If you look for them, you’ll always find people claiming that personal statements aren’t important, that nobody reads them, and that they aren’t a valid factor in the decision-making process. Those kinds of voices can be disheartening, especially when you’re working hard to write the best possible personal statement you can, and you want it to be taken seriously.
After all, a great personal statement is a valuable window into your skills, experiences and ambitions, and you want to know that it’s being read by the people that matter.
So, just how important is a personal statement?
A personal statement is a vitally important element of any application to higher education or employment. It allows the reader to understand your achievements and ambitions, puts your academic and educational career into context and gives insight into your personality, qualities and value.
It certainly isn’t something to be underestimated, neglected or dismissed. Here’s why…
Why do you Need to Write a Personal Statement?
Many university and college programmes require candidates to write a personal statement to help gauge their suitability for a course, subject or entry level. With so many applicants looking to receive achievable offers, the need to write a convincing personal statement has never been more important.
But why exactly is a personal statement important?
In the UK, UCAS considers it to be the only real opportunity an applicant has to speak directly to a university and convey their dedication to a proposed field of study. They even go so far as to say…
(A personal statement is) your chance to describe your ambitions, skills, and experience to university and college admissions staff.UCAS
In the US, the Common App system requires you to write an essay for the same reason, although you have a choice of prompts to work with, compared to the open approach taken by UCAS.
Whichever system you’re working with, here are three common reasons why you need to write a personal statement:
Show you can Write in a Concise Academic Style
The course you are applying to read at university will involve an element of academic study, research and writing. No matter the practical component or bias, it’s unrealistic to think that an undergraduate degree can be completed without some key academic skills being in place. A well-researched, written and proofread personal statement can convince an admissions team that you are capable of dealing with the foundational academic demands you are likely to encounter in higher education.
A candidate may have strong qualifications at the core of their application, but there can be a big difference between knowing how to answer an exam question and writing compelling, balanced and well-argued content.
That’s the skill tested by a personal statement.
Show Relevant Subject and Academic Vocabulary
Another key reason for writing a personal statement is to demonstrate to the admissions team that you are capable of using the analytical and technical vocabulary of your subject correctly.
Not only does this demonstrate that you can use terminology in context, but it underlines your commitment to your field of study in a way that predicted grades just can’t do. It also illustrates to the reader that you are likely to bring a strong level of specific knowledge and skills with you into higher education, allowing you to succeed at your studies and support your peers.
No university wants a student to fail and drop out – you are worth three or four years of funding that they don’t want to lose – and being able to judge your suitability and commitment in your personal statement will give them the confidence they need to make you an achievable offer.
Show the Depth of Your Ambition and Motivation
A personal statement can outline your ambitions, the steps you’ve already taken to achieve your dreams, and the challenges you’ve overcome to make progress in your specialism or subject. It’s the one part of the application that allows you to ‘pitch’ your strengths and connect your values and goals to the content of the course you’re applying for.
It’s also the one element that you have both complete control over and the time to craft to perfection. Think of a personal statement as a one-sided interview that you can prepare in advance, and you’ll understand why they’re so necessary for applicants and universities alike.
Do Universities Actually Read Personal Statements?
Universities do actually read personal statements. Admissions teams spend hours examining applications closely, and whilst some might ‘top and tail’ or ‘sense-check’, the majority of statements will be read closely, and used in the ranking and offers process. It’s a mistake to think otherwise.
The more competitive, prestigious or popular the programme, the more scrutiny is given to the contents of an applicant’s personal statement. And don’t forget that every single personal statement is submitted to vigorous anti-plagiarism checking, meaning that developing an original and personal document should be every candidate’s goal.
But with so many applicants to choose from, why do universities bother reading that many personal statements? Here are three reasons why reading a personal statement is in everyone’s best interest…
Students on the Right Courses Succeed
It’s common sense that when a student is challenged, inspired, educated and motivated in the right way, they’re more likely to thrive. By reading a personal statement, university admissions teams can recognise which candidates are likely to be the best matches for the courses they provide, and make offers to the right applicants as a result.
In turn, a higher percentage of students are likely to access the right courses, making everyone’s lives more successful.
Universities that prioritize the importance of reading personal statements and engaging with the applicants are also more likely to identify alternative courses for students who won’t meet the demands of a particular degree, meaning that both the institution and the individual benefit.
Students who are Supported Succeed
One of the most important strategies that universities use to ensure student success is making sure that all learners are supported in the right way. That might mean from an educational perspective, with additional classes, 1-1 learning support or differentiated resources, or it could be that a student with practical needs get the right housing on campus.
A great way for admissions teams to flag students who are likely to need support is to take note of the information given in a personal statement. They can then begin to plan the appropriate support, early in the process.
If a university can be clear about the best ways to accommodate the needs of its learners, then it’s likely to top the league tables for student satisfaction, as well as academic success.
Students in a Diverse Community Succeed
Most universities are interested in balancing the needs of the individual student with the needs of the learning community as a whole. Consequently, building a new, diverse and well-functioning student body every year is a priority. Along with additional application data, one of the best ways for a provider to generate and celebrate diversity in their student body is to take the time to read the personal statements of those that apply, and use what they learn to lay the foundations of strong learning communities in the future.
