What To Avoid In A Personal Statement: No More Mistakes!




Making a mistake in your personal statement can have far-reaching consequences, from failing to get an offer to the complete rejection of your application. Whilst it is rare to make them all, just one of these errors has the potential to derail your application completely.  

But what are the personal statement mistakes that you must avoid?

Easily avoidable mistakes in personal statements include irrelevant, unoriginal and illogically structured content alongside poor spelling, punctuation and grammar. Excessive use of quotes, exaggeration and filler content are also serious mistakes, as is the fabrication of facts and experiences.

You can discover more about each of these mistakes below, and make sure that you never make them…

Make Sure all the Content you Write is Original

The biggest mistake that any candidate can make in their personal statement is to copy or paraphrase content from elsewhere. When you see exceptionally good examples of content that seems to relate perfectly to your application, it can be tempting to cut and paste, or rewrite elements to make them seem original. This is always a mistake that you must avoid making.

There are two significant reasons why including unoriginal content in your personal statement is an error. Firstly, if you are copying content from elsewhere, it is highly likely that your personal statement will not pass the stringent plagiarism checks that each application goes through. If your writing is flagged as unoriginal, the universities you are applying to will be alerted to this and are unlikely to make you an offer. If your statement is entirely unoriginal, then your application stands a good chance of being rejected entirely, leaving you without any options.

If you’d like to find out more about plagiarism in personal statements, check out my detailed post here.

Don’t forget, your personal statement is an opportunity to evidence your suitability for the course or role you are applying for, and this is the second reason in support of originality. In planning, researching and writing it, you are proving that you have the skills and experience you need to succeed. If your personal statement is copied from elsewhere, not only are you attempting to access the course fraudulently, but you aren’t preparing yourself as fully as you can for its demands.

You may even find that the course isn’t for you, but by that point, it could be too late to change your decision.

Don’t Tell a Story – Do Follow a Logical Structure

Lots of personal statements that do not make it past the scrutiny of an admissions officer are written in a narrative style. They start by outlining an important or apparently inspirational event in the applicant’s childhood before painstakingly describing each stage of preparation and education in chronological order, ending with a plea for admission. Alternatively, some candidates try to tell a literal story in their application, often attempting to make allegorical connections between their own experiences and the story they are weaving.

These are not sound approaches to take, and will often put readers off before they have the opportunity to really get to know the candidate, or fully understand their achievements and suitability.

The extract above is trying to draw a parallel and make a connection between the applicant and the university, but in reality, this passage gives the reader no positive or relevant information upon which to make the candidate an offer. It is also a tremendous waste of a significant proportion of the available character count. 

This kind of mistake comes top of the list on the uniguide website, so do have a read of that post, when you are finished here.

Write Balanced Content Using your own Voice

If someone were to read your personal statement aloud, it should, with a few exceptions, sound like it was written in your voice. The reader should feel as though you are speaking to them directly, and they should be able to hear the individual quality of your personality coming through clearly. That can be difficult to achieve without making your personal statement too informal, and it is certainly a big mistake to use exclamations, slang or profanity.

The key to achieving this is to take the time to plan and revise your writing, so that by the time you achieve your final draft, every single phrase, sentence and point you want to make has been carefully considered and communicates its meaning with precision. If you can achieve this, then the chances are you will have written a balanced and original statement that speaks in your voice and compels the reader to take notice of what you have to say.

UCAS has published a list of the top 10 ‘hackneyed phrases’ that applicants often rely on rather than taking the time to develop original content. If you can avoid these, not only will your application stand out, but you will inevitably be communicating more clearly and originally with the reader. Unoriginal content is usually bland, generalised and unspecific in terms of its value to the applicant or the institution, so check all of your content against these criteria.

If you want some great advice on the right kinds of sentence starters to use, then take the time to check out my post here. In the meantime, I have summarised the phrases that UCAS suggest you avoid in the table below, as well as adding several examples of my own for you to consider.

From a young age I have (always) been…For as long as I can remember I have…I am applying for this course because…I have always been interested in…Throughout my life I have always enjoyed…
Reflecting on my educational experiences…Nursing is a very challenging and demanding career…Academically I have always been…I have always wanted to pursue a career in…I have always been passionate about…
As a child I was inspired by/ interested in…I love studying Geography and would love to continue doing this at your institution…The creative arts are vitally important for our global future…I work well in a team, making me suitable for the course…I love studying/am a keen student…
Unoriginal Phrases Table

Write with Relevancy and Connect with Your Subject

Applicants often write about how much they enjoy a subject, or how excited they would be to study it. This can be extremely descriptive, and whilst admissions tutors want to know that you are dedicated and engaged, they are also looking for relevancy and evidence of connection to the subject.

Look at the contrasting examples below. In the first column, the writing is largely descriptive and irrelevant in terms of what the reader needs to know. The same example has been rewritten in the second column and is not only more relevant, but shows that the writer has a tangible connection to their subject.

Irrelevant and Relevant Content Comparisons

If you are not sure if you are achieving the right balance of relevancy and connection with your subject in your personal statement, then ask yourself these two questions:

Does each point I am making demonstrate that I have engaged with the subject beyond the demands of my current course of study? Does each point evidence the value of my experience in relation to the demands of the course I am applying for?

