Powerful Personal Statement Strategies: An Expert Guide

People often think that there must be a secret to writing compelling and successful personal statements, and in a way there is. Here is an expert guide to the powerful personal statement strategies you can use to improve your application…

Powerful personal statement strategies include evidence of detailed research, relevant experience and suitability and a clear connection with the course requirements. Your individual voice and transferable skills must shine through and your content, editing and proofing must be exceptional.

Here are all of those powerful strategies broken down in full…

1 Always Research Your Field of Study in Depth

Whether you are applying for a degree, a master’s course, a work placement or a job, the importance of researching your field of study or employment sector cannot be underestimated. It is vital that the reader sees immediate evidence of your research into the subject you are applying for.

Just as importantly, they need to understand the ways in which your research has inspired your choices and ambitions, and the depth of commitment you have to your field of study or employment.

If you are applying for an academic placement, then researching the latest advances in your sector, the leading practitioners in relevant industries and debates dominating contemporary discussion is always sensible. You can do this easily by picking up some industry publications like these, analysing the content on commercial websites like this and making sure that your general knowledge is up to date by using reliable sources like this.

You must also thoroughly research academic courses at different institutions, comparing the course structure and components, assessment criteria and alumni outcomes. There’s a great resource available for you to use here in the UK.

When you write your personal statement, you should ensure that you include succinct, concise information that shows evidence of accurate and thorough research, but that does not overwhelm the rest of the content. That way, your subject-specific suitability will shine through, without overshadowing your personal connection with it.

2 Show Evidence of Your Experience and Knowledge

The second most powerful personal statement strategy you can include is to make sure you evidence a wide range of your own experiences and wider knowledge. 

Admissions officers and employers are looking for evidence of your unique views and want to see how your opinions and ambitions have been informed by your real-life experiences. When you begin planning your personal statement, include as many relevant personal examples as you can.

When you show evidence, you’re not just explaining what you’ve experienced, you are analysing and evaluating the impact that it had on you in relation to the course or role you are applying for.  So, if you particularly enjoyed visiting an art gallery as a child, and the experience inspired you to see the world in a different way, to express yourself more creatively or even to study Art History, then go ahead and recall that experience in your personal statement.

However, you must make sure you include the reasons why the experience is relevant and how the course or role you are applying for is an important step on your professional or academic journey towards your ultimate, related goal.

Look at the two examples below. They both reference an experience that has added knowledge to the applicant’s view of the subject. One example describes the experience whilst the other relates the value of that experience directly to the subject they are applying for. Which one would convince you that the writer was a more suitable candidate?

For more detail on how to evidence your experience in a personal statement, check out this UCAS resource.

3 Connect Your Skills With the Course Requirements

This powerful strategy is one that applicants can often miss, and is also one that needs careful planning. Including too much content that replicates a course guide will diminish your own original content and will lead to you losing a sense of authenticity in your personal statement. Too little acknowledgement of the course requirements, and your application will appear disconnected.

The difficulty is that often, personal statements are used for more than one course application, and so being specific regarding particular requirements can be a challenge. However…

Many of the course requirements for subjects, sectors or roles are generic. You should begin by making a detailed list of the keywords used in the descriptions of each of the courses you are applying for. Then compare these keywords and compile a list of relevant, shared vocabulary.

You can then use this list as a basis for your personal statement. On average, you might want to use a maximum of one of these keywords for every 100 words of your finished document. So, a 600-word personal statement might have 5 or 6 keywords throughout, but an 800-word document might have 7 or 8. Make sure you use them with accuracy and relevance, and put them in context carefully.

Below is a table with the keywords from three different course descriptors for undergraduate Business Studies degrees. In the last column, I have selected generic keywords that best represent the subject as a whole, and these are the words I would use to underpin my personal statement. You just need to go through the same process, based on the specifics of your application.

