How to write a killer personal statement (part II)
27th June 2018
Welcome to Part II of How to Write a Killer Personal Statement.
In our last snippet, we talked about the significance of the personal statement.
Today, we’re going to get down to business. So, let’s begin…
Know your audience
To whom are you writing? Many students don’t even give this a single thought during the entire process, but it’s the most crucial part of any piece of writing.
You’re not simply talking to yourself (nothing wrong with that, by the way) or writing computer code, but attempting to communicate with another human being. Whether it’s your mum, dad, sibling, Maths teacher or the chap in the corner shop down the road, the one thing that we all have in common are feelings, fears, things that we like, things we don’t like.
You don’t need to know every intimate detail about the person reading your personal statement, but you should know something about them. This will help you to craft your tone.
Think about it for a moment. You don’t talk to everyone the same way, do you?
Here is the typical profile of a university admissions tutor:
- They hold a prestigious position at the university of your choice. They have the title of ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ before their name, for which they will have worked extremely hard.
- They have spent their lives in academia, so they love and know their subject inside out. They are the “1%” of the academic world in terms of subject knowledge, so don’t try to BS them.
- They are most likely tired and bored. Admissions tutors sift through thousands of personal statements every year and almost all of them sound the same.
You are speaking to a highly intelligent expert in their field and are trying to cultivate a relationship with that person.
You want to highlight your best qualities, without coming across as too “try hard” or arrogant.
Who are YOU?
How are you going to stand out in a concise and memorable way? Brainstorm, ask friends, parents, siblings, teachers about your qualities. As embarrassing as it may be, ask these people “What qualities do I have that stand out?”
Once you’ve got some external input, write down what you consider to be your best qualities. I appreciate that this can be difficult. We either idealise ourselves as images of perfection or, worse, find absolutely nothing to say about ourselves.
Ideally, you want to devise a slogan to describe your character.
Don’t be generic. The things that make you different are the things that make you special. Are you analytical, introverted, opinionated, soft-spoken etc?
Now, I’ve heard and read a lot of guff over the years about the need to evidence a plethora of extracurricular activities. If you’re not the head of your school’s debating society and netball, basketball and cricket teams and haven’t helped out at your local care home whilst somehow scaling Mount Everest by age 16, then universities won’t even look at you. In other words, nonsense!
Good for you if you have interesting things to mention. But, here’s a secret – the top universities in the UK, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, don’t really care!
You have fewer than 800 words to play with. Don’t waste them showing off about how you spent 12 months making cups of tea for a group of octogenarians. Unless you can directly tie that to your passion for your subject.
Oxford and Cambridge want passion (but AVOID using that word at all costs). Not ‘well-rounded’.
Now, some universities (e.g. Warwick) focus a little bit more on extra-curricular activities, but at the end of the day they want people who can cope academically with their courses. As Confucius said – “Man who chases two rabbits catches neither”. Universities want top students. Not half-decent students who occasionally partake in white water rafting.
Above all, remember this – be sincere and truthful. Lying never pays off.
How to brainstorm
It’s time to treat your mind like an archaeological excavation site.
Collect absolutely everything at this stage, even if it seems mundane. Stories, thoughts, opinions, ideas.
Write them all down.
This will build your confidence and get your creative juices flowing. Students get stressed because of the mistaken belief that they have to sit down and write a perfect personal statement in one sitting. Good writing is rewriting. No one gets it right first time. This is why your Form Tutor/Head of Sixth Form will usually ask you for two or three drafts until you’ve hit the proverbial sweet spot.
Once you’ve spent some time doing this (this stage normally takes about a week or so), we can move on to translating it into something useful.
Don’t be disheartened if your life doesn’t seem all that exciting compared to your peers. You don’t need to have had myriad experiences in Amazonian rainforests, reading to bed-ridden veterans or cleaning oil off some poor sea fowl on the Galapagos Islands. Think about any books you’ve read, ideas you’ve engaged with as well your hopes, aspirations and ambitions for the future.
How to organise your thoughts
If you’ve done as I’ve asked up to this point, you should have a wealth of material from which to choose. You might already know which bits you want to put into your personal statement. Try and find a common thread through maybe three or four ideas which tie them all together with your persona.
How does your story set you apart from those of all the other individuals?
For example, as an aspiring medic, you might choose to begin with a story about how a footnote in a Biology textbook sparked your interest in medicine, then go on to discuss how you picked apart medical inaccuracies in the TV show ER and researched everything they’d said on the internet.
Once you’ve selected some connected stories that speak to you as an individual, we can move on. Don’t worry about them being perfect or fully-formed at this stage.
How to plan
Since primary school, your English teachers have (hopefully) encouraged you to first plan any essay or piece of creative writing before piling in. Don’t just wing it and hope for something coherent.
- Introduction – typically three or four sentences. You want this opening paragraph to launch you into the main body and make your theme clear. No waffling!
- Main paragraphs – use this acronym for each section: PEE. Point, Example, Explanation. Each paragraph should be like a mini-essay in itself i.e. an introductory sentence, a body and a conclusion. These paragraphs should also be linked to each other.
- Conclusion – roughly the same length as your introduction. This is your opportunity to tie everything together and end powerfully.
Earlier, we touched on extracurricular activities. The balance of your personal statement should be roughly 5:1. That is, five parts academic to one part extracurricular.
Once you’ve got an outline, you can begin the first draft. It should be written quickly, no matter how rough it is. Remember, you’re going to rewrite this a few times before submission.
Next time, we’ll look at how to actually write that first draft and then knead and work it into your very own personal statement.