For your UCAS Personal Statement, you have around 500 words to tell a compelling story of why you want to study your subject at university. Along with grades, the personal statement is one of the key pieces of evidence universities use to make their decision.

As such, your personal statement needs to make you stand out from other applicants with similar grades. This means that you need to demonstrate a sincere interest in your subject and engagement beyond the school curriculum. You also need to show that you have made informed choices in your application.

As the final part of ReachUni, we have provided comprehensive guidance on this. Because this is so important, be advised that this is a longer and more detailed page than the others.

 

Contents

a) Top Tips to Get Started

b) Common Misconceptions

c) The Personal Statement: Structure

d) The Personal Statement: The Opening Paragraph

e) The Personal Statement: The Core

f) The Closing Paragraph

g) Final Tips

 

a) Top Tips to Get Started

The personal statement is hugely important, so start early. We recommend starting 3-6 months before the deadline to give yourself plenty of time for editing and drafts.

Be sure to actually check the selection criteria that each university admissions office is looking for on their course websites (see here for an example). This is especially important for highly selective and competitive courses.

Be aware you only have around 500 words. (This is 4,000 characters or 47 lines, whichever you reach first). Be selective about what you focus on and use our guide below to help you structure.

Remember that to keep your application relevant for multiple universities. You are applying to up five universities at once, therefore lots of university admissions tutors might read your application.

Get input from a trusted teacher or advisor who is familiar with UCAS personal statements. They can check that you are talking enough about the 'right things' and help out if you're having trouble wording something.

 

b) Common Misconceptions 

1. Misconception: You should list every activity you have done related to your subject.

Truth: Select 2-3 really strong examples of you engaging with your subject, why it interests you and how that has helped inform your decision to apply for this course.

2. MisconceptionBe sure to include all your extra-curricular activities.

Truth: Use the end of your statement to mention one or two noteworthy achievements that demonstrate the personal qualities that show you will do well in a university environment (e.g. leadership, interpersonal skills). However, don't let this become the majority of your application. 80% of your the personal statement should focus on your academic suitability (e.g. subject interest, wider engagement, future plans).

3. MisconceptionAvoid mentioning any universities by name.

Truth: Make sure you don't mention university preferences of any sort (e.g. "I have always wanted to attend a Russell Group university"). However, it's generally fine to mention that you have visited a university, (e.g. open day,  summer school).

4. Misconception: If I have great grades. I don't need to worry about my Personal Statement.

Truth: Whatever grades you have, there are likely to be other applicants at the same level. As such, your personal statement remains hugely important as a differentiator. Remember that most universities view the application as a whole, so the personal statement is s a chance to show your unique thinking and interest in your subject.

 

c) The Personal Statement: Structure

 

d) The Personal Statement: Opening Paragraph

Your first paragraph should address the key question of ‘why do you want to study this subject?’. 

This is your opening statement that boldly declares to the reader why you have decided to apply to university for this subject and why pursuing this is important to you.

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 opening paragraph, we recommend that you use 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?

 

e) The Personal Statement: The Core

The core of your personal statement - about 80% - should provide evidence of why you are suitable for your chosen subject. To do this, you should focus on explaining just a few academic experiences and how they demonstrate your interest, engagement and/or future plans relating to the subject.

As the University of Oxford says: 

“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. To give an 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 [in] the school library.”

Building on your experience with ReachUni, you might want to draw on some of the following:

  • Wider reading beyond the A-level syllabus 
  • Subject experiences (e.g. projects, online courses)  
  • Wider experiences (e.g. books, podcasts, visits)
  • University experiences (e.g. open days, taster sessions, summer schools)

 

To do this effectively, the ARC format is again useful. Describe an activity in detail; critically reflect on the experience; then relate the experience to your chosen university course. We have included a worked example below:

"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 through ReachUni. The course focused on plasma applications in materials science. 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. 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.

 

To choose the most effective experiences that you have, make sure you are aware of the admissions criteria for courses. To give a specific example, the selection criteria for Medicine at the University of Warwick state that: "All applicants must have gained at least 70 hours of work experience in a healthcare setting." In this case, it is crucial that you demonstrate this requirement and reflect on how it has informed your decision to apply.

You should also indicate that you understand the nature of the course you are applying for. For example, if you are applying for psychology, do you know how scientific the subject is? If you’re applying for economics, do you appreciate the importance of mathematics in the degree?

 

It is not effective when applicants run off a list of activities without any reflection or linking back to the course. This is a very common mistake and we strongly advise you to avoid it! Here's an example of what to avoid:

"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 an 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."

 

f) The Personal Statement: The Closing Paragraph

After spending the majority of your statement concentrating on academic elements, there is an opportunity to touch on your extra-curricular activities.

However, it is important to stress that universities are interested in the transferable skills and character traits that extracurricular activity demonstrate, rather than the activity in itself.

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:

Activity: I practise the piano for 30 minutes a day and am currently working toward grade seven.

Reflection: I have scheduled my time carefully to balance this commitment alongside my studies.

Course: This ability to manage time will be useful at university where the workload will be greater.

 

Your closing paragraph might also highlight what you want to bring to university life. For example, if you would hope to join a sports team or pursue wider interests through a university society. If you already have ambitions for after university, you might describe them here too, including how your chosen degree would support these ambition. Your closing sentence should reinforce your enthusiasm and suitability for the subject.

 

g) Final Tips

Once you have completed a first draft of your personal statement, you will likely need to re-draft it multiple times before it is the best it can be. We have included a collection of final tips to help you with this process:

  • If you're feeling unsure or overwhelmed, talk to a trusted teacher.
  • Make sure your writing is enthusiastic and positive, but avoid arrogance.
  • Make sure you use plain English.
  • Avoid flowery language and clichés. Avoid trying to be too smart, or funny.
  • Read your statement out loud to hear how it flows.
  • Let others read your drafts and provide suggestions.
  • Proofread thoroughly. It is paramount that the statement is error-free.
  • Do not copy or allow others to copy your statement.

 

As well as this ReachUni guide, there are lots of other great resources you can use:

UCAS guidance on writing your personal statement

Top advice from various admissions tutors

A great video from an Admissions Tutor on how to get started

A short video on what not-to-do from The Student Room

 

Psst... Still looking for more subject experience to write about?

ReachUni has a Subjects and Courses Library where you can explore videos, podcasts and readings on a range of subjects. We also have a series of RBC tutorial packs that you can study to build your subject-specific activity experience.