How Personal Should A Personal Statement Be: The Facts

A great personal statement contains a mix of your personal information, evidence of your subject research and an outline of your relevant ambitions. You need to balance the right blend of information and anecdote. So just how personal should your personal statement be?

A personal statement should be personal enough to convey your individual voice whilst evidencing your academic suitability. Balance examples of your wider reading, knowledge and achievements with relevant connections to your life, interests and ambitions. ‘Personal’ does not mean weird or quirky!

If you want a detailed guide to the most common mistakes that applicants make in their personal statement, you can check out my post here, or you can click here to find out just how original a personal statement should be.

But when it comes to the facts about how personal your application should be, the best way to make sure you’ve got it covered is to check out the following 9 mistakes that will make your personal statement too personal…

Can I Mention Childhood in a Personal Statement?

There is no reason not to mention an important or formative aspect of your childhood in your personal statement. It should be immediately relevant to the context of the subject or role for which you are applying, and should only be included if it adds to the persuasive quality of your application.

I often read examples of personal statements that outline key events from childhood in great detail, sometimes using up to a third of the available word count. It can be very powerful to write about an inspirational moment in your childhood, or the impact of a dynamic role model on your choice of subject or career, but even if that is genuinely what is driving your application, it should not drive your personal statement.

Admissions tutors are not interested in the details of a seminal childhood experience, and spending time writing this down will make your personal statement too personal.

They are looking for evidence that you are a suitable candidate for the course or role on offer, and although your childhood motivation might be a part of that, it is far less important than your recent, tangible achievements.

Imagine that you were introduced to coding software as a child, and this experience has fuelled a lifetime of interest in software engineering. Which example below would be most appropriate?

I remember when my life changed forever. It was when I was 9 years old and I was introduced to ‘Scratch’ software, which taught me how to create strings of code for simple games. I instantly fell in love with the programme and also with the concept of creating original code. It was like the doors opened in my mind and I realised that this was what I was meant to do. ‘Scratch’ was such an important part of my journey and I still go back to some of the codes I create, even today.Using ‘Scratch’ software as a child offered me a sound foundation in the concepts of coding, instilling in me a desire to develop these skills to a high level. Additionally, it helped me to think creatively, reason systematically and work collaboratively; valuable skills for a degree in Software Engineering.
How To Write About A Childhood Influence

Can I tell my Life Story in a Personal Statement?

Admissions tutors are not interested in reading your life story in your personal statement. Rather than writing about a series of life events, or a chronological history of moments that have inspired you, you should only refer to moments that reinforce or support your application.

A personal statement should reflect your current achievements and suitability for the course or role you are applying for. Telling the story of your life so far will not achieve that. If you write your personal statement this way, you will almost certainly:

  • Fail to include key information regarding the course
  • Fail to include key information related to your relevant academic achievements
  • Fail to include key information outlining your academic and professional ambitions

Personal statements written in this manner are often highly introspective – the writer focuses in on themselves almost entirely, attempting to justify their application. In fact, focusing outwards on your opinions and relationships with others, as well as your deeper understanding of your field of study, is far more compelling to the reader.

Below you can see two different structures for a personal statement. One tells a story, and one does not. If you were an admissions officer, which would seem like a more compelling example?

PARAGRAPH 1Brief context and motivation for subject choiceAll about me as a child and the things that inspired me
PARAGRAPH 2Academic suitability based on previous study including skills and achievementsWhat I learned from early school years that will help me to be a better student
PARAGRAPH 3Evidence of wider reading and researchFamily holidays, influences and inspirational people
PARAGRAPH 4Evidence of wider reading and researchWhat my recent subjects have taught me
PARAGRAPH 5Relevant work experience or volunteering and subsequent skills gainedHow I realised I wanted to study my subject
PARAGRAPH 6Relevant transferable skills gained from co-curricular activities and pastimesMy passions and how they have steered me to the subject I love
PARAGRAPH 7Ambitions for the future and connection with the course contentAll about what I want to do in the future (change world)
Don’t Write Your Personal Statement as a Life Story

Whilst there may be some overlap of content, the first example clearly demonstrates a logical structure and an engaged academic student. The second example is far too personal.

Can I Write my Personal Statement as a Story?

Successful personal statements do not often take the form of a narrative, nor are they written in third person. Writing a personal statement as a story can be ineffective, as you are likely to focus more on the vocabulary and descriptive style, and less on the necessary, relevant content.

