How To Start A Personal Statement: An Expert View

Starting a personal statement can often be the hardest challenge that applicants face. The prospect of starting with a blank page can be daunting, and it can often lead to people not starting in good time. This post will give you the tools you need to get started in the right way…

There are 9 steps to starting a personal statement, and apart from the first and last, you can work on them in any order. Do not write the first draft from scratch or try to write the opening paragraph first. Instead, gather key information and make comprehensive notes before creating the content.

Here are those nine steps in greater detail…

1 Make a Resource Document with Relevant Sections

The very first step when starting work on your personal statement is to create a single resource document. This can be in pages, word or in-app; whatever works best for you. All of your research, notes and writing will go into this one document, so make sure you’re comfortable with the software you use. The rules for this document are simple and if you stick to them, your personal statement will have a far higher chance of success.

Firstly, make sure your document is available across your devices. If you have reliable cloud storage, keep it there. Secondly, if you have connectivity or security issues, or you’re not comfortable with working online, make sure you regularly save a local copy. Back it up, but only work on one version and make sure you know exactly which version is which. Lastly, organise your document into specific, well-planned sections, and be disciplined about adhering to this structure. If you’re not sure how to divide your document, you can see an example below, based on the headings in this post.

If you’re more comfortable with pen and paper planning, a simple workbook like this will suit you perfectly.

2 Research Courses and Gather Key Vocabulary

Research a range of courses that focus on your chosen subject or speciality. You can do this incredibly easily and comprehensively here in the UK or here in the US. Once you have identified courses offering core components and modules that interest you, and with descriptions that engage you, take the time to make a list of the top 10 common or closely related vocabulary used to describe not only the course but also the attributes of a potential student.

You should end up with a list of powerful buzzwords that apply across the spectrum of courses you’re applying for. You should be ready to use a mix of these words, if appropriate and relevant, in your personal statement. This will show the reader that not only have you done your research, but that you are exactly the right fit for their program.

3 Consider Personal Inspirations and Anecdotes

Some consider this heading to be contentious, but in the early stages of starting your personal statement, it is vital that you prioritise writing about yourself. Regardless of whether you think they’re trivial or profound, note down as many of the reasons why you want to study a particular subject or go into a particular industry as you can. You might only use a sentence from this section in your final document, but having a pool of notes about what drives you is important; it will provide the reader with a tangible insight into your motivations and ambitions.

You might list personal experiences that inspired your interest in a subject or consider individuals or groups that have fostered your interest. You might have a desire to make a change in a particular field, or to work on overcoming a challenge faced by others. You might even have seen something as a child that has stayed in your mind. For now, write it all down. At a later point in the process, you will want to distil your motivation into an effective, relevant passage.

4 Evidence Your Knowledge, Skills and Suitability

One of the most important elements to include in a personal statement is evidencing your academic and personal suitability for the course you are applying for. At the start of the process, this might feel like a bit of a list, but you can develop it later, when you start to shape the material. Lots of the content in this section is likely to come from what you’ve explored and been inspired by during current or previous courses of study.

For now, make a list of all the skills you have that you think will be relevant to your application. You’ll want to think about specific subject-related knowledge, wider academic skills and your personal suitability for the course. I’ve given you some examples in the table below to get you started. Think as deeply as you can about what the subject would demand of you at a higher level, and how you can show that you meet the appropriate standard, rather than just telling the reader that you do. Here’s a great video going into that in a bit more detail:

Use your planning document as a space to write down everything that occurs to you, as long as it follows the structure in the table below. You could even insert a table of your own into your document, if it helps. You can always remove the table and turn the points into logical, well-crafted prose later in the process.

Subject-Specific KnowledgeWider Academic SkillsPersonal Suitability
An Economics module on Market Failure has given me specific knowledge about global economic investment strategies and international financial relationships. I could evidence this by using relevant vocabulary and making comparative points regarding two contrasting market approaches.I have shown independent study experience, research skills and revision technique during my study of Psychology. Practice of classification and organisation in Biology has allowed me to manage data accurately.
Understanding of application of mathematical formulae in Mechanics. Evidenced in mock exam grades and unit tests.
On my recent course I developed my organisational and time-management skills by managing three study modules at once. Punctuality and organisational skills were evidenced as I managed my academic studies and co-curricular activities, such as completing my Maths course with a top band grade whilst captain of the netball team.
My Chemistry studies, focusing on Kinetics, have given me a detailed understanding of the nature of reactants, catalysts and light absorption. I applied this advanced understanding when completing my extended project and developed a research experiment that won my school’s science award.I have carried out detailed analytical research into causes of poverty in my Politics and History studies, and as a consequence I am skilled at applying results and data to the formulation of specific conclusions. I have developed long-form and short-form answer skills as evidenced in my top-grade Music paper.I work successfully in small groups, contributing to the collective development of a task. I took the lead in the development of a mini-rocket project last year at school. My communication and motivational skills have been sharpened by volunteering at a local charity organisation.
Knowledge, Skills and Suitability Table

