What Makes A Great Personal Statement? 3 Top Tips

Great personal statements can be elusive. What makes one compelling and engaging, whilst another might be instantly forgettable?  There are three key factors to every great personal statement, and I am going to share them with you in this post…

A great personal statement is one that results in an offer from a university or employer. It should be well-planned, with contents prepared over at least an 18-month timeframe. It should also be well structured and have been subject to a thorough process of editing, review and feedback.

So, how can you achieve each of these three elements? I’ll unpick them all below, in lots more detail, so that you can craft the perfect personal statement for yourself.

If you’re not sure where to begin, you can check out my post on getting started with your personal statement, and if you’re looking for ideas for personal statements, then this is the post for you.

In the meantime, here are my three top tips for great personal statements…

Plan Your Personal Statement Content in Advance

One of the most valuable strategies for making sure that your personal statement is outstanding is to get the planning process started as early as possible. The sooner you recognise that crafting a successful application isn’t done over a weekend but is achieved in the months before you ever press ‘send’, the more relevant and compelling content you’ll have to work with.

Being strategic about making sure that you have the right content for your personal statement is logical, if you are dedicated to giving yourself the best possible opportunity to flourish. Leaving it until the last minute, no matter how brilliant your writing skills, will simply mean that you won’t have the experiences and depth of knowledge to really shine.

You can check out some more of my powerful personal statement strategies here.

The Seven Elements of Personal Statement Planning

Ideally, you should start to plan your personal statement at least 18 months in advance. If that’s the case, then the key elements that you should consider include:

1 Make Your Subject Choices

At this stage you can maintain some flexibility, but at the very least you should be honest and realistic about what you want to study when you reach higher education, as well as what you’ll be capable of achieving. As a rule, it is sensible to pursue a subject in which you are particularly capable and are highly engaged (or can assume that you would be, if it is a brand-new subject). Research all the possible variations of this subject; module options, assessment styles, potential employment opportunities and required knowledge, qualifications and experiences. Rely on your research, not uninformed assumptions or the opinions of others.

2 Refine Your Current Studies

If you still have some flexibility regarding your current study choices, then make necessary changes to your subjects having researched their suitability and relevance to the course you want to apply for. If you are committed to an existing course of study, then compare the content with the demands of the course you intend to apply for. Make connections between them and focus on fully developing your understanding of these aspects of your contemporary studies. Highlight these links when you later write your personal statement.

3 Wider Reading to Support Your Application

Once you are clear about your field of study, then you should start the process of wider reading. This requires you to read books, articles, publications and papers that relate directly to an aspect of your chosen subject but are outside the scope of your current academic curriculum. This is a vital element of your application and must be started as early as possible. Make sure you keep a note of each resource you read, who wrote it and what your conclusions were, before using this information in your personal statement.

4 Activities in Support of Your Application

If you are working well in advance of your submission date, then you should ensure that you attend lectures, complete online courses like MOOCS, or even participate in studies and IRL courses or residentials that are actively designed to develop your understanding of the subject you aspire to study. There’s even a section in the UCAS undergraduate application that actively asks for this information. Deepening your knowledge of and engagement with your field of interest will not only provide some outstanding personal statement content but will reaffirm your interest in the subject and provide a deeper foundation for undergraduate study.

5 Relevant Work Placements, Internships or Volunteering

Once you have a clear subject or vocational vision in place, the 18 months before you complete your personal statement is the time to search for placements or volunteering opportunities that will evidence your commitment to and understanding of your field. Not only should you outline this experience in your personal statement, you must make the connections between the placement, its value to you and the demands of the course clear. Allowing yourself the time to achieve this, as part of a clear strategy, puts you at a tremendous advantage to your peers. If you’re not sure which experiences are relevant, you’ll find some detailed advice on what to avoid including in your personal statement here.

6 Identify the Right Campus for You

This aspect of your preparation is important, but only once you have a subject focus or field of study clearly identified. Do not pick a place to study first, and then work out what you’d like to do there; it is not a successful long-term strategy. Check out this resource in the UK or look here for information on US universities and colleges. Connect your personal statement with what the institution has to offer, and you will be far more likely to develop a great application.