ConfidenceFlexiblityFuture ThinkingLeadership
ResponsiblityCooperationNegotiating Vision
InnovativationNetworkingProject ManagementFlexibility
OrganisationChange ManagementLeadershipManagement
LeadershipAnalysisCritical ThinkingCommunication
Generic Keywords for Business Studies

4 Always Give Your Statement a Personal Voice

Applicants often worry that they are being too familiar or informal in their personal statements, or that they are wasting space by writing about themselves, rather than their studies. This can be true if the content lacks relevancy, but you must remember that thousands of other candidates are writing personal statements too, and the best way for yours to stand out is to be authentic to your personal voice.

So, can a personal statement be too personal?

A personal statement can be too personal if it is written in slang, if it shares the unedited thoughts of the writer or if it details opinions and experiences at the cost of informed and relevant ideas. Effective examples combine evidence of the writer’s personality with concise academic content.

Writing from experience is tremendously valuable, and evidencing your inspirations and ambitions is ideal, but this is only useful content if it reinforces your suitability and preparedness for the course or role you are applying for. Check out my detailed post about this here.

Which of the two examples below is best in terms of showing the right level of personality and original voice?

The first example shows that the writer is informed and able to draw their own comparisons and judgements whilst keeping a sense of personal content. It also shows that they have compelling connections and ambitions relating to the subject. The second one, although showing passion, doesn’t give the reader as strong a sense of suitability for higher study.

5 Don’t Forget to Include Transferable Skills

Transferable skills are the kinds of attributes and abilities that you can use across disciplines. For example, knowing how to identify the properties of a particular chemical compound is a very specific piece of knowledge, but a skill like organisational ability can be applied regardless of the course or job you are applying for.

But what are the right transferable skills to use, and why should you use them?

The most important transferable skills to include in a personal statement are the ability to learn independently, the capacity to research accurately, the ability to work co-operatively and evidence of physical stamina and resilience. You should illustrate how and why these are applicable to you.

The first of these, the ability to learn independently, is one of the most important qualities looked for by universities and employers. If you can prove that you have this skill, and can apply it in context, then an institution can assume that you will manage the individual academic demands of the course.  You can evidence this kind of skill by referring to successful completion of homework and revision, through your additional courses and academic preparation, but also through your wider reading and capacity for research and broader study experience.

Teamwork and resilience are words used frequently in personal statements, but often without qualification. If you have sound and relevant examples of how you have developed and employed these skills with a sense of value, then including them will be a valuable addition. They can often be included when considering co-curricular or practical activities, but they are just as important as your academic achievements.

6 Write Concisely and in Short, Complete Sentences

The value of writing concisely in your personal statement is twofold. Firstly, you will convey your points fully and with the minimum of unnecessary language; this will help demonstrate your suitability for higher study. Secondly, you have the scope to include a full range of relevant content.

Once you have a reasonably clear draft of your content, take some time to go through and condense sentences in the following three ways:

Remove all words which are not necessary to making your point. Look at the comparison below. The first example is rambling and unclear. It makes the point, but uses far too many words. It alienates the reader, does not give an impression of academic capability and takes up too much space, which is unhelpful when working to a word or character limit.

Look at the grammar of your sentence and decide if rearranging the content could reduce the word count without changing your point. A great free tool that I often recommend for this purpose is Grammarly, which can be a significant aid for both improving grammar and offering intuitive ideas for substitutions. Useful for your personal statement but also for the demands of higher study, you can sign up and download the free software here.

Lastly, look at the possibility of combining sentences together to make a single point or statement. During the writing process, you might have used two or three sentences to make one point, as you searched for exactly the right turn of phrase. Combining these into one single sentence can reduce your overall word count and give your writing far more clarity.

7 Structure Your Paragraphs in a Logical Way

Your personal statement needs structure; the order in which your points are presented should be well-considered and relevant to your application. Place your paragraphs in the order that seems right to you, depending on your personality and the type of course you are applying for.

You might want to establish your academic credentials at the beginning, and then develop evidence of your research experience before mentioning transferable skills towards the end. Equally, you could begin by talking about a memorable person or inspiring moment that sparked your interest in the subject, before writing about the practical experience you have had that relates to this. Unless you are following a very strict set of guidelines, there are no rules to this process; just don’t leave it to chance.