It is always a challenge to re-write this kind of personal statement, as writing it as a narrative is such a strong choice and often defines the structure, style and even the purpose of the application.

So why do people make this mistake?

Sometimes, it’s in an effort to stand out by being original. Applicants think that if they write a semi-fictional statement, or sensationalise their own experiences in a personal statement, they will produce a memorable document.

They will, but for all the wrong reasons.

Instead of writing your personal statement as a story as if to entertain or impress, keep it factual, formal in tone and written in the first person. It is absolutely fine to use the word ‘I’ frequently. Readers want to know about your opinions and achievements; they do not want to hear about your life in the form of a poem or fictional story.

Here’s an example of why writing your personal statement as a story makes it far too personal:

The writer has given an overview of their engagement with the subject, but with almost no depth and detail. By writing a story, they are missing the opportunity to frame their application academically. Do not make the same mistake.

Can I List Achievements in a Personal Statement?

It is important to include important and relevant achievements in your personal statement, but you should make sure that they are relevant to the demands of the course or role you are applying for. They should be included within well-structured paragraphs, written in prose, not as a list.

The admissions team that reads your statement will also have a complete list of your academic achievements available to them, presuming that you have included these elsewhere in your application. You should not waste valuable space repeating them. Of more relevance is outlining how those achievements have prepared you for the course or role you are applying for.

There may be legitimate opportunities to mention a prestigious achievement that is not mentioned elsewhere, like an essay prize, sports accolade or publication. In order not to make this too much like an overly personal boast, it is sensible to put this kind of achievement in context by considering its value to you as an academic student, and the ways in which it strengthens your academic potential. Listing every dance prize you have won adds nothing to your application to study Philosophy.

Mentioning that you have achieved highly in dance exams, and that you have developed the transferable skills of stamina, dedication, time-management and teamwork make those achievements far more valuable to a university or employer.

Can I Discuss Illnesses in my Personal Statement?

If you have suffered from an illness that has impacted on your education, you should mention this in a brief, factual manner in your personal statement. Do not base your statement around the impact that the illness may have had, nor outline ways in which your application may be disadvantaged.

This can be a sensitive issue, and it may be that an illness or injury has had an important and tangible impact on your life and consequently on your application. The right way to manage this is to draw inspiration from the experience, indicate how the illness has equipped you with a range of strengths, from stamina to determination, from empathy to independent study skills.

Structuring your entire personal statement around the impact of your illness will not gain sympathy with the reader, nor will it give the impression of an applicant who is well-prepared for university study. Instead, make sure that your statement acknowledges your achievements, the relevant skills and experiences you have had, and most importantly, how you have developed the skills to manage your illness or injury in the future.

If you require additional support as a result of an injury or illness, then indicate this in the supporting documentation that forms your application. Do not go into detail about it in your personal statement.

UCAS goes into some detail about their approach to disclosing illness here.

Can my Personal Statement be Informal or Chatty?

You should ensure that your personal statement is written in a relatively formal style, and that slang, abbreviations, attempts at humour and overly descriptive language are not included. You should write in your own voice, but profanities should not be included under any circumstances.

There are three important reasons why an informal personal statement just won’t work:

  • An informal personal statement does not demonstrate the level of academic rigour required at undergraduate level
  • An informal personal statement will almost certainly not be concise enough to include the required elements whilst meeting the word count
  • An informal personal statement will inevitably be unstructured and incomplete, disengaging the reader

Your individuality needs to shine through in terms of your achievements, your knowledge and your ambition. Those are the elements that will help your application stand out, without making it too personal. Writing as though you are chatting with your friend, or using overly unformal vocabulary will alienate the reader, and most likely lead to your application being rejected.

Here’s an example of an Astronomy personal statement that is far too informal, just to emphasise the point. Do not copy this style, but try to write your own version of this extract using the bullet points above as a guide for what to do correctly…

Should my Personal Statement Focus on Ambitions?

Outlining your ambitions should not be the primary focus of your personal statement. Whilst it advisable to communicate your future goals in relation to the content of the course or role you are applying for, attempting to impress the reader with your ambitions will result in a weaker application.

Simply discussing your goals doesn’t really give you the chance to evidence your suitability for the course, and if you write in too much detail about your personal ambitions, you are likely to miss the key content. Rather than structuring your personal statement around what it is that you want to achieve, think more about showing the reader why you believe you have the ability to reach those goals.

