How to write a killer personal statement (part III)
2nd July 2018
Welcome to the final part of How to Write a Killer Personal Statement.
In our last section, we talked about the importance of planning and preparation.
If you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail.
Today is all about writing your personal statement and editing it until you have something you can be proud of.
How to write an introduction
There are a lot of things going on in a good introduction, but it can be complicated to discuss and think about. Here are my top tips:
- Use the active voice to make your writing more powerful. For example
Multiple experiences in my developing years blessed me with the discovery that I am a world citizen.
I was blessed by multiple experiences in my developing years which led me to discover that I am a world citizen.
Most people’s default writing is in the passive voice. This is because they are unsure about what they are saying. They lack conviction. Even if you aren’t entirely confident in what you are saying, use the active voice. Although it might feel uncomfortable at first, the more you use it the more confident you will become.
- If you must use a quote then don’t open/end with one because it shows that you are unsure of your own words. If you resort to using someone else’s words it suggests that yours aren’t good enough.
- Use sentences that vary in length. Don’t be afraid of short sentences. They are powerful. But be sure to mix up the pace. Two short sentences followed by a slightly longer one make for nice reading.
Writing a main paragraph
Point. Example. Explanation.
If you follow this simple rule well, your personal statement will sing.
Point – your first sentence. What is your point? Your first sentence needs to say exactly what you’re going to talk about and be relevant to what came before.
Example – you always need to back your point up with an example. The example should paint a picture. Make the description clear and appeal to multiple senses if possible.
Explanation – what did you learn from the example that made you who you are today?
The Duke of Edinburgh Award fallacy
An academic at Oxford once told me that as soon as she reaches the part of the personal statement which starts “I have achieved gold in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award…” she stops reading. Her view is that extra-curricular activities tell her absolutely nothing about a student’s capacity to learn her subject.
Much more interesting is to see how an applicant has engaged with a subject outside of the school curriculum. For example, aspiring law students should consider the following questions. What lectures have you attended? What books have you read? To which magazines do you subscribe? Have you visited court for the day to watch a trial? Have you done work experience with some lawyers? What are your views on the hot legal topics of today: Brexit; high-profile sexual harassment allegations; current guidelines on sentencing?
Showing an in-depth and informed understanding of these issues is more impressive than listing the hundreds you have scored or the walks you’ve undertaken for charity. Many university admissions advisors say, “Getting in the first XI shows you are hard-working and committed.” I disagree. It shows that you have a talent and penchant for cricket. Having taken the time to research international law and developing views on Abu Hamza’s deportation shows hard work and your commitment to reading law.
Of course, mention any extra-curricular activities and achievements, but limit these to a small section of your personal statement (ideally just before the conclusion) unless they are directly related to your proposed course of study. Remember, five parts academic to one part extra-curricular.
By the time you get to the conclusion the reader should feel like they went on a little journey. State what you’ve learned and state where you see yourself going.
End with a vision.
Don’t simply repeat what was said in the introduction.
For example, a business applicant might finish with:
As I look back over the formative events in my past, I find myself invigorated and
compelled to take action. Although many factors were involved in my decision to
study business, ultimately my motivation is linked to one strong belief. Business
is the art of providing value to humanity and any success I experience will be the
direct result of my hard work in helping others.
How to edit your personal statement
Whether it’s piece of maths homework, a history essay or your personal statement, I would always advise leaving it alone for at least a day before coming back to it.
You need a clear head, free from any prejudices about how good your work is before editing.
First things first, check for spelling and grammar mistakes. Constantly. Over and over again. This is something completely within your control and you must always control the controllables!
Next, read it aloud and seek the help of friends, family and teachers.
You don’t have to take everyone’s advice on board, but do seek the honest critique of as many trusted people as possible. They will often be able to see things that you cannot.
As always, give yourself plenty of time and don’t leave the editing process to the eleventh hour.
“Excellence does not require perfection.” – Henry James
Your personal statement will never be perfect, so don’t obsess over it. Paralysis by analysis is definitely a thing! If you’ve followed my advice then it’ll be pretty close to perfect and you will have a great shot at getting invited to interview.
P.S. If you still need help with your personal statement, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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