Personal Statement Help: Don’t Listen To The Myths!




When you’re searching for reliable personal statement help, it can be hard to separate the myths and assumptions from the solid gold advice. In this post, you’ll be able to pick up the most important personal statement tips and learn to ignore the myths!

So, what kind of personal statement help do you actually need?

Personal statement help usually involves the development of a compelling opening paragraph, the effective use of quotes and accurate academic referencing. Knowing how to write about your hobbies, how to identify secret keywords and tailor your application for a range of courses is also important.

I’ve broken down the 12 most damaging myths below, so that you can make sure you don’t fall into any of these traps…

1 The Opening Must Grab the Reader’s Attention

When you ask people for personal statement help, one of the first things you are told is that the opening must grab the reader’s attention. The logic of this advice is that by capturing their interest at the beginning, the admissions officer is more likely to read the rest of your personal statement, and do so favourably.

But should the opening of your personal statement try to grab the attention of the reader?

The focus of the first paragraph of your personal statement is to establish your credibility, giving the reader confidence in your suitability and the expectation of making an achievable offer. Grabbing the attention of the reader leads to exaggeration and irrelevancy, having the opposite effect.

One of the dangers of trying to come up with a great opening sentence is that you can end up overthinking it, and going overboard. As one admissions tutor said: ‘Be succinct and draw the reader in, but not with a gimmick. This isn’t the X Factor’.

UCAS

It is far better to use your opening paragraph to establish your individual voice by referencing a personal experience or skill, evidencing your academic or experiential credentials and establishing your suitability for the demands of the course.

Bear in mind that admissions tutors do not need to be ‘grabbed’ or motivated to read your personal statement; they will read it all, regardless of how compelling your opening is. It is much more important to use the opportunity to impress with relevant and truthful content than to invent an ‘impressive’ start.

You can read my detailed post on how to write the introduction to your personal statement here, or learn about the three tips for a great personal statement.

2 Every Personal Statement Must Include Quotes

There is quite a lot of conflicting personal statement help around when it comes to using quotes. Some experts are in favour, believing that a well-placed quote will elevate the point being made by the applicant.

Other commentators feel that a quote is likely to undermine the originality and validity of a personal statement. This quote sums the dilemma up perfectly…

Quotes can be a powerful tool to back up any argument, be it in a UCAS personal statement or any other kind of essay. The trouble is that many UK university admissions tutors have probably seen the same quotes again and again. Again, if quotes aren’t used in context, or don’t serve the overall narrative of the personal statement, then it may be worth not putting them in. It’s also important to remember that universities want to hear from the student, not Sigmund Freud! If in doubt, a student writing a personal statement should use their own thoughts and insights, not someone else’s. 

bridge-u.com

So, should you use quotes in a personal statement?

You should use quotes in a personal statement if doing so advances your point or argument, evidences a high level of informed reading or justifies your engagement and ambition in a relevant way.  Using common or irrelevant quotes, or quotes which are overly long, will disadvantage your application.

If you’re not sure about what makes a great quote, then check out my post on using quotes in personal statements, or just remember the rules:

  • Don’t use quotes because you think you have to – it’s just a waste of space
  • Don’t use common or overly long quotes
  • Don’t use a quote if you can say it better in your own words
  • Do use a quote to add weight to an educated opinion or argument
  • Do use a quote if it adds weight to your motivation and ambition

3 Talk About Your Hobbies and Voluntary Experience

When you seek out personal statement help, one of the myths you often hear is that you must write about your hobbies. It’s as though there’s an unwritten rule that every applicant needs to detail their love of jigsaw puzzles or their progress through ballet grades in the body of the text.

This is not good advice. Not only does it take up valuable space in your personal statement that might be better used evidencing your suitability for the course, it also adds irrelevant content.

So, should you include your hobbies in your personal statement?

You should include reference to hobbies or voluntary experiences in your personal statement if doing so strengthens your application. If the demands of the course you are applying for match the skills you have developed by participating in an activity, then including evidence of this is important.

Admissions tutors are not interested in what you did at Scout camp or how long you have worked at your Saturday job.

They are interested in the value of those experiences.

Admissions tutors encourage applicants to produce a personal statement which distinguishes them from others. Talking about your interests and hobbies, in a way that supports the rest of your application, can help serve this purpose.

UCAS

What skills did you develop as a result of your engagement with martial arts over the last five years? How did volunteering at a local foodbank aid your communication or organisational skills?

These are the elements to include, rather than a list detailing your likes and dislikes. Check out the advice on writing about hobbies from UCAS here. Here’s an example of how writing about your hobbies can help your personal statement to be exceptionally compelling.

4 Write Your Personal Statement on Your Own

If you still believe the myth that personal statements should be written on your own and submitted without the benefit of revisions and feedback from people you trust, then you are significantly disadvantaging yourself by comparison to the thousands of other applicants who are sharing their work and developing it to a high standard as a result.

Do I Have to Write my Personal Statement Myself?

You must write your own personal statement. Universities and employers make offers based on the value of each individual application. Not writing your own personal statement is fraudulent and dishonest. However, you should get as much help and support with writing your personal statement as you can.

