list your skills and experience.

Tell us what you’ve done and why it’s relevant to your course. This could be through academic achievement, extra-curricular activities or even work experience. Ask the experts. Make use of your family, your friends and your teachers, but make sure it’s your work.