7 Identify and Develop Transferable Skills

These are personal skills that are valuable across a range of platforms, subjects and organisations, and are cultivated largely by your co-curricular activities. So, when developing your application strategy, think about which transferable skills you have in abundance (perhaps confidence, motivation and empathy) and make notes about the things you do that evidence these. Equally, consider the transferable skills you are less proficient in (maybe organization, leadership or independent study) and decide which activities you could engage in that would allow you to develop these to a higher level. Make sure you include this information, where relevant, in your personal statement. Find out exactly what skills you should be including here.

Structure Your Personal Statement in the Right Way

Getting your use of structure right is one of the simplest and most effective ways to develop a great personal statement. It’s one of the few ways in which you can make your personal statement feel original and personal.

Each paragraph should be clearly structured to make a specific and relevant point that fully supports your application and compels the reader to view your application positively. Equally, the entire statement should be structured to convey a clear and engaging narrative.

One way to think of this use of structure in your paragraphs is to remember your ABC’s…

The structure of your personal statement should illustrate to the reader that you have a clear understanding of the demands of the course and are logically illustrating your suitability in relation to these. A seven-paragraph model that considers motivation, experience and ambition is optimal.

Paragraph 1Identify the inspiration for your application. Was there a moment, experience or person that sparked your interest in this field? Relate your contemporary studies to the demands of the course you are applying for.
Paragraph 2Outline which aspects of your existing skills and knowledge make you a suitable candidate for this course or role. How has what you have achieved so far prepared you effectively?
Paragraph 3Evidence your relevant wider reading and research, beyond the demands of your current academic curriculum.
Paragraph 4Evidence more of your relevant wider reading and research, beyond the demands of your current academic curriculum. This might include examples of courses or residences that have helped you develop your knowledge.
Paragraph 5Evidence your relevant work experience, internships or experience of industry, making links to the demands of the course.
Paragraph 6Outline the volunteering experience, co-curricular interests and personal circumstances that you feel are relevant to the course and illustrate a range of direct and transferable skills.
Paragraph 7Clarify your longer-term ambition and the ways in which the course you are applying for will facilitate that. Relate to specific modules, areas of study or opportunities offered by the course(s) and reiterate your value to the institution.
A Seven-Paragraph Personal Statement Structure

If you really want to refine your structure to take the reader on a very specific journey, you can find lots more information on structuring your personal statement here.

Get Support with Editing and Feedback on Drafts

This final tip for great personal statements is a truly powerful and important one. You must make sure that you get the help you need to develop, edit and proofread your personal statement. The vast majority of successful candidates develop their applications collaboratively, and not doing so is likely to put you at a disadvantage.  

There are three reasons why this is such a valuable and important aspect of the process:

  • Another reader is likely to identify skills and experiences that you have neglected to include, and will challenge you to communicate your suitability more fully
  • You will gain advice and input from someone who is reading your personal statement for the first time, and receives the same impression as an admissions tutor
  • Another pair of eyes on your application will always spot errors of spelling, grammar and punctuation that you are likely to miss when you are so close to the material

When you write your rough draft, you should focus primarily on content – what you are saying instead of how you are saying it. Then, once you have something down on paper, it’s time to go back and make sure you are meeting the requirements of the application and representing yourself as the strongest candidate possible.

Dr Vicki Johnson, profellow.com

Ideally, you will have a team of people around you who are qualified and eager to help – your teachers and counsellors, friends and family and contacts you have cultivated through the practical exploration of your subject. Give them the opportunity to read and comment, but always be aware that whilst they will probably spot omissions and obvious errors, they may not be fully aware of what the right content needs to be.

You can read my post here to find out how to improve your personal statement in more depth and detail, or find out why having help is a vital part of the process.

Alternatively, you can try some free software like Grammarly. It’s a widely used and extremely intuitive piece of kit that will not only identify errors in spelling and grammar but will also offer suggestions for rephrasing and developing content. That can be exceptionally valuable when you’re trying to change things like repetitive sentence starters or use a wider range of vocabulary.

You can have a look and see if Grammarly is right for you, or hit the banner to find out more.

In the end, you have one opportunity, so you need to ensure that your personal statement is the best it can be. From taking the time to craft the ideal application to getting the finishing touches right, it can often be sensible to work with a professional to get the right level of support and subsequently fulfil your potential.

I’d be delighted to work with you 1-1, if you feel that I could help you to develop a truly compelling personal statement. Good luck on your journey, 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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