The Perfect Personal Statement

What makes the perfect personal statement? Many hours are spent by students each year up and down the country trying to answer this question in the form of their personal statement. It’s no easy thing encapsulating all of your interests, experiences, even your personality, in a 500 word document. It is however, a very good skill to start developing now. For every job, internship even voluntary position you will apply after university, you will have to write something akin to a personal statement, so now is a good time to start practising!

Before working out what you’re going to write, it is well worth thinking about the purposes that universities have in mind when they ask you to write a personal statement and the people who will be reading it the other end. So, simply put they want to know: Why you want to study this subject, what academic experience you have that will enable you to undertake undergraduate-level study in this subject, what your extra-curricular background has been and how this could enrich wider student life and perhaps feed into your academic endeavours. The balance to be sought between these questions depends upon the universities to which you are applying and your own relative strengths and weaknesses. Based on training I received from Cambridge University admission services I would suggest that those applying to Russell Group universities should strongly emphasise academic acumen and interest, potentially at the expense of extra-curricular ski trips and snorkelling adventures.

Remember that whichever academic reads your statement will be a) exceptionally well read in their subject area, b) used to students trying to ‘blag’ their way in and c) minimally tolerant of imprecise writing or well intentioned platitudes. In a sense, b) and c) actually make writing the perfect personal statement easier. You don’t need to try to wow your reader, simply make them understand your genuine interest in and ability to study the subject as clearly and concisely as you can. Avoid wacky quotes or references to theoreticians you’ve never read. Instead, take a couple of afternoons to read one or two articles or chapters on a thinker in your field who interests you (your teacher or tutor should be able to point you in the right direction if you don’t know where to start). Identify a couple of points which interest you (either out of agreement or disagreement) which you think you could expand on if asked in an interview.

This is the beauty of a personal statement: before even going into the interview you can determine where the conversation is most likely to go. Having been through three interviews at Cambridge and one interview at UCL myself, I was almost disappointed by the extent of predictability based on my personal statement. However if you target your statement around issues and points that you can have an interesting conversation about then this part of the process can only work to your advantage.

So, when you’re at your wits end trying to make your statement stand out or sound ‘passionate’, just remember to ask yourself: how can I most directly and concisely communicate my interests in this subject?

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