What are admission tutors really looking for? Our blog from physics teacher and student advisor Dr. Richard Branch goes through how he coaches his students to write their best personal statement.To see our futher top tips and 'common misconceptions' about writing a personal statement, be sure to see our ReachUni materials here (free!)

"Your personal statement is an important part of your UCAS application that shows off your subject interest and experience. Structure and what you choose to discuss can make all the difference, so I have outlined the approach I use below.

1. The Opening Paragraph

This should address the key question of ‘why do you want to study this subject?’ The University of Oxford has some good advice on tackling this:

“Think about talking to your friends about what you want to study at university: what would you tell them? What have you read or watched or seen that has inspired you? (This might have been at school, at home, in a museum, on TV, in a book, on YouTube or a podcast or anywhere else, textbook, blog, website, literature…) Why was it interesting? What do you want to find out next? What did you do?”

To structure your thoughts in your personal statement, try using the ARC format: Activity, Reflection, Course. 

Activity: what have you read, watched or done that inspired you?

Reflection: Why did it inspire you? What did you find out? What questions did it make you ask?

Course: How did it develop your interest in the subject you are applying to study?

2. Writing the core of your personal statement

The core (about 80%) of your personal statement should provide evidence of why you are suitable for your chosen subject. To do this, you should focus on your academic experiences, such as:

  • Wider reading beyond the A-level syllabus 
  • Subject experiences 
  • University experiences (campus visits, lectures, etc)

Mistakenly, students often run off a list of activities. For example:

To explore my interest in engineering further, I’ve taken part in a number of activities. I attended a taster day at Imperial College London about engineering which was very enjoyable. I read the book ‘To Engineer is Human’ by Henry Petroski and learnt about how failures can lead to improvement in design. In an afterschool D&T club, I built a bridge out of plastic straws that was able to support 2 kg. Recently I completed a course about plasma applications in materials science. These experiences helped me to decide that I want to read engineering at university.

However, admissions tutors are looking for you to expand on just a few experiences. To help with this, the ARC format is again useful: describe an ACTIVITY in detail; critically REFLECT on the experience; relate the experience to your chosen university COURSE. For example:

A: To explore my interest in engineering further, I took a six-hour course designed by a PhD researcher at Sheffield Hallam University for local schools [LINK to AE website]. The course focused on plasma applications in materials science.

R: One application is plasma nitriding. I learnt how nitrogen can be ionised by a strong electric field, accelerated toward a target metal, and embedded in its surface to improve the hardness and durability of the metal. 

C: I really enjoyed combining my knowledge from different areas of A-level physics to understand the application. I think this is important in engineering and the experience helped me to decide that I want to read the subject at university.

In choosing which experiences to focus on, explore the admissions criteria for courses. For example, the selection criteria for chemistry at the University of Oxford includes ‘appreciation of some aspects of [chemistry] outside the confines of the A level syllabus’, so reflecting on an experience in your statement that demonstrated this would strengthen your application.

Your comments should also indicate that you understand what you are applying for. For example, if going for psychology, do you know how scientific the subject is? If you’re interested in physics, do you appreciate the importance of mathematics in the degree?

...What if my experiences are limited?

If you feel that your experiences are inadequate, consider this advice from the University of Oxford:

“We understand that not everyone has the opportunity to do work experience or to go travelling so these activities are not a requirement for any of our courses. Tutors won’t be impressed by your connections, or the stamps in your passport, but they will be impressed by how you’ve engaged with your subject.

For example, some of our applicants for Medicine may have had work experience placements in prestigious hospitals but not be able to evaluate their time there. If you have no more experience than some simple voluntary work, or even just discussing medical matters with your friends and family, you can still write an effective personal statement by reflecting critically on what you have learned and discussed. 

To give another example, for the History of Art, tutors will not want to hear about all the galleries and exhibitions that you have visited around the world if you cannot discuss the art that you saw. You can come across more effectively in your personal statement by evaluating art you have seen, even if you’ve only seen it online or in books without ever leaving the school library.”

3. Closing your Personal Statement:

After spending the majority of your statement concentrating on academic elements, there is now some space to discuss extracurricular activities. Universities are not interested per se in the extracurricular activity, but rather the transferable skills, character traits and spare capacity that they demonstrate.

The University of Cambridge has this to say: 

“…we look at how these activities demonstrate other characteristics that will aid students' transition to life at university, such as how they balance their academic and personal commitments, and have developed particular skills or qualities such as perseverance, independence, leadership or team-working.”

The ARC format outlined above can be applied here also. For example:

A: I practice the piano for thirty minutes a day and am currently working toward grade 7

R: I have needed to schedule my time carefully to balance this commitment alongside my studies

C: This ability to manage time will be useful at university where I expect the workload to be greater  

Your closing paragraph might highlight what you’ll bring to the university and how you’ll fit into university life. If you already have ambitions for after university, here is where you might describe them, and how taking your chosen degree will support your ambition. Your closing sentence might reinforce your enthusiasm and suitability for the subject.

...Final tips for success

You will likely need to re-draft your statement multiple times. Some ideas to help in this process that brings together some of the best tips from universities:

  • If you're feeling unsure or overwhelmed by how to do this, talk to a trusted teacher, family member or friend.
  • Proof-read your statement out loud.
  • Let others read your drafts and provide suggestions. It can be intimidating to share your drafts, but it's a really important part of the process.
  • Make sure you use plain English. Avoid flowery language and clichés. Avoid trying to be too smart, or funny but plain-speaking and straightforward about your enthusiasm for your subject.
  • Make sure your writing is enthusiastic and positive but avoid arrogance.
  • Use a spell checker and proof-read for SPAG - it is paramount that the statement is error free
  • Look back at the selection criteria for your courses and think about the evidence you’ve provided – have you covered everything
  • Make sure you remain honest - you may be questioned on your statement at interview and will be caught out if you have been dishonest. .
  • Do not copy or allow others to copy your statement – you will be caught by software used by universities to detect plagiarism.
  • Re-draft until you are happy! 

For more a structure diagram, advice and options be sure to see our UCAS & Applying advice page from our ReachUni programme!

Good luck!"