This approach is reinforced by research. The Century Foundation’s landmark report into the impact of religious and racial diversity in education clearly showed that it’s of value to all parties to mix cohorts.
…College admissions offices and campus tour guides consistently cite the diversity of the student body as a major asset that enhances the learning of all students in higher education.Well, Fox, Cordova-Cobo
Can a Personal Statement Make A Difference?
A personal statement can make a significant difference to your application, both positively and negatively. A well written and compelling statement that outlines your value and potential will usually lead to an achievable offer, whilst a poor, inaccurate statement will always deter the reader.
When The Guardian reported on this question 2018, they quoted Clare Marchant, Chief Executive of UCAS, as claiming that a UCAS survey of 118 universities in 2016 found that 89% of them used personal statements in their initial decision making. Given that most applicants apply to up to five different universities in one round of applications, that’s a lot of personal statement reading…
Regardless of your achieved and pending qualifications, a personal statement can make a difference to your future in these three important ways:
Personal Statements Differentiate Between Applicants
Personal statements can have a tremendous impact and be a real deciding factor when universities receive applications from candidates with almost identical qualifications. This happens relatively often – most candidates applying for competitive courses will have similar levels of educational achievement from within a narrow marking system.
When an admissions team faces this dilemma, the candidate with the strongest references and the most compelling personal statement is far more likely to receive the offer.
In cases where achieved and pending qualifications are on a par, tutors will want to see students that have engaged with their subject and that evidence the most potential to achieve. And the personal statement is where they’ll look.
You can find out more about UK personal statements here, or click here for a set of awesome free personal statement template resources.
Personal Statements Clarify Your Own Thinking
When you research, plan and carefully consider your personal statement over a period of time, it clarifies and distils your own thinking. By having conversations with teachers and peers, looking at course content, evaluating your strengths and taking part in preparatory work, the very act of writing your personal statement can be a valuable and transformative moment in your educational career.
Making choices about subjects, courses, universities and careers can help you prioritise your goals and reset your values, putting opportunities into perspective and, in many cases, requiring introspection and soul-searching at a new level.
For that reason alone, a personal statement can make a huge difference to your life.
Personal Statements Evidence Your Individuality
Without interviews, only way to communicate your unique personality and value is to do so in your personal statement. It’s also a place where you can write about ways you’ve been inspired, clarify mitigating circumstances that might have impacted upon your application or share the challenges you’ve overcome.
Qualifications and other data captured elsewhere in the application don’t really reflect your personality or character. They don’t tell your story, compel a reader or bring your dreams to life.
A personal statement can, and that’s why it can make such a difference.
What do Unis Look for in a Personal Statement?
Universities look for relevant academic expertise, wider knowledge and engagement with your subject and practical experience in your field when reading your personal statement. They will also want to see evidence of relevant transferable skills and the value of your contribution to their community.
They’re not looking for perfection, or for extreme originality. There’s no need to over-think it or to waste space trying to stand out. Admissions teams want to judge your suitability for the course, so make sure you’ve got the following covered:
- Relevant academic expertise. Just listing your qualifications elsewhere in your application isn’t enough. Your personal statement should make the extent of your academic knowledge clear, with your achievements given some context. Write about the depth of your learning, what it has allowed you to accomplish and how that makes you a suitable candidate.
- Wider research and knowledge. Show the reader that you have gone beyond the limitations of your taught curriculum and have pursued opportunities to learn more about your subject or specialism. You should have researched the area, read widely and be able to reference this learning in relation to your own academic explorations. Showing a balanced argument based on an informed understanding of the subject is key.
- Practical suitability. From Sports Studies to Astrophysics, being able to evidence a high degree of practical engagement in your subject must form part of your personal statement. Whether you’ve appeared in dance shows or volunteered at a hospital, the reader needs to see that you can apply your theoretical skills in a practical setting.
- Transferable skills. Universities look for evidence of transferable skills in your personal statement. Things like emotional well-being, social engagement, budgeting, organisation and charity work might not be directly related to your course content, but they are key skills for success at university, and if you can show that you are already well-practiced in them, admissions teams will be confident about your ability to survive and thrive.
- Reciprocal value. In the same way that you want to gain an education, engage in university life and use the experience to add value to your ambitions and prospects, when they read your personal statement, universities are looking for your potential to add value to their institution. You might be a great mentor for your peers, or be a key member of a club or society, or even have the academic or dynamic profile that will serve the university well once you have graduated. Either way, make sure that your personal statement doesn’t only talk about what you hope to gain, but about what you hope to give.
Summed up in a single sentence, when universities read a personal statement, they want to see a genuine, purposeful and engaged personality, thirsty to connect with the opportunities available and passionate about their field of study.
If you’d like to find out more about exactly what skills admissions teams are looking for then check out my post here. And if you’re ready to get writing, don’t miss my post on how to start your personal statement.
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.