UCAS Decoded: How to Write an Outstanding UCAS Personal Statement
Article written and editted by Yadavi Madani
Personal statements are undoubtedly one of the most tricky parts of the UK’s university application process. You will hear questions like “what should I include in it” or “where do I even start” from students who are about to write one. Despite how hard they may be to write, they are a quintessential part of the university application process for UK universities, so it’s important to get it right. To help you write an outstanding personal statement and wow your universities, read on!
First off, what is a personal statement?
Ok, your personal statement needs to be wayyy more detailed than this, but that is the general gist of it! A personal statement is a short written piece of work that each UK university applicant submits as part of their UCAS application, to show universities why you are passionate about your degree and why they should take you. You only write one personal statement that covers each of your five university choices, so it’s important to ensure that your personal statement covers all of the degrees that you’re applying to.
With this in mind, it’s usually best to apply to similar degrees to ensure that your personal statement covers them all, otherwise it could make your application to certain universities less competitive if they don’t feel that your personal statement targets their course enough. There is a character limit of 4,000 characters and 47 lines (yes it’s very specific, so remember to stick to it because anything over this won’t be read by your universities).
Your personal statement is a way to show how passionate you are about the degrees you’ve applied to and why you’re a right fit for them. In this way it is slightly different from the US personal essay which is a more abstract essay focused on you rather than the course; read our guide about the UK vs the US system here. If you’re a US student applying to the UK and are unsure about how to write a UCAS personal statement, we’ve got you covered with Millie’s Guide on How to Write a UCAS Essay as a US Student.
“Your personal statement is a way to express your passionate for the degrees you’ve applied to and why you’re a right fit for it”
How important is the personal statement
The short answer is, very. And here’s why. The personal statement is the only piece of work that the universities receive from you. Aside from your grades, it’s the only thing that shows them who you are as a person and how you would fit into their university degree. That’s why it’s so important to write an outstanding personal statement, as this is usually the deciding factor of you getting into your dream university or not.
In other words, your personal statement is what makes you stand out from other applicants who have the same predicted grades as you do; it shows them why they should give you a place over the hundreds of other applicants. So it’s essential that you spend time on your personal statement to make it the best that it can be, to give you the best chance of getting an offer from your universities of choice.
How to structure your personal statement
The general structure of your personal statement will vary depending on your writing style, the types of universities that you’re applying to and the degrees that you've chosen. The UKs most competitive universities (like Oxford, Cambridge or LSE) will want to see a much higher focus on what you’ve done above your school curriculum to learn more about your degree (e.g. extra reading, attending lectures, listening to podcasts etc) and a much smaller focus on extracurriculars.
To see this in action, we’ve compiled a rough structure of what a personal statement for top universities should look like.
#1 - Explain why you’re passionate about the degree
This is really the only part of the personal statement that directly talks about you and your experiences, and why they have prompted you to choose your degree. You should talk a bit about how you became passionate about your chosen major, and what about it interests you. Perhaps you went to a lecture about astrophysics that sparked a passion about it, or you had a dinner-table conversation about economic policies in the news that got you interested in economics and politics. Whatever it is, this shows universities why you’ve chosen their course. You should spend about 700 characters on this introductory section.
#2 - What have you done to show your passion about the degree
“Talk about anything that shows your passion and commitment to the subject”
This should be the main body of your essay, taking roughly upto 1,500 characters. This is where you should talk about anything you’ve done above and beyond your school curriculum to show your passion and learn more about the subject of your degree. This could involve extra reading you have done, taster courses, online courses such as MOOCs, or even documentaries that you’ve watched on the TV. Really, talk about anything that shows your passion and commitment to the subject. But remember, it’s no use just listing the twenty different books you’ve read and calling it a day.
Use the golden rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. The universities want to know what you took away from each reading or experience, and what you learned from it or found particularly interesting. So choose about 2-3 things to focus on, and really go into depth about what you learned from each, your opinions on the content, and if they prompted you to do any further research into one area in depth.