Whilst the reader needs to see that you are motivated and dynamic, and that you understand the value of the course or role in relation to your ambitions, not placing enough emphasis on the skills you already possess will undermine your application.

I encourage students to aim high as opportunities abound for them

Clare Marchant, Chief Executive UCAS

Here’s a table showing you how to turn a personal ambition into a compelling idea:

I want to be an architect:My combined experience in Mathematics (including advanced trigonometry) and Graphic Design have given me the foundational skills needed to succeed on an Architecture degreeI have every intention of working as a professional actor upon graduation:Performing with the National Youth Theatre and working as an extra on-set or Netflix has given me the confidence to pursue a career in the entertainment industry upon graduation
I intend to work in the financial sector, probably with a major employer, prior to moving onto freelance consultancy:Having already completed an internship with Bark Finance, I intend to use the knowledge gained from your ‘Finance and Litigation’ module to gain a full time role at one of your recruiting organisations, Astro BankingI aspire to run my own school in the future:Having gained my teaching qualification, I intend to complete my year as a newly qualified teacher under university supervision, focusing on developing my understanding of professional standards
Turn Ambitions into Compelling Content

Can I Express my Opinions in a Personal Statement?

When writing your personal statement, you should avoid expressing opinions which the reader may find offensive, extreme or ill-informed. Whilst you should attempt to convey conflicting viewpoints in support of an academically relevant argument, you should not make political or personal points.

If you decide to use your personal statement as an opportunity to voice an opinion or celebrate activism that others might perceive as extreme, then you should not be surprised if this results in a rejection. Whilst universities are looking for opinionated, informed and dynamic students, the need to demonstrate objectivity and balance is far more important in this case.

That sense of balance is best achieved by evidencing that you have an understanding of the challenges and issues facing those already working in your field, or by outlining some of the key approaches underpinning contemporary theory and practice. If you can establish this sense of dialogue and counterargument, you can give your informed opinion as a conclusive point.

That way, you demonstrate academic rigour and understanding, whilst making a reasonable personal point.

Being controversial or argumentative can seem like a good way to sit up and get the reader’s attention – but it’s not worth a student doing it unless they’ve really got the evidence and the argument to back it up

Here’s a great video from on just why your application might get rejected:

Does using Flattery in a Personal Statement Work?

It is not advisable to use your personal statement as an opportunity to flatter the institution or employer to which you are applying. Attempting to be persuasive or pleading in tone will not impress the reader. Nor will overly complimenting their reputation. Focus on your own qualities instead.

I have saved this point until last as it really is such an important one. Your personal statement should be respectful of the opportunities you would encounter at a particular institution, and evidence that you fully understand the course content and structure, but not attempt to simply replicate that information, or use it as a device to point out how wonderful it would be to study at that place.

Universities are well aware of their reputation, and whilst they will want to be reassured that you understand the demands of the course, they will not value a paragraph that tells them about themselves. Remember, every point you make should be focused on your own achievements and suitability.

Universities working in the UCAS system are also aware that you might be applying to four other institutions. To write the equivalent of “Your university is a leader in its field, and I would be proud to gain a place at such an esteemed and well-respected institution, with access to the very best resources and lecturers” is at best naive and at worst incorrect, and admissions tutors know this.

In short, make reference to the value of the course that university provides, but focus on the connections between that and your suitability. To write about the university at length makes it far too personal – for them!

Your Final Step: Get Some Professional Support

In the end, the only way you can guarantee to avoid making your personal statement too personal, and check that you are getting the right balance of content, evidence and voice, is to share your writing and get some informed feedback. You can do this by talking to teachers and counsellors (this is a great option as they are far more likely to have the informed skills and contemporary understanding needed compared with friends and family).

You can also engage with a professional, who will be able to support you throughout the process and work with you to add value to your application. If you’d like to work with me, then you can check out some of the ways in which I can offer you some 1-1 support by clicking here.

It only takes a moment to get in touch, and it could make all the difference. You can read all about why having guidance is so important here.

Good luck with your personal statement, and don’t forget to contact me if you’d like some 1-1 support. You’ve got this! D

Research and content verified by Personal Statement Planet.

David Hallen

I've worked in the Further Education and University Admissions sector for nearly 20 years as a teacher, department head, Head of Sixth Form, UCAS Admissions Advisor, UK Centre Lead and freelance personal statement advisor, editor and writer. And now I'm here for you...

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