5 Evidence Wider Reading, Activities and Opinions

When you start your personal statement, it is important to keep an accurate record of the wider reading you do in preparation for the course. Some of this is likely to be related to your current courses of study, but specifically, admissions teams are looking for evidence that you have researched, read and participated in activities that extend your knowledge of the subject beyond your current syllabus, and by extension, make you a more suitable candidate for study at a higher level.

You should be able to evidence a range of books you’ve read that relate to the subject you want to study, but also trade publications you’ve seen, videos and lectures you’ve watched, workshops, conferences or seminars you have attended live or online and ways in which you have sought out opportunities to deepen your knowledge in general. This can seem like a lot of work, but if you are dedicated to deeper study of a subject, it should naturally be ongoing and enjoyable.  

It is also good practice, along with notes of what you read or experienced, to give your informed opinion of it. This will be very useful in your personal statement, as you’ll be able to make comparative points to demonstrate your knowledge as well as your academic potential. There are some excellent pointers for improving your academic research here.

6 Gather Information About the Subject or Industry

Regardless of your intended field of study, you will be able to gather some key information about contemporary movements or opinions in the field, or opportunities and challenges within the industry that are relevant to your course. Take some time to move beyond the information in your current course texts and use your own research to develop a few specific, clear examples. You will want to refer to some of these in your personal statement, but only when doing so is relevant to the point you want to make.

Remember, you should evidence your suitability by showing your knowledge, opinions and ambition, not by listing the top three answers to a quick Google search.  As an example, if you were applying for a degree in Medicine, you might gather the following kinds of information:

7 Explain Your Ambitions in Relation to the Course

This can be a challenging thing for some people to write about but is exactly what admissions officers and course leaders want to see. So, having thoroughly researched the content of the courses you are applying for, make a list of the specific ambitions you have for your studies.

Rather than saying “I want to learn more about Physics”, which doesn’t really mean anything, perhaps you could say “I am particularly interested in deepening my understanding of fluid dynamics, in advance of applying for an Aeronautics placement later in the course.” By writing like this, you are showing that you understand the course content, and making your application purposeful; there’s a specific reason for your choices, which is important to universities.

You could also show a wider level of ambition by linking the specialisms of study on a particular course with your career aspirations. If you want to go into Events Management as a career, then talking about the value of studying a module in Venue Risk Management connects your goals to the course content incredibly clearly.

8 List Your Relevant Co-Curricular Experiences

This section should list all the things you have done in addition to your studies that might be relevant or valuable to your application. When you are starting your personal statement, it’s alright to pour lots of thoughts and examples into this document. You will need to review and edit later, but for now, it’s alright to include as much content as you can.

What makes an experience relevant or valuable? It needs to have a direct bearing on your ability to successfully complete a higher level of study in your chosen field, or it needs to evidence sympathetic skills which will be of value to you during the course.

For example, saying that you enjoy swimming has no immediate relevance to an application to study Archaeology. However, if you have developed a self-disciplined and motivated mindset due to regular and demanding training, then that’s a skill worth mentioning, as it could be related to your potential success as a student. If you intend to study Interior Design, and you have experience of a part-time job in retail, that’s not a particularly valuable inclusion. Explaining what you learned about visual design as a result of creating a successful window display in the store would evidence relevant skills as well as indicating that you can balance study and work effectively.

9 Edit and Structure Relevant Content Carefully

It will take you a long time to research and note down all of these elements, but it is worth persevering, being accurate and thorough, and giving yourself the time to go through these steps in full. Once you have all this information, you’ll find you’ve got a large document, and it might seem like quite a challenge to edit it down. However, once you’ve gathered everything, you’ll find the hardest part of the process has been completed.

If you need some help with proofing and editing, you should check out Grammarly. I often recommend this free, intuitive software to students as it really helps get personal statements to a high level of accuracy, and it’s great for university study as well. You can click here to find out more about it, or hit the banner.

Depending on the context you’re writing your personal statement for, you’ll need to edit down to a specific word or character count. Even if you don’t have a word count to work to, it will be important to edit your notes to make your personal statement compelling and engaging. If you’re stuck on getting your first paragraph right, you can pick up some great advice here, and you can check out how to structure your content successfully over at this post.

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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