You’ve attempted to describe yourself in three words during those silly ice-breaker games (“buffet advantage-taker” and “not great at following instructions” being your most accurate to date). You know, I think you even once drew a picture of yourself to be printed on a school tea-towel along with the far inferior self-portraits of all your classmates. The issue is, though, that those are all pretty low-stakes ways of trying to distill your identity. What about when the stakes are considerably higher? Such as when two students’ UCAS applications could show the same predicted grades, and be applying to the same university course, but what distinguishes one applicant for another is just 600 words, a.k.a. the dreaded Personal Statement: a document which attempts to persuasively summarise their character and suitability for study.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that adolescence is a time of emotional turbulence, as young people grapple with new-found independence, high expectations, and a hurricane of hormones. Trying to pin down your identity when you’re 17 or 18 isn’t the simplest task anyway, but for a personal statement, students have just 4000 characters to spell out who they are, what they care about, what they’ve achieved, and what they aspire to. Let’s be frank: they’re going to need your help.
What is it?
While we’re grappling with existential questions, let’s start small and define the role of a personal statement. Exam grades and subject choices can be very helpful when judging if a person is a good fit for a particular study route, and it’s the first and main way that universities filter their applications. But if the grades work a bit like a CV, then a personal statement often does the job of an interview (and although many students will also need to attend interviews, many won’t need to go to any at all): just as no employer would hire you based on your CV alone, they need to get to know you a little bit. The personal statement is just this. It’s a chance for students to demonstrate their enthusiasm, commitment and well-rounded personalities to prospective universities, in order to gain the edge over other applicants.
The catch is that in order to keep things neat and manageable, there’s a character limit of 4000 (kept within 47 lines), which roughly equates to 600 words, or ever-so-slightly-over a side of A4 in size 12 font. It sounds like a lot, but when someone’s future is on the line, it’s not a huge amount of space to explain all their strengths and experiences.
Oh and there’s a deadline, of course. Almost all courses need to receive the personal statement before 15 January, and if your students are smart, this ideally means before the Christmas holidays. Because obviously they aren’t going to be redrafting it over their turkey and brussels sprouts, and then if they get struck down with flu in that first week after term, then it’s game over. Get them to work to an end-of-term deadline and it’ll be much smoother sailing for everyone, and then they can really relax over the hols instead of sweating and swearing over the mince pies.
And sorry, but don’t breathe a sigh of relief, come January. It may not be the last time anyone looks at that personal statement. If your student misses their conditional offer grades, the university may look gain at that document to weigh up their decision. Or if they end up going through clearing, it could be scrutinised all over again. So these 4000 characters really matter.
Bumps in the road
There’s a number of things that can go wrong with personal statements. Deadlines, like we just said, are one. But there’s more.
The personal statement is no place for modesty. Leaving out a sporting award so as not to seem “braggy”, or playing down the contributions they made to the college radio station is a bad move. Encourage your students to be their own number one fan.
Equally, the personal statement is no place for “embroidered truths”. Exaggerating their Duke of Edinburgh achievements or extending the length of a voluntary placement is a recipe for disaster, and will backfire spectacularly. Sure, they have to make themselves look good, but that’s more about omitting catastrophes. It’s fine if they keep quiet about the time they got stuck in a toilet cubicle or called you ‘Mum’ during the register.
English, Law and History students should already be in the habit of supporting everything they say with evidence, but others may need a little reminder. It’s not enough to claim to be responsible people; they need to prove it with an example (volunteering with the Brownies?) Claiming to be determined is one thing, but demonstrating it is another (achieving a swimming medal last summer?) You get the gist. Saying “I’m a hard worker” is simply not enough.
“I’d love to study Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge, because as the place where the late, great Stephen Hawking lectured…” STOP! Your student has just alienated four of their five UCAS choices. They can only submit one personal statement, so it needs to be broad enough to suit every course at every uni, whilst still seeming tailored to the admissions tutor reading it. So Petra, applying for a Gender Studies course, a Sociology course and a Politics course, might write about being interested “in the relationships we have with power” or something along those lines.
