What’s the first thing you do when writing a personal statement? For many people, getting the opening paragraph right is the most immediate task, as it sets the tone for the rest of the application. However, this is also the paragraph that applicants find hardest to write, as it requires the sophisticated combination of factual information and personal reflection.
So, how to start a personal statement?
Start a personal statement with a paragraph that engages the reader and establishes your academic credibility and potential in your field of study. You should also ensure that you include an element of personality, combined with a relevant and effective hook, compelling the reader.
I’ve detailed my top three strategies for achieving this below in lots of detail, to ensure that you develop a fantastic opening paragraph. I’ve also included some ideas for great personal statement hooks and advice about the mistakes to avoid when starting a personal statement.
Check out my post on starting the process of writing a personal statement here, if you’re beginning from scratch.
How do you Start a Personal Statement: Examples
Having worked with hundreds of applicants to develop and improve their applications, I’ve identified the three most effective strategies for starting personal statements and achieving brilliant opening paragraphs. Whilst these are appropriate for any kind of application, course or subject, one will usually stand out as being most relevant.
Whichever option you choose, remember that the style you establish in your opening paragraph needs to be maintained throughout your entire personal statement, and your final paragraph needs to reflect the comments made at the beginning, completing the point you set out to make.
Statement Starter 1: The Significant Achievement
Beginning your personal statement by outlining the impact or value to you of a specific achievement can be an engaging way to establish your suitability, credentials or engagement.
It is also a great way to ensure that you begin by writing about yourself, not someone else.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be an academic accomplishment. However, it should communicate a relevancy to the course or role you are applying for. Maybe you took a team on an outward-bound course and developed leadership and resilience, which relates to the specifics of your application. Perhaps you won a medal in a national maths challenge, adding credibility to your science personal statement?
In any case, not only do you need to explain the accomplishment and talk about its value to you, you need to make sure that you relate that directly to the demands of the course you are applying for.
You can think of these achievements as being divided into three groups, any of which would make an excellent point in an opening paragraph.
- Any kind of academic prize or publication beyond the taught curriculum
- High level additional qualifications
- Success in solving an academic challenge
- Overcoming academic obstacles
- Courses attended or completed
- Subject success in a practical context – performances, exhibitions, online
- Work experience or internships
- Volunteering and community work
- Running your own business
- Accomplishments in sport or other interests
- Special events and sponsorship opportunities
- Caring for a friend or relative
- Overcoming adversity to do with health, opportunity, finance or geography
- Travel opportunities taken and their value
- Engagement with additional languages and cultures
- Employment and the ability to balance this with study
- Parental status
Here’s an example of how that kind of opening paragraph might look…
Having won my school’s academic writing prize with an essay analysing the use of Python coding in contemporary medical technology, I was inspired to research the use of AI in clinical diagnosis and read ‘Life Decisions’ by Dr P Balmer. Her research into the use of algorithms to detect markers of illness is the inspiration behind my application.Applicant 1
Statement Starter 2: The Inspirational Moment
The second kind of opening point is to outline an inspirational moment that in some way had a positive effect on you, and is at the heart of your decision to study a particular subject or work in a particular field.
There are no rules here as to what this could be; sometimes the most honest of examples is the most effective, even if you feel that it lacks some depth or credibility. I have seen extremely compelling personal statements in which the candidate’s inspiration is a parent’s love or a chance encounter with someone who opened their eyes to new possibilities. Equally, reading a book or listening to a lecture can entirely change your outlook on the world.
The important thing to remember is that your example must illustrate the effect that this moment had on you, provide the opportunity for you to show how you have grown from that moment and indicate how that outcome enhances your suitability.
Again, I’ve categorised these into three different groups, to better illustrate their potential…
- Formal meetings with inspirational people (at lectures, events, signings, locations, conventions, in the workplace etc)
- Informal meetings in unexpected places (a person who does you a good deed or suddenly changes your life in some way)
- Inspirational friends, peers or family that model a new behaviour or way of viewing the world
- Teachers, counsellors or advisors that have opened new doors for you
- People who have achieved significant success in a field you aspire to
Experiences That Change You
- Community work
- Changes of circumstance
- Successes and failures
- Lessons, lectures, courses or conversations
- Cultural or social discoveries
- Hobbies and interests
Discoveries and Connections
- Historical figures whose legacy has had an impact on you
- Making links between disciplines, cultures or forms (lightbulb moments!)
- Seeing something for the first time (a painting, an experiment, a view)
- Understanding the relevancy of one subject or process to another
Here’s an example of an inspirational in-person experience that might form the basis of a compelling opening paragraph…
As a child, I worked alongside my mother who was a refugee coordinator in a transit camp set up to support families displaced due to civil war. Her compassion, energy, practicality and tireless generosity of spirit is my personal inheritance, and the example she set with her bravery and dedication to her beliefs underpins my application to read for a Political Ethics degree.Applicant 2
Statement Starter 3: The Course Connection
This last kind of opening point makes a direct connection to the course or role for which you are applying. You should use the opportunity to establish your credentials as an engaged and informed candidate by showing that your skillset and experience relate directly to the demands of the course.
