Millie's Guide to Personal Statements UK vs. US
In the UK, students need to convey why they want to study a chosen subject for the next three years. In the US, colleges want to know about potential students as people.
The Difference Between UK & US Personal Statements
Despite UK and US colleges being among the most popular choices for international students to apply to, many people don’t realize that the two countries have very different application requirements when it comes to personal statements.
In the UK, students need to convey why they want to study a chosen subject for the next three years; winning personal statements focus more on academic strengths and interests than they do on extracurricular activities.
In the US, colleges want to know about potential students as a person. They have all the academic details they need from SAT scores and school grades, so they want to get a taste of a student’s values, their life experiences, and ultimately what they’ll bring to the college.
Whether you are destined for the UK or the US, here’s how to write a personal statement that will stand out.
UK Personal Statements
Start with why you love the major you’re applying for; That doesn’t mean how long you’ve studied it!
In the UK, you get just one personal statement that you can send to up to five universities. The most important thing here is the word count: the limit is just 4,000 characters, including spaces and punctuation. That’s only about 600 words in total, so keep them short, and make them count. Our recommendation is to use about 80% of the word count to cover your academic profile, and the remaining 20% on your extracurricular activities.
- Start with why you love the major you’re applying for
That doesn’t mean how long you’ve studied it! Instead, you need to talk about what ignites your enthusiasm for the subject – it could be how geography or economics give you a lens with which to view the world, or how medieval literature has transported you through time and expanded your mind. Whatever that spark is, find it and explain it in a way that makes you stand out.
Example: Living in Hong Kong makes it easy to be ignorant about what is happening in other parts of the world. As a resident, I do not have to worry about earthquakes or famines in the foreseeable future. But this sense of ease is sometimes so strong that you can hardly hear voices from the less fortunate or possess a global vision. However, Geography’s interdisciplinary nature creates a diversity of intellectual streams within itself. Motivated by my aspiration to become an urban planner, I am keen on knowing how humans interact with the environment. By two clear scopes, human and physical Geography, the subject essence drives me to dig deeper and step out of my comfort zone.
Highlight your relevant experience & why you’ll excel in your chosen major
Lots of students provide a laundry list of their current subjects but don’t discuss how they relate to the major they're applying for. If you’re applying to study law, you could talk about how your psychology course has helped you understand human behavior or how history has helped you see how legal patterns have repeated themselves. Think about everything you’ve been learning and try to apply it to the subject you want to study.
Example: I have relished the chance to study English Language and Literature at Higher Level for my IB Diploma. From analyzing Shakespeare’s Macbeth to deconstructing a Burger King advertisement, I have been exposed to a diverse range of texts, making me more sensitive to the nuances of linguistic expression.
If you are going to bring something up in your personal statement, you need to leave yourself enough words to explain why you said it.
Mention any relevant extracurricular involvements and/or work experience
You only need to include these if they are relevant. If you do have something to mention here, ensure you detail what it was, what you learned, and, again, how it relates to what you want to study. The challenge lies in being succinct. If you're going to mention something in your personal statement, you need to allocate enough words to explain why you mentioned it.
Example: I undertook an internship at Rouse, a global firm specializing in IP rights. I organized records of trademark registration and renewal certificates and standardized client-facing templates for Vietnam based on existing ones for China. I observed solicitors at work and read correspondence from contentious cases. It amazes me how subtle phonetic, aural, visual, and conceptual similarities between trademarks could lead to an opposition proceeding.
US Personal Statements
The goal of personal statements in the US is to showcase your uniqueness. Especially for top-tier schools, there will be very little difference in grade scores between applicants; this is your one and only chance to stand out.
You can apply to as many colleges as you wish in the US, but be aware that every college has its unique requirements. Make sure you allocate ample time to understand the requirements of your target schools and be prepared to create varying personal statements as necessary.
Since most US universities use the Common App platform for applications, which is what most students applying to US colleges will encounter, we'll focus our advice on Common App statements. This entails a 500-650 word essay response to a prompt that encourages discussion about your background, talents, or a significant challenge you've faced.
Given the minimal difference in grade scores between applicants, this personal statement is your one and only opportunity to stand out.
Picking prompts and nailing them
It's probably best to reverse-engineer the prompt you choose. First, think about what you want to present, and then select the prompt that best matches. This approach will make it easier to find relevant supporting information and will prevent you from producing multiple mediocre essays.
The process of compiling your personal statements will take about six weeks, so ensure you allocate enough time to write them and to receive feedback from one or two trusted individuals.
Millie’s pro tips: our favorite Common App prompts
This is a good, wide-ranging option which we would recommend to most students.
Not a good choice unless you have faced a very serious challenge.
Unless you have a very strong vision on how you’d like to solve a problem, we’d recommend only answering this prompt if you’ve made headway with solving something important.
This is another good option, just make sure you’re focused on the growth, not the accomplishment.
Quite a tricky prompt to answer well. Go for it if you have a very good idea on what you want to say, otherwise opt for prompt 1 instead.
Don’t do a topic of your choice for the sake of it. Prompts 1-6 are so broad it makes sense to opt for one of them unless you have something unique to say.
The whole process of getting your personal statements together will take about six weeks – so make sure you leave enough time to write them, and to allow for feedback from one or two trusted people. Would you like Millie's feedback on your personal statements? Learn more about our 1:1 Writing Clinic here.