If you’re not sure about what is appropriate and what’s not when it comes to writing your own original content, then check out my post on plagiarism or read the UCAS guidelines for yourself.

Whilst you must be responsible for writing it, you should reach out for as much support and guidance as you possibly can. Ideal sources of guidance can be:

  • Peers
  • Previous successful applicants
  • Friends and family
  • Teachers and counsellors
  • Careers advisors
  • Personal tutors or mentors
  • Relevant industry professionals
  • Personal statement professionals

Organising a small group of friends who are all preparing personal statements and sharing your thoughts and feedback is an excellent strategy as you will be able to increase the quality and suitability of each piece of writing exponentially.

Check out my post on the best strategies for getting help with your personal statement or click here to learn more about working with me 1-1 to develop a compelling application.

5 A Personal Statement Should Tell Your Story

This is a myth that I see lots of applicants buying into. It’s the idea that somehow a personal statement should outline your entire life, regardless of the subject you are applying for, the demands of the course or your educational and professional ambitions.

It’s a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t work.

Generally speaking, admissions tutors are not interested in reading about the story of your life, and certainly not a semi-fictional narrative that tries to be as original as possible at the expense of compelling evidence and factual content.

Universities and employers just want to see five key elements in a personal statement:

  1. Your engagement, expertise and experience within the subject you intend to study
  2. Your understanding of the industries into which your subject fits, and your practical experience of these
  3. Your suitability for independent academic study combined with your wider reading and research skills
  4. Your transferable skills, gained through activities and experiences beyond the taught curriculum
  5. Your ambition for the course of study and beyond, combined with your potential value to the institution’s community, standing and income

As long as you include these five elements, you don’t need to write your personal statement as a story, a semi-fictional narrative or like some kind of sales pitch. Creating an artificial voice is not the best way to engage a reader who is trying to get to know you.

There are always some exceptions to this myth…

There may be occasions where writing your personal statement as a narrative might be entirely appropriate and highly effective, but it will depend on the courses you are applying for and the impression you want to make.

You can check out my post on not making a personal statement too personal, or look at my ideas for writing original personal statements effectively here, if you feel that you’ve got a justified way to frame your information in an unconventional way.

6 Prioritise Academic Evidence in Order to Succeed

Of course, making sure that your personal statement clearly outlines your academic progress is extremely important, but it’s not the only element that should be included, and often it shouldn’t even be the priority.

Simply listing your academic achievements and knowledge doesn’t convey the other elements that universities and employers are also looking for; transferable skills, independent research, motivation, ambition and value.

If your personal statement is almost exclusively a commentary on what you have already achieved, without a clear sense of how those achievements have inspired or motivated you, then your personal statement won’t fulfil its potential. Equally, listing your achievements is meaningless without a sense of how those achievements prepare you for higher education and life after university.

“Always mention your future ambitions and where you could see yourself after successfully completing the course”. 

Ravensbourne University London

The myth that a personal statement should be heavily academic in content is not always appropriate for every subject. Depending on your field of study, you might find that practical skills and experiences, portfolios or industry experience count for far more.

You can find out more about the UCAS hub here. It’s designed to help you research and develop the right career choices for you. It’s also a great place to pick up information about the kinds of content to include in less academic applications. US applicants can find out more about degree pathways here.

7 No One Will Read Your Personal Statement Anyway

It can be tempting to believe the myth that no one is likely to read your personal statement, especially if you are struggling to generate content or meet the deadline. When you feel as though you are unlikely to develop a personal statement of a high standard, buying into the myth that your qualifications are all that matters is an easy trap to fall into. 

Personal statements are a really important part of your application, and are valued by universities. As UCAS points out:

This is the only part of the application where you can write in your own style – it’s your chance to tell universities and colleges why you’d like to study with them, and what skills and experience you have.

UCAS
https://youtu.be/XxnpTL2jQo8

Do Universities Read Personal Statements?

A personal statement is the only element in your application that will truly differentiate you from all the other applicants, and the only factor that admissions teams can use to accurately judge your suitability, ambition and value. Universities will always read your personal statement fully.

Check out this post if you’re finding it hard to get started with your personal statement, or read my post on outstanding personal statement examples here.

8 Always Reference Books in a Personal Statement

When offering personal statement help, lots of teachers, advisors or parents will recommend that you include reference to a book or two in your application. There is a logic to this; they are picking up on the idea that universities like to see evidence of your wider research and reading, and your subsequent dedication to the subject outside of the formal curriculum.

So why is it a bad idea to automatically refer to a book in your personal statement?

You should only reference a book in your personal statement if you have actually read it in its entirety and if it is of relevance to your application. Any reference to a book in a personal statement should support the point or argument being made whilst also evidencing your suitability.

Simply including the name of a book because you think it is of value, or that an admissions officer will be impressed to see it included, is likely to backfire. Stating that you have read a book without discussing its contents in a way that shows that you have developed your own informed opinions will be a waste of your word count, as you won’t be proving that you have read it or demonstrating the appropriate degree of intellect and enquiry.

