Undergraduate Economics courses are popular because an Economics degree is a recognised entry route to highly-paid professions such as banking, accountancy and consulting. University admissions tutors are therefore spoilt for choice in terms of applications from high-achieving students with spotless academic records and superb grade predictions. None of these criteria are therefore sufficient by themselves to differentiate candidates sufficiently to guarantee an offer. This is the bad news. The good news is that many of these top-class students write sub-standard personal statements and put themselves out of contention. The student with good grades and an exceptional personal statement can thus gain a competitive edge in the race for an undergraduate place at university.
So what makes for the perfect personal statement in Economics? The simple first answer to this question is genuineness and relevance. Very few A-level or IB students read Economics in more depth than their course textbooks and perhaps a few newspaper articles given to them by their teachers. They then proceed to list books, journals and magazines related to Economics which they claim to read regularly. Moreover, to make their claims sound genuine, they embellish them with elaborate discussions and opinions on economic issues which often have no theoretical relevance at all. It’s all too obvious. Students who have not read widely would be better advised to select one article, read it and comment on it intelligently. Otherwise, they should begin a programme of wider reading a year or more before writing their statement. Even when they do this, they should find a single issue to discuss concisely with references to the literature they have explored. The candidate should convey an excitement and curiosity in discovering and discussing an issue in Economics applied to a current aspect of life. Examples of relevant issues are poverty in developed economies, the instability of financial markets and the economic impacts of migration but any issue, no matter how small, can be turned into a vehicle to convey the genuine enthusiasm of the candidate for Economics.
The second essential quality in an Economics personal statement is evidence of initiative and forward planning in the field. If the student has already started the process of organising internships or other work experience related to Economics, this indicates, determination and maturity. Admissions tutors hardly expect 17-year olds to have completed internships with Morgan Stanley before starting their personal statements but the process of networking can easily be started by attending seminars on Investment Management and Economics run by top universities such as UCL. In addition, attending public lectures on Economics at the LSE and talking to other attendees afterwards is also a great way of building a network and a fabulous indication to admissions tutors that the student is not going to be just a book-reader and a repeater of received wisdom. Learning in Economics consists of discussion, debate and testing of opinions. If a candidate discusses their impressions of a seminar and is able to convey the reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with the issues at hand, he or she will be effective in tutorials and facilitate the learning of other students. Economics teachers at top universities generally enjoy engaging with curious, expressive students and the more a student is able to advertise themselves as such the better.
Having said all this, Economics at university is all about mathematics and statistical analysis these days. This may change with time as assumptions of rationality and maximisation are abandoned but, for the time being, students without a strong mathematical or statistics background when entering university will be at a distinct disadvantage unless they are able to pick up mathematical concepts very quickly. Given this fact, an Economics personal statement should contain a reference to the application of mathematics to Economics. Preferably, the candidate will have extended his or her learning of Mathematics to include some simple undergraduate topics such as the equations of demand curves or Lagrangian Multipliers. At the very least, such a paragraph indicates that the candidate is aware of the central importance of Mathematics to economic analysis at the moment.
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Of course, most students apply to more than one university for Economics and may be wondering if any special provision needs to be made for this. In fact, many universities are more concerned with the aptitude of students for the Subject rather than their reasons for choosing particular universities. However, if a student wishes to mention the reasons for choosing particular institutions, it may be best to list a set of qualities which are common to his or her choices such as individual attention to student learning, good sports facilities, wide range of societies or good links to the financial services industry etc. It is both a strength and a weakness of the UCAS system that one application covers all universities and so students should not be too concerned about differentiating between universities on their application.
A more important point is perhaps the differentiation between courses when a student is applying for say Accounting and Finance as well as Economics at the same time. This form of differentiation is more difficult but cannot be ignored. One paragraph clearly explaining a student’s understanding of the differences in content between the two courses as well as the similarities should suffice but this does make the rest of the personal statement more complicated. A student would have to convey clearly their preference for both subjects as well as their aptitude in each rather than trying to write generically about both.
In all, after completing the personal statement, a student should be able to look back and see that he or she has expressed why they are enjoying their current studies, what they have learned from professionals in the field, what economic issues concern them and what practical steps they have taken in terms of gaining future employment in the field. As long as these points emerge clearly from reading the statement it can be said to be close to perfect.
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