#3 - Your academic achievements that make you right for the degree
This does not mean the subjects you’ve taken; the universities already know this and don’t need you to waste precious characters on it in your personal statement. Instead, talk about specific topics that you enjoyed in your syllabus, or a debate that you had in class that really interested you.
If you’re an IB student and wrote your Extended Essay on a subject related to your degree, talk about the writing process and your findings (you could even mention your Internal Assessments and what you learned about there). While the above sections of your personal statement show your passion for the subject, this section shows why you’re right for it. You should aim to use around 800 characters in this section.
#4 - Extracurriculars that complement the degree
While extracurriculars are definitely important parts of your academic journey, they should by no means be the main focus of your personal statement, and anything that you do mention should be directly tied into your degree in some way. By this we mean, be selective about which extracurriculars you choose to include in your personal statement, and why. Clubs like Model United Nations or debating societies look great on personal statements as they involve a range of transferable skills such as public speaking, problem solving and global awareness.
If you haven’t been able to take clubs like this however, don’t worry! Talk about any club(s) that you have done, but remember to link them to the skills that you’ve learned and how those will help you in your university degree. For example if you’ve been part of a school band, you could talk about the commitment and time management involved in being part of a scheduled club, or the teamwork to play in synchronization with your fellow band members. Get the general idea? Remember, universities don’t really want to know about all the extracurriculars you’ve done; they want to know about a few that really taught you something and gave you lifelong skills that could relate to your degree. This section should take up around 500 characters.
“Be selective about which extracurriculars you choose to include in your personal statement, and why”
#5 - Conclusion that ties it all in together
Your conclusion should be one of the shortest sections of your personal statement, of around 500 characters. By the end of your essay you won’t have too many characters left for this section (and you’d rather use what you have in the main body of your essay), so this is just to concisely summarise how the experiences mentioned in your essay have shaped you into someone who is passionate and a good fit for the degrees you’ve applied to. You could perhaps talk briefly about how your university degree will link into your chosen career path if you’ve already thought of that, but in general your conclusion shouldn’t include many new things, it should just tie together what’s already there. Think of it like the ribbon that is tied on a nicely wrapped gift; it’s not the main present, but it ties the whole thing together and makes it complete.
While this is only a rough guideline of what your personal statement could look like, it does show the general structure that is preferred by universities in the UK. Remember, for the really competitive universities, around 80% of your personal statement should be focused on what you’ve done above your schoolwork to show passion for your degree, and about 20% should be spent on extracurriculars. For more insights, read Mariana’s personal statement journey with a timeline on how to go about writing a fabulous personal statement!
Top tips: Do’s and don’ts
Now that you know a bit more about how to write a personal statement, let’s go into some do’s and don’ts for when you start writing, up to just when you hand it in.
- DO be concise to ensure that you include everything you want to say, because 4,000 characters is not a lot
- DO write loads and loads of drafts of your personal statement and keep editing (trust us, you can never have too many drafts)
- DO get multiple people to give you feedback on your personal statement, this could be teachers, friends, parents, or really anyone
- DON’T just list books you’ve read or subjects you’ve taken, remember that whatever you mention in your personal statement should be explained and linked back to your degree(s)
- DON’T use overused cliché phrases like ‘I’ve always wanted to be a …’ or ‘I’ve always had a passion for …’ because universities read them all the time and know that they’re probably not true. It’s better to sound genuine than try to include fancy (but sweeping) statements that don’t really mean anything
- DON’T use overly long words, because you probably won’t have the character count for it, and the content is more important to focus on
And that’s all on our how-to guide on writing an outstanding personal statement! If you follow these tips and structure, you’ll be sure to impress your universities. Still unsure about writing your personal statement? Watch our upcoming webinar for an all-you-need-to-know on writing an outstanding personal statement! Or for more personal 1x1 advice, sign up to our writing clinic.
“Part of what makes this assessment ‘internal’, is the fact that your teachers will mark it”