Personal Statement Guide: 10 Questions Universities Ask




This personal statement guide focuses on the kinds of questions that universities and colleges ask, and how to answer them exceptionally well.

Most of the time, when you’re asked questions in personal statements, it can be difficult to know exactly what the college or university wants you to write… this post aims to demystify those questions and give you the tools you need to ace your answers!

But what exactly will this personal statement guide cover?

This personal statement guide outlines the types of common questions that universities ask of their applicants, along with strategies for answering them. These include questions relating to academic qualifications, suitability for higher education, personal skills, ethos and broader ambitions.

I’ve generalised the top 10 questions universities and colleges ask below, along with suggestions for what they really mean, and examples of ideal answers. If you read and apply this exclusive content, your next application will be incredibly compelling…

1 Why do you Want to Study Your Subject?

This is probably the most common and obvious question asked in personal statements, but you’d be surprised just how many applicants don’t recognise its importance or answer it as fully as they could. Getting this one right can often be the deciding factor in a successful application…

What is This Question Actually Asking?

You’ll want to think about the following elements as part of your answer:

  • What is it about your current studies that you enjoy?
  • What specialisms do you most engage with within your discipline?
  • What has inspired or motivated your engagement with this subject?
  • What do you hope to achieve in this field?
  • What aspects of the subject do you want to discover more about?
  • How informed are you about the depth and range of this subject?
  • What opportunities does this subject offer you at university and beyond?
  • What do you hope to contribute within the faculty?
  • What extra research/experience have you pursued that supports your application?
  • Who do you admire in this field and why?

Here’s an Example Answer…

2 What are the Challenges of Higher Education?

Understanding the challenges that you’re likely to face when you arrive at college or university is important. After all, the higher your awareness of the expectations of the institution you are planning to join, the better your chance of successfully completing the course…

What is This Question Actually Asking?

You’ll want to think about the following elements as part of your answer:

  • Can you demonstrate that you are aware of the academic demands of higher education?
  • Can you show that you have prepared effectively for undertaking the course content?
  • Can you demonstrate the motivation needed to study independently?
  • Can you show that you can manage in new locations, away from home?
  • Are you ready to interact with new and diverse communities and living arrangements?
  • Can you manage your budgets effectively?
  • Are you able to show that you can manage your time and meet deadlines?
  • Is your organisation at a good enough standard for university?
  • Can you engage effectively with the research and study demands of the course?
  • Have you gained a strong understanding of the use of relevant IT systems and cloud learning?

Here’s an Example Answer…

I believe that higher education will challenge any assumptions I may have made about the importance of Mathematics in Structural Engineering, whilst giving me the opportunity to extend my academic understanding of materials and environmental policy. The MOOCs I have completed, in addition to my current school timetable, have challenged me to develop the skills to be an effective independent learner.

3 How Have You Overcome Specific Challenges?

Explaining how you have overcome challenges in the past is an important aspect of self-review. Universities, colleges and employers need to be able to identify which applicants have shown determination and resilience in the past, especially if those qualities play a key role in their own ethos…

What is This Question Actually Asking?

You’ll want to think about the following elements as part of your answer:

  • Can you give examples of how you recognise challenges and difficulties?
  • Can you identify specific strategies to meet and prepare for challenges?
  • When faced with challenges, what is your emotional response?
  • Can you give examples of challenges overcome in academic work?
  • Can you give examples of challenges overcome in teamwork and practical work?
  • When and how have you overcome personal challenges?
  • Are you aware of how to transfer these strategies or approaches to higher education?
  • How can you mitigate against unnecessary challenge?
  • What is the value of challenge in the learning process?
  • How can you support peers with the things that challenge them?

Here’s an Example Answer…

4 When did you Work Well in a Team Environment?

Working successfully in a team is considered a key skill in higher education. Although time is spent focusing on independent study, many disciplines require students to collaborate on research and practical projects. Sharing findings and contributing to publications is common academic practice…

What is This Question Actually Asking?

You’ll want to think about the following elements as part of your answer:

  • What is the value of working collaboratively in education?
  • Do you understand contemporary theories around teamwork and collaboration?
  • What kind of role do you play in a team?
  • What makes a team effective and how does that relate to your strengths and experiences?
  • Can you give specific, tangible examples of successful teamwork?
  • Can successful teamwork have unsuccessful outcomes?
  • What specific approaches do you bring to working in a team?
  • What does working well/effectively/sustainably in a team actually look like?
  • How can teamwork be applied to academic study?
  • Can you suggest examples of teamwork that you might encounter in higher education?

Here’s an Example Answer…

During a Physics summer camp, I was part of a team assigned to develop coding for a robotics project. To ensure success, I shared my academic and experiential resources with the rest of the team, and made sure that I listened to their questions. I helped generate a workflow that enabled the team to prioritise tasks, and motivated those around me to complete the project to the deadline.

5 Why do you Want to Study at This University?

This is unlikely to arise in the UK undergraduate system, as candidates apply to a maximum of 5 different organisations, none of whom can see where else you’ve applied. However, US undergraduate applications and global postgraduate personal statements are far more likely to ask this question…

What is This Question Actually Asking?

You’ll want to think about the following elements as part of your answer:

  • What research have you undertaken into the course’s academic offer?
  • What do you know about the ways in which the course is structured?
  • Which optional modules or units are you most interested in working on and why?
  • What research opportunities most interest you and why?
  • Which faculty leaders’ work do you most admire? Can you justify and offer your opinion of their research or publications?
  • Which of the university’s physical resources are of most importance to your academic career?
  • Have you attended the campus on an open day? What were your impressions and how do they compel you to study at that institution?
  • What co-curricular opportunities attract you?
  • How do the support services, accommodation, grants or networking opportunities fulfil your needs as a student?
  • Can you give examples of inspirational alumni and relate their achievements to your ambitions?