Here are two examples, to better illustrate the point:

Although the second example is longer, it adds far more value to the personal statement as it uses the vocabulary of the subject and shows that the writer has not only engaged with the books, but has independently applied the knowledge gained as a result.

9 Tailor a Personal Statement to a Specific Course

This myth is particularly relevant to undergraduate applications, as personal statements for master’s degrees and above usually do relate to a single course, faculty or institution.

However, at undergraduate level it is much less common for a personal statement to refer to a single course. A single topic of subject focus is desirable, as one personal statement often needs to cover all the applications you make, but referencing a particular course, institution or campus in the main body of your personal statement is not to be recommended.

Some students are advised that it is good practice to make reference to a particular university’s resources or reputation, as it is more likely that the personal statement will stand out for the relevant admissions team, making an offer from their first-choice university more likely.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Competitive universities are often overwhelmed by large numbers of applicants all chasing a limited number of spaces, but each of those applicants will be judged on their academic and experiential merits, not by the degree to which they have attempted to flatter or impress a single institution.

Why is Mentioning a Specific University or Course a bad Idea?

There is a significant disadvantage created by referencing a specific course or institution in your personal statement, aside from the fact that by doing so you will use up valuable space talking about the university rather than yourself. Admissions teams are not able to see where else you have applied, but they understand that you are highly likely to have also made other choices. They just don’t know which university is your first choice, or where they stand in your order of preference.

However, if the reader sees specific reference to another university written into your personal statement, and if the whole document seems disconnected with the specifics of their institution, they are unlikely to consider you to be a committed student or to make you an offer.

10 Universities Know Everything About Your Life

I often work with students who have taken to heart the valuable lessons they have been taught about their online identities, and how the need for discretion is important when it comes to maintaining a positive social media profile. This is excellent guidance, but it can sometimes be taken out of context within the university admissions process.

In 2020 there were over 729 thousand applications for UK undergraduate courses, whilst the US saw over 20 million undergraduate students in the same year. Small admissions teams must read each individual personal statement and sift through all the accompanying information in a relatively short space of time.

No admissions teams have the need, desire or capacity to follow this up with scrutiny of an applicant’s social media accounts. You should adhere to best practice when it comes to online behaviour, but worrying that your application will be rejected on the basis of your social media feed is unrealistic.

Can Universities see Where Else I am Applying?

If you are applying to more than one university (you have up to five choices as part of your UCAS application), then you can rest assured that none of those universities will be able to see where else you have applied, or many of the personal details you add to your application.

They only have access to the key elements needed to make a decision based on the merits of each individual applicant.

11 Include Secret Keywords in a Personal Statement

Students often whisper in hushed tones about specific words they have been told are vital to include. But are there secret personal statement keywords that admissions teams look for and that will propel your application towards success?

There are no specific keywords that must always be included in a personal statement. Although there is often clear criteria set for required content, and there are common elements which must be included in order to fully evidence your suitability, admissions teams do not look for secret keywords.

So how do you know which words to use and what to avoid?

Use words that allow you to express your content concisely, and that compel the reader to view your application positively. These will naturally be different for everyone, as each applicant will have a unique set of experiences and ambitions.

However, there are three general rules to follow when it comes to using language well in a personal statement:

1 Use the vocabulary of your subject specialism. Regardless of your field of study, this is an opportunity to use key terminology that reflects your understanding and experience, showcasing your suitability.

2 Use academic language accurately, proofread and make sure your spelling, punctuation and grammar are of the appropriate standard. I often recommend using Grammarly for this. You can check out the free version here, or hit the banner below.

3 Use words that genuinely reflect your engagement and ambition, without relying on clichés such as ‘passionate’ and ‘team player’.  Making sure that your sentence starters and connectives are varied and sophisticated will really help with this.

Gram bann Ultimately, the reader is looking for academic and practical commitment, ambition, suitability, relevancy and evidence that you will add value to their institution. If every word helps paint this picture, then you’ve discovered the only secret that matters.

12 You Must List Your Qualifications to Succeed

The last myth to deal with when it comes to personal statement help is that you must include lists of your qualifications within the body of your personal statement. Perhaps this comes from a misguided mistrust in the admissions officer who deals with the application, or maybe students do this in a mistaken attempt to reinforce their academic credentials.

Regardless of motivation, the strategy of including a list of qualifications is a flawed one.

So, should you include your qualifications in your personal statement?

Lists of qualifications, or references to achieved or pending results should not be included in list form within the body of a personal statement. Doing so takes up valuable space that would be better used evidencing experiences related to your intended field of study.

The value gained from your academic achievements is far more valuable than referencing the result itself, especially as you will be expected to include all formal qualifications and results in a different area of the application.

Admissions teams and employers really do read these and take them into consideration. Not including them in the body of your personal statement will not disadvantage you.

Uncertain which kinds of qualifications to list in the relevant section of the wider application?

List all of them! Those that are of direct value to your application will add weight and relevancy, but the depth and breadth of all your accomplishments, from achieving a grade on a musical instrument to gaining a Judo black belt, will help the admissions tutor build up a vivid picture of your personality, resilience and engagement.

This will add significantly to their confidence in your potential, and to your chances of gaining an achievable offer.


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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