A bit of a mess:
If their writing is sloppy, the whole message is sullied. It’s important to proof-read for tone (mostly formal, with a friendly slant), spelling, punctuation, paragraphs and structure. Leaping wildly from one unconnected idea to the next is going to confuse the reader, and present the student as disorganised and chaotic. Errors in grammar and spelling will seem lazy and rushed. Using a dictionary, a spell-check system, proof-reading for errors and having their statement checked by a fresh set of eyes will all help to add polish where it’s needed. But a word to the wise: don’t go too far in the opposite direction. Getting synonym-happy doesn’t make someone look intelligent (but often, quite the opposite). Remember the bit in ‘Friends’ when Joey’s adoption reference makes absolutely no sense, and he even signs off as “baby kangaroo”? Not a good look.
Practical ways to help
It’s funny (not actually funny in the slightest) how a student who hasn’t listened to a word you’ve said about trigonometry all year is suddenly obsessed with their personal statement, as if a stellar statement can convincingly mask two years of distraction and academic apathy. That student is in the minority, of course, but God it can be an irritant all the same. Remember then that your job is not purely rooted in subject matter, but that we are nurturing these little seeds into sunflowers to grow and thrive in the garden of life. Now everybody hold hands, and sing! Here’s what you can do help guide them through the minefield that is the personal statement.
Like, really early. If you encourage your students to keep a journal or scrapbook of achievements from their first day of study onwards, they will have a helpful compilation of resources to hand when it’s time to compose their personal statement. Tell them on day one what kind of things they should be documenting: Got a brilliant mark for that Pinter essay? Photocopy it and stick it in the scrapbook. Wrote a thing for the college newsletter? Back to the photocopier with you! Volunteered at a pet shelter in the holidays? Stick in a photo or your welcome letter. Some achievements will be really small, and it might even be something as simple as a scribbled note that says, “I LOVED learning about Elizabethan medicine”, but together, they should form a holistic representation of that student’s learning and development throughout further education. It’s quite hard to recall little strands of success from years past, especially when trying to do so under pressure. What’s the opposite of rose-tinted glasses? They need to start collecting evidence before those bile-hued goggles get fitted.
Time is ticking
Time is a cruel master, relentlessly banging the gong that turns us all into wizened old crones who come out with the same horrifying rubbish our parents might have once said. But now it’s your turn to wield the figurative hammer. (Disclaimer: as much as it might urge your students along, please don’t actually brandish a weapon in class.) Give deadlines - and make them earlier than they need to be; ideally students will be piecing together a mind-map at the end of the summer, a first draft in September, and refining and proof-reading during October to November. Loom over them, singing the “time’s up” music from the Channel 4 Countdown clock, and generally make an annoyance of yourself until they spend some decent time on the task.
All the stuff we went through earlier about tone, technical accuracy and plagiarism is important, and you can’t assume that anyone will already know to do that. Do set out some clear advice on the building blocks of a good personal statement. When it comes to content, there’s a whole section coming up a bit further down the page.
It will really help if you have a bank of photocopied personal statements from previous years to look at. You could set up a faux admissions office and put students in group to rank candidates in order based on their statements: it’s much easier to give a critique of someone else’s work than your own, and these sorts of evaluative conversations will help them identify positives and negatives aspects of individual personal statements.
In case it’s not already blindingly clear from the months-long timeline, the personal statement should always be composed, edited and frequently saved in a word processing document such as Word or Pages. Strongly discourage students from composing it directly into the online UCAS form because otherwise it’ll be rushed, won’t have been checked or edited, and the page also times out after a while so they could lose the lot. It’s just asking for trouble. Get them to type it up and email themselves a version every time it undergoes a major change, because then it’s backed up in case of computer catastrophe.
Proof is in the pudding
Proof-reading is really important, but students may be reluctant to swap and peer evaluate each other’s work. The element of competition can make this quite a tense and private prospect. You can encourage learners to read their own work aloud, though, which will give them a sense of the flow of their writing.
Once they’ve been through their own editing process, you’ll be able to read a personal statement in just five minutes (15 at most) and give a couple of pointers about anything that needs improvement. Rogue apostrophes, unsupported claims or inappropriate tone are all things that you can circle with your loyal red biro and hand back with a smile.