Here’s an Example Answer…

6 How will the Course help you Achieve Your Goals?

Universities want you to succeed. It’s great for their reputation, their place in the league tables and for developing effective alumni programmes. Most of all, they want you to remain on the course because they need your funding. Knowing that your goals connect with theirs is key to retention…

What is This Question Actually Asking?

You’ll want to think about the following elements as part of your answer:

  • What are your academic goals, and how do they relate to the course offer?
  • What does achievement look like to you?
  • What are your subsequent professional ambitions and how will that specific university help you to achieve them?
  • How well do you know the industry or sector that you are interested in entering?
  • Have you fully understood the course components and understood their relevance to your goals?
  • What steps have you already taken to achieve your goals and how will the course allow you to extend them?
  • Can you explain the scope of your ambitions in an informed and realistic manner?
  • What research have you undertaken into relevant alumni networks or achievements?

Here’s an Example Answer…

Being a dynamic student with a sound understanding of the business world, I have set myself the goal of completing your course on Business Analysis and Management, which will allow me to develop my skills in diagnostic accounting to a high level. This will form the foundation of my first step on the career ladder, where I intend to work as a financial consultant in the social media sector.

7 What Lessons Have you Learned From Your Studies?

Institutions want students who are academically and personally reflective, because reflective and self-aware students are better equipped to manage the academic and personal rigours of college life. Asking you to reflect on the value of your previous learning is a great way to judge that…

What is This Question Actually Asking?

You’ll want to think about the following elements as part of your answer:

  • Can you outline the value and relevance of prior learning in your subject specialism?
  • How has your academic journey so far prepared you for your course?
  • What specific study skills have you developed that will be of value in higher education?
  • What advanced knowledge of your subject do you have, setting you apart from other applicants?
  • Do you understand the ways in which you learn best, and how will you apply these in a university setting?
  • How will knowledge gained from the study of other subjects be of value to you on the course?
  • What research and academic writing skills have you developed?
  • What opportunities have you taken to stretch your learning beyond the formal, taught curriculum?
  • How have you applied theoretical learning in a practical context?
  • Are you aware of the weaknesses in your academic skillset, and how you intend to manage this at university?

Here’s an Example Answer…

8 What will you Contribute to University Life?

Universities and colleges aren’t just about formal learning. They’re complex, living communities, comprising people from diverse cultural, geographical and ethnic backgrounds. Learners with an ability to contribute to those communities in a positive way help make the organisation a better place…

What is This Question Actually Asking?

You’ll want to think about the following elements as part of your answer:

  • How will your academic work be of value to the university?
  • How will your research add to the collective knowledge of the subject?
  • How do your ambitions align with the goals of the university or college?
  • What have you contributed to your school community in the past, outside of the classroom?
  • In which ways will you support your peers academically?
  • How will you add value to the life of the university through co-curricular activities such as sporting or social organisations?
  • Do you have skills or experience that will enable you to contribute to the pastoral or student support services?
  • Can you provide volunteering or organisational examples to illustrate that you are community-minded?
  • Can you give examples of ways in which you have engaged with issues of diversity and inclusion?
  • Can you show your awareness of the value of community to both the individual and the community itself?

Here’s an Example Answer…

Having established and facilitated the inclusivity forum at my school, I am positive about contributing to the emotional and physical wellbeing of all members of the communities in which I live and work. A keen sportswoman, I intend to join the cross-fit club and am looking forward to inspiring my peers with my positive and motivational approach.

9 What are Your Greatest Skills and Talents?

This type of question asks you to reflect on your capabilities, inside and outside of the classroom. Colleges and employers ask this kind of question when they are looking for evidence of inter-personal skills and for candidates to have developed interests and commitments outside of academia…

What is This Question Actually Asking?

You’ll want to think about the following elements as part of your answer:

  • Can you reflect on your capabilities and give context for their use?
  • Are you able to identify your skills and talents and give a rationale as to why these are your strengths?
  • Can you show how you have used these skills positively?
  • Can you identify a range of transferable skills and show how you have used them in the past?
  • Can you illustrate ways in which transferable skills might be of value in higher education?
  • Have you identified the skills required to successfully complete the course, and referenced these in your personal statement answer?
  • What strategies did you use to attain these skills and abilities?
  • How are your skills of value to others?
  • How do your skills relate directly to your choice of course or discipline?
  • By comparison, what are your greatest weaknesses and vulnerabilities? How are you improving these and how will university help in this process?

Here’s an Example Answer…

10 When Have you Shown Leadership Qualities?

Universities and employers are looking for applicants that will work harmoniously within their community. But they also need candidates with the potential to be dynamic, to show leadership and with the vision and confidence to take opportunities and motivate others…

What is This Question Actually Asking?

You’ll want to think about the following elements as part of your answer:

  • Have you voluntarily placed yourself in leadership situations in the past? Why were these successful?
  • Have you inadvertently found yourself in leadership roles, and if so, what was the challenge?
  • How confident are you when given responsibility for leadership? Why is this?
  • What is your leadership style? Why?
  • What lessons have you learned from the leadership of others? Good and bad examples?
  • Can you offer specific examples where you have taken the lead on a project or initiative?
  • How do you motivate and guide a team?
  • Can you explain how to use active listening and mediation as a team leader?
  • How do you know when to take the lead?
  • Why is the capacity for leadership important in group settings such as those at university?

Here’s an Example Answer…

I stepped into a leadership role during a project I undertook as part of my extra-curricular Psychology studies. When other members of the group expressed doubt in their ability to complete the task, I organised their workflow, identified their areas of expertise and through active listening and discussion, reassigned key roles that allowed each member to contribute positively.


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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