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Millie's Guide to Personal Statements UK vs. US

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 a person.

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.

  1. 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.

  1. Highlight your relevant experience & why you’ll excel in your chosen major

Lots of students give a laundry list of their current subjects, but don’t talk about 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 and 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 analysing 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.

  1. Mention any relevant extracurricular involvements and/or work experience

You only need to add these in if they are relevant. If you do have something to mention here, make sure you detail what it was, what you learned, and, again, how it relates to what you want to study. The challenge is doing this succinctly – 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.

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 of contentious cases. It amazes me how subtle phonetics, aural, visual, and conceptual similarities between trademarks could lead to an opposition proceeding.

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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.

There’s no limit to the number of colleges you can apply to, but you should be aware that every US college has its own way of doing things. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to understand the requirements of your target schools, and be prepared to create as many varying personal statements as you need.

Since most US universities use the Common App platform to receive and evaluate applications, and is what most students applying to US colleges are likely to encounter, we’re going to focus our advice on Common App statements. It’s a 500-650 word essay response to a prompt that encourages you to discuss your background, talents, or perhaps a big challenge you’ve overcome.

There will be very little difference in grade scores between applicants: this is your one and only chance 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 pick the prompt that’s the best match. This way, it’ll be easier to find relevant supporting information, and will protect you from creating multiple mediocre essays.

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.

Millie’s pro tips: our favorite Common App prompts

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This is a good, wide-ranging option which we would recommend to most students.

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Not a good choice unless you have faced a very serious challenge.

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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.

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This is another good option, just make sure you’re focused on the growth, not the accomplishment.

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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.

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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 like Millie's feedback on your personal statements? Learn more about our 1:1 Writing Clinic here.