“Tell me about yourself.”
Whether applying for a job or a spot in an undergraduate study program, the question above is the most dreaded. What are ‘they’ looking for? What should I include in my narrative?
If I tell them about my awesome ski skills, would it sway a vote in my favour? Hint: probably not, but your dedication and perseverance in pursuing your sport might, if phrased properly.
That simple question - 'tell us about you', evokes so much panic in applicants all over the world for a couple of reasons, one of them being that we’re taught not to brag on ourselves.
Modesty is generally considered a virtue but it seems that the most pertinent question to get ahead in life – to land that job or win an offer from the university of your choice, the one that demands we make ourselves exceptional, goes against everything we’re taught, doesn’t it?
Still, there’s no need to despair over being asked to talk about yourself.
Your Superprof wants to help put you at your ease; to give you some points to consider and tips to build an amazing personal statement. We’re also going to touch on the ‘don’ts’ of writing such a narrative.
The Purpose of the Personal Statement
Wherever you encounter that question in any of its forms or settings, all you need to know is that it is designed to measure two of your personal qualities: maturity and authenticity.
If you are a traditional student, meaning you’re following the standard academic path – preparing to sit A-Levels (or the International Baccalaureate) while wading through the university application process, you might wonder how much maturity prospective students are expected to have.
Maturity, in this sense, does not refer to wisdom beyond your years but to the trifecta of purpose, intention and direction, and your ability to operate within those parameters.
So, as you think of drafting your personal statement, think of it as an essay that describes why you want to pursue the studies you’re applying for, what you will do with the knowledge you gain from your courses and how it will influence the direction of your life.
Conversely, if you have had an experience that has led you into a certain direction – the desire to study a particular field, you may touch on it in your narrative.
It might read a bit like this:
Our family has always had cats; our cats always hunted and brought home ‘gifts’. My attempts to nurse those offerings back to health and my heartbreak when it couldn’t be done convinced me that I have an affinity for animal care…
Can you imagine the personal statement you could build on this premise?
This glimpse into your history kicks off a satisfactory arc: animals in your life for as long as you can remember, an event that caused you to learn something – you can’t simply pet a dead animal back to life. Your exposure to the cycle of life and death at an early age fostered your desire to care for animals.
You could then go on to project how animal caregivers are needed more than ever in the current environmental crisis – which conveys the idea that you are aware of current events and the wider world.
In personal statement parlance, this is known as the ABC rule: Action, Benefit and Course.
It also perfectly demonstrates your maturity as well as your authenticity.
Personal Statement Particulars
Whether you are British or a prospective international student with sights on the UK, applying to university is done through UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admission Service.
In many ways, this online application system makes the process of applying easy: you only need to enter all of your information one time, after which you may apply for a place in up to five courses of study.
A major part of your UCAS application process is the personal statement essay.
Its parameters are set by the program: you will not be permitted to exceed 4,000 characters – that includes your words and the spaces between them. That limits you to roughly 700 words.
You are further restricted to 47 lines – whether text-filled or blank is immaterial. Whichever limit you hit first marks the end of your essay.
You will have to be concise yet sufficiently descriptive to get your point across while staying within those boundaries.
Naturally, such constraints make formatting your text especially tricky. For instance, knowing that a blank line will cost you, should you insert one between paragraphs?
Likewise indents: if you type up your statement in as a formatted Word document and then paste it into the UCAS field meant for it, the system will automatically strip your text of any formatting, including paragraph indents.
You might find a happy medium by ending each paragraph mid-line, as we did the paragraph above, so that your text has the appearance of paragraphing without sacrificing any precious space allotment.
Now join the discussion: what is the best method for choosing a course?
The Effective Personal Statement
In his book titled On Writing, American author Stephen King advocates for a ‘clean’ writing process: dispensing of frilly language and worn clichés, using active voice rather than passive verb constructions and varying sentence length.
Considering the limitations imposed by the UCAS application system, that advice is on the mark: you have little room for elaborate descriptions.
A great way to get started on your admission essay is to brainstorm ideas, writing salient points as bulleted statements. This exercise is both easy and fun; feel free to ask friends and family to toss out ideas, too.
To demonstrate the concept, we return to our love of cats:
- Veterinary medicine – our proposed course of study
- always been around animals (1)
- love animals (1)
- Sat GCSEs and A-Levels in biology and chemistry (2)
- Watch a lot of animal documentaries (3)
- worked on a farm over summer holiday (4)
- worried about fires and their impact on wildlife (5)
- volunteer with RSPCA (4)
- worried about predicted extinction events (5)
Now, it’s just a matter of putting these points in proper order and fleshing them out. To do so, you should number your bullets in the following order:
Your introductory paragraph (1) should detail why you hope to gain a spot in that study programme.
Bear in mind that, if you choose more than one course of study, perhaps in unrelated fields, your introduction should be general enough to address all of the subjects you’ve chosen.
Next, you should present your academic background as it relates to your chosen course list (2), followed by how you’ve pursued that interest outside of the classroom (3).
Immediately after, talk about any extracurricular work you’ve done that relates to your chosen subject (4).
Briefly, discuss any hobbies and interests you might have, especially if you can relate them to your chosen field of study (5).
Your essay’s conclusion should sum up all of the points you’ve made. It’s a good idea to mention your graduate school aspirations here, and how earning a spot in that programme will advance your career goals.
You might shudder at this unabashed self-promotion but, rest assured: you are expected to sell yourself and your accomplishments.
You have to put yourself in as favourable a light as possible on your school application but, then again, you’re not so much highlighting yourself as your accomplishments.
Now that you have all of your points in their proper order, you may start writing – in Word or whichever word processing software you work in.
For your first draft, don’t worry about the word/character counter; you can always refine your statement and trim away any excess in later drafts.
In a sense, applying for university in general and, in particular, writing this statement is good preparation for all of the academic writing you’ll do later on!
What Not To Do on Your Personal Statement
Before we leave you to ponder how best to highlight your strengths, we need to touch on what not to do when writing a personal statement.
1. Don’t open with a bang; go for sincerity and get to the point: why do you want this course? You might give humour a pass too; often, it doesn’t come across well.
2. Remember all of those ‘wow words’ that got hammered into our heads in primary school? Disregard them! Writing experts advocate using adjectives sparingly and only when absolutely necessary.
3. Avoid quotes and chichés: the admissions committee want to read your words, not another’s, no matter how quotable s/he may be.
In that same vein, avoid making lists (of books you’ve read, shows you’ve seen, etc.) no matter how pertinent they are to your subject matter. Instead, highlight what you’ve learned.
4. Don’t include any unnecessary information about yourself/your experiences, or anything that cannot be verified or proven. Selling yourself is good but over-selling is not!
And do not plagiarise: UCAS will flag any text that has been copied and notify your prospective university.
5. Grammar and punctuation are critical in this writing effort! Don’t forget to proofread your essay; you should ask at least three other people to go over it, too.
It’s your writing skills that will give the admissions team their first impression of you; think hard about how you want to stand out – surely, it’s not for writing badly!
With these tips, we hope you are better prepared to tackle writing a good personal statement.
Your turn to chime in: when should students start applying for university?