Not only does this strategy communicate your connection to your field, but it shows that you have done your research. This in turn reassures the reader that you are likely to be picking the right subject, that you will probably complete your course of study (and your funding will remain in place as a consequence), and that you are likely to be an inspirational and successful member of the community.
You could also make links with current initiatives in your industry or field of study, or consider how the contents of the course might inspire your future career choices.
Any one of these three headings might work for you…
Connections with Content, Assessment and Skills
- Understanding of the taught ideas and their connections to your present experiences
- Awareness of modules and the creation of a bespoke course of study
- Understanding and connection with various teaching styles
- Knowledge of assessment processes related to your relative strengths
- Existing skills that could be enhanced on the course
- Key practitioners and their value
Links with Current Initiatives
- Importance of specific research or facilities to your application
- Emerging fields of study that inspire you
- Changing technologies and their social application
- Reputation of specific providers or organisations
- Connections between organisations, industry and charity
- Placement opportunities
Connections to Outcomes, Alumni and Value
- Value of completing the course or fulfilling the role
- Skills gained and their value
- Previous graduates as role models for success
- Your value to the organisation
- Career ambitions and pathways for success through the course
- Impact you hope to have in the world
- The value to the organisation in having you within it
Here’s how that might look as an opening point…
The opportunity to study as a member of your community is underpinned by my ambition to develop a career in the Business Advisory sector. Your placement opportunities will allow me to build and contribute to the professional networks so vital to achieving my career goals. In particular, I am looking forward to developing my understanding of data use in the ‘Statistical Analysis in Project Management’ module.Applicant 3
What are Great Hooks for Personal Statements?
A ‘hook’ is just another way of describing a specific device that a writer uses to engage a reader. It’s the device embedded in the structure of your writing that connects all the components together, like a theme or idea.
Including a hook in the first paragraph of your personal statement can be an extremely effective way of framing your content, and for keeping your writing on track. You just have to remember that the rest of your writing needs to connect with your hook as you develop your application. Here are six valuable hooks you can use to easily add a sense of purpose to your personal statement…
|Attitude & Ethos |
Can you explain your attitude to your subject or to learning new skills? Give examples of your personality and ethos with a real-world context. Explain your unique approach and beliefs.
|Ambitions & Goals |
Proudly state your personal and professional ambitions and illustrate how those goals will be met on the course or in the role. Engage the reader with a challenge by outlining your dreams.
|Journeys & Values |
What kind of journey have you had in the lead-up to this application? How have life experiences instilled values in you that are matched by the institution or community?
|Challenges & Obstacles |
What academic or personal challenges have you overcome that have made you a suitable candidate? How have specific obstacles made you stronger or more aware or resilient?
|Knowledge & Skills |
Can you make a compelling claim regarding the extent of your current subject knowledge or relevant practical skills? Can you reinforce your skillbase or evidence your potential?
|Questions & Answers |
Can you ask the big questions and show how you plan to find the answers? What are the key questions in the industry or sector and how will you play a part in solving them?
5 Mistakes to Avoid: Starting a Personal Statement
If you’ve followed the advice in this post, then hopefully your personal statement will be free of mistakes and full of excellent content. To make sure you don’t fall into any traps when you’re thinking about how to start a personal statement, here are the 5 mistakes to avoid in your opening paragraph…
Mistake 1: A terrible opening sentence. UCAS released some data a few years ago that revealed the most common opening lines in personal statements. If you find yourself writing things like ‘from a young age’ or ‘for as long as I can remember’ then you’d do well to search for a wider range of sentence starters. Equally, telling the reader that you are passionate about your subject has come to be a real cliché and is best avoided. Show your passion or commitment rather than simply writing that it exists.
Mistake 2: Telling a story. In an effort to make a personal statement more personal it can be tempting to start with a personal anecdote or even to frame the entire document as a story. This is usually best avoided, as this approach will almost certainly lack relevance and immediacy and will eat into your word count without adding value. Begin with an achievement, a moment or a connection, but not with a story!
Some compelling opening lines might look like this…
Mistake 3: Introducing yourself. Unless the guidelines indicate otherwise, there is no need to introduce yourself in your personal statement. It is not a letter, and does not require that kind of introduction. Nor should you list your qualifications, achievements or educational history. Similarly, this isn’t the place to outline your employment history; all these details can usually be included elsewhere in your application.
Mistake 4: Beginning with a quote. In my opinion, it’s an error to begin your personal statement with someone else’s words, even if they are compelling and relevant and you immediately develop an original train of thought. The first words encountered by a reader should be your own. Quotes can be an exceptionally helpful device for framing your knowledge and opinions, but if you’re thinking about using them, check out my helpful post on exactly how to get the most value from a quote in a successful personal statement…
Mistake 5: Poor proofreading. Unquestionably, one of the worst mistakes to make in the first paragraph of a personal statement is to include errors of spelling, punctuation or grammar. If the rest of the document is accurate and concise, it might not have a significant impact, but even so, an obvious, careless error can alienate and discourage an admissions officer at the outset, making them less likely to consider the rest of the content positively or make an achievable offer. I usually recommend a free software tool like Grammarly for proofreading; it’s simple and effective, and will serve you well at university too!
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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
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