There’s a lot of pressure on students to create a slam-dunk opening line. Just as contestants’ soundbites have become more aggressive and nonsensical with every series of The Apprentice (“I eat ambition for breakfast and simply excrete fear, because I have no use for it, Lord Sugar!”), such is the pressure of competing against ever-higher numbers of students in UCAS applications. But try to reassure your students that admissions tutors will continue reading, even if the first sentence doesn’t grab them like the opening line of a crime thriller. Sometimes, going traditional is the safest bet. Nobody is going to be alienated by a sentence that begins, “I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was four years old, and when I completed a two-week placement at St Cuthbert’s Hospital this spring, I knew for certain that I wanted to study medicine.” Something, though, that tries too hard to be quirky - sarcasm, celebrity quotations etc. - may miss the mark entirely, or rub up the wrong way against the personality of the admissions tutor. Yes, it’s good to be memorable, but that lasting impression can come from specific details (such as a particular procedure you observed at St. Cuthbert’s) rather than trying to make your personality land with a splash.
Being clear and enthusiastic are the main lessons here; everything else just detracts for the message.
It’s a good idea to start strong, so encourage your students to include examples early on of their strengths and the different ways they meet the criteria for the course. Taking too long to get to the heart of the matter is going to be fairly uninspiring for the reader; it’s much better to dive right in and give the tutor that satisfying sense of “check, check, check” on the list as they immediately recognise the student’s strengths. A paragraph of waffle unconnected to the student or the course is going to have the reader snoozing straight away.
In order to tick those boxes, students should first comb through the relevant course descriptions online or in their prospectuses: these should spell out what qualifications, experience and qualities the university is looking for, so the personal statement should work through these attributes and demonstrate each one with evidence. Supporting examples might come from any of the following:
- Lessons and trips
- School clubs
- School reports and teacher feedback
- Clubs outside school
- Certificates: music, sports, Duke of Edinburgh
- Part-time jobs
- Roles or responsibilities
- Hobbies and interests
- Wider reading and research
Students may need some help figuring out how to support their claims, so do model for them how specific situations can be broadened to suit their purposes (e.g. “My summer job at the library involved meeting all kinds of people, and my ability to talk to members of the public demonstrates my confidence and approachability, both of which are so important in social work.”) As long as there’s a link, it’s worth including. If there’s absolutely no relevance (or the significance isn’t explained to the reader) then the student could end up looking scatty, distracted and overly-busy. Listing every club attended since reception class is going a little too far, but get the balance of evidence right, and it’ll be hard for the admissions tutor to say no.
Let’s be honest: this is the kind of blagging that’s essential to navigate the adult world and get ahead in the workplace. The benefits are much longer-lasting than simply a spot on the degree of their dreams. Just don’t teach them too well, or you might end up on the wrong end of some seriously long-winded-yet-convincing excuses for missing homework.
It’s also important that students write about why they want to go down this study / career route. A person might have a string of qualifications to their name, but the course provider wants to see that they will truly be dedicated to this course in particular. Enthusiasm and interest are imperative, and students can demonstrate this by talking about specific areas of fascination within subjects (perhaps coastal erosion really gripped them), showing that they’ve gone an extra length to pursue an interest (volunteering on the estuary litter-picking day), or have particular ambitions (to work with seabird habitat preservation in the future). They might even include a short reference to something they’ve read outside of their studies - a journal article, newspaper report etc. - that’s influenced their approach to the subject. Anything to demonstrate that this course isn’t a wild shot in the dark, or just whatever Mum or Dad have pressured them into.
And finally, a short summary at the end - even a sentence or two recapping their main strengths, accomplishments and ambitions - ties things up neatly and ensures that the student leaves a clear and positive impression.
It’s a lot of slog, but the process of planning, writing and redrafting is going to pay dividends for your students. And by the end of all this, nobody’s going to have any need for those ‘Which Pop Tart are you?’ quizzes. Everyone will be extremely clear about their identity, especially you, ‘Teacher Buried in a Mound of Personal Statements for Three Months Because the Kids are Worth it and You’re a Hero’.