Here are two possible models:

Paragraph 1Establish academic suitability with reference to existing skills and experienceContextualise your application with a personal connection to the subject or role
Paragraph 2Develop your suitability by evidencing relevant wider reading and researchEvidence your practical experience with the relevant skill or discipline
Paragraph 3Outline practical contextual experience gained through internships or volunteering placementsMake comparative observations about the subject or industry, evidencing knowledge and informed opinion
Paragraph 4Connect your skills and knowledge to the demands of the course or roleEstablish academic suitability with reference to existing skills and experience
Paragraph 5Demonstrate transferable skills gained through hobbies, activities or other non-academic experiencesClarify your understanding and experience of relevant research and independent learning
Paragraph 6Link the course outcomes with your ambitions upon completion and outline your value to the institutionLink the course outcomes with your ambitions upon completion and outline your value to the institution
Personal Statement Structure Models

If you’d like some detailed guidance about how to structure your paragraphs to achieve a particular outcome, check out my post here.

8 Begin Writing Your Personal Statement Early

Procrastination is the thief of time. Year after year it steals, till all are fled, and to the mercies of a moment leaves the vast concerns of an eternal scene.

Edward Young, The Night Thoughts

There is no better time to start writing your personal statement than today, even if you don’t feel you have all the details or information you need. The most important thing to do is to begin, and give yourself the time you need to complete the task well. Most personal statements fail because they are incomplete, poorly written, don’t address the right points or because they are submitted after the deadline. There is no need to let that happen to you.

I understand that sometimes the idea of starting writing can be daunting, but it doesn’t need to be stressful. It is a wonderful opportunity to crystalise your thinking and celebrate all the wonderful achievements you have already accomplished, even if you don’t think you’ve done very much of relevance. Above all, it is a challenge you can meet and overcome.

To help you focus on getting started in the right way, read through my detailed guide here. It offers you a clear structure for beginning your personal statement as well as a few tips and tricks to help you push through any problems with positivity.

If you are struggling with your motivation or your organisation, then I have included a link below to a great video that will help you plan your time and aid your productivity.

9 Gather Feedback and Edit Your Writing Effectively

Be positive about sharing personal statement drafts and gaining feedback. Most people will be very willing to share their opinions with you and offer suggestions for improvement. Choose readers that know your strengths, understand the function of the document and the context of your subject.

However, do not share your draft with so many people that the inevitable contradictory feedback becomes overwhelming and impossible to act upon. 3 or 4 well-prepared and knowledgeable readers is more than enough to gain a consensus on taking the right next steps. It is likely that some common observations will give you clues as to the elements to revise, but you are likely to also pick up some contrasting views.

When it comes to editing your writing, if you are not sure whether to make a change, ask yourself these two questions:

  • Does the suggested change make the point of this sentence or paragraph clearer for the reader? How and why?
  • Does the suggested change show greater evidence of your suitability in relation to the specific demands of the course or role you are applying for?

If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then go ahead and work on making the revision.

10 Proofread Your Final Personal Statement Draft

The last powerful personal statement strategy is to ensure you have fully proofread your personal statement before you submit it. Proofreading is not easy, especially when you have got so close to the content during the writing phase. You know what you mean, and it can be hard to realise that a reader looking at your application for the first time might not immediately understand the tone, style or content.

Here’s a useful way of remembering the personal statement proofreading process:

SPACE Give yourself space away from the content and begin proofreading it with fresh eyes. This might only need to be a few hours, but I often find that a day or two, if I have time, provides a valuable break between the final drafting and proofing phases.

STEPS Do not try and proofread everything at once. Proofread once for spelling errors. Then proofread again for errors in punctuation and grammar. Then proofread again looking for mistakes in references, quotations and names. Proofread again for sense and flow, making sure that your writing has a logical and purposeful structure. Proofread again for relevancy to the demands of the course and lastly, proofread to check that your document meets the word or character count.

SCAN Have a break and then come back to your fully proofed document and scan it again, a sentence at a time, from the end to the beginning. You will be amazed at how often reading a personal statement backwards can help you uncover errors you had missed.

At this stage, you should consider your personal statement fully proofed and ready to go. If you are looking for more detail on how to check a personal statement in detail, then this post here covers it, so do check it out and apply the lessons to your document.

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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