Your Personal Statement Support

UCAS have put together a helpful video on the basics of a compelling personal statement, so check it out once you’ve read the rest of this post…

Get Your Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar Right

Not checking your spelling, punctuation and grammar is a mistake that can have costly consequences when it comes to the success of a personal statement. It is an important piece of academic writing, and consequently, universities will use it to help evaluate your academic potential.

If yours contains errors, it indicates that you may be a weak academic student, that you are disorganised or that you may not be dedicated enough to warrant an offer. You can read my helpful post here regarding the best ways to check your personal statement; it gives you lots of useful advice for making sure your spelling, punctuation and grammar reflect positively on you.

Another great way to manage this process is to use a software tool like Grammarly. I always recommend it to the applicants I work with because the basic functions are free, the support it offers you is incredibly valuable, and if you get accustomed to using it during your application, you’ll be familiar with it when you start your studies (and that’s where it will be incredibly useful as well).

You can check it out here, or click on the link below to find out more about how to install their free package.

Avoid Using Excessive Quotations and Titles

The reader wants to learn about the ambitions that drive you and the achievements underpinning them. Using a quote to illustrate your knowledge and understanding can be an excellent strategy, but too many will make your writing less personal, relevant and original.

Using too many quotes can also give the impression that you do not have enough content to complete the application under your own merits, and can become tiresome and predictable. No one wants to read a list of the things that other people have said. Equally, repeatedly listing the full titles of books you have read or videos you have watched will take up a valuable chunk of your word count.

The admissions officer or employer want to hear your thoughts, and whilst introducing a quote to argue against or to inspire a new compelling point can be a valuable technique, do not fall into the trap of thinking that quotes make you sound more intelligent.

Your best strategy is to use quotes sparingly, where relevant, and as an opportunity to make an original observation that demonstrates your suitability. If you want to make sure you have this covered, there’s a detailed guide on quotes and how to use them here.

Don’t Forget to Write About Your Relevant Skills

A common error is to forget to evidence the ways in which the skills you have are relevant to the course. This mistake is based upon two key assumptions made by several candidates each year. If you can avoid making it, you will automatically increase the chances of your application being successful.

The first assumption that causes unsuccessful candidates to make this kind of mistake is failing to realise that universities and employers need to see tangible evidence of their suitability.  If this is included in your personal statement, then the admissions tutor reading it can connect your experiences with the demands of the course and be reassured that you will complete it successfully. It is in no one’s interest for students to drop out.

Explain what you can bring to a course and try not to just list experiences, but describe how they have given you skills that will help you at university.

James Seymour, University of Gloucestershire

The second mistake is more personal and is rooted in a misguided sense of modesty. Even when applicants realise that outlining the value of relevant skills is an important part of the process, they can fail to include this content as it seems to be boastful or too self-centred. Simply listing skills and experiences that support your application isn’t compelling enough, but connecting academic, practical or experiential knowledge with the content of the course you are applying for is not boastful, it is essential.

Edit Your Content to Remove Irrelevant Filler

Not editing down your personal statement and removing excess content can have an incredibly damaging effect on your chances of success, for three reasons.

  • Admissions tutors and employers are busy. If it takes them a long time to work through the irrelevant content that you have included, then chances are that they will give up long before they get to the end. If that happens, some of the important content that is worth reading will be ignored or even missed entirely. You know how frustrating it is to read a blog post or an article that just won’t get to the point, so don’t put the reader in that situation.
  • If you include unnecessary material in your final draft, it can be a clear sign to the reader that you do not have enough content of value to include. In turn, that sends the signal that your application is not as prepared as it should be, by comparison with other candidates. This could be viewed as laziness, disengagement or simply as a lack of academic suitability. In any case, it is not the impression you want to give.
  • If you have not edited out all extraneous content, and you are working to a word or character count, there is every chance that you will not have the room you need to include all the elements a personal statement requires. That can lead to you cutting compelling content in favour of descriptive filler, or not including core elements in the first place.

Put simply, each word needs to earn its place by adding value, so remember your ABC’s

  • Show APTITUDE
  • Evidence BROADER KNOWLEDGE
  • CONNECT with your subject.

Keep Everything Truthful and do not Exaggerate

Very few applicants set out to purposefully lie in their personal statement. Those that do quickly fall foul of the rigorous verification systems employed by organisations such as UCAS. Material that is purposefully plagiarised or included with the intention to deceive is taken extremely seriously. As UCAS reports:

We have a responsibility to our applicants, course providers, and stakeholders to screen applications for false, missing and/or misleading information, check personal statements for patterns of similarity, and to report our findings.

UCAS

You must not knowingly include false material in your statement, or elsewhere in your application.

It is much more likely that, if you do include a falsehood in your application, it will be due to exaggeration or error. Whilst that can be understandable in a few contexts, the end result is still likely to be the rejection of your application.

Here are the top mistakes that you need to avoid when it comes to falsehoods and exaggeration in your personal statement:

Qualifications:Personal Details:Educational Background:Wider Reading:
Do not purposefully or accidentally include qualifications or grades that are higher than those you have actually achieved. This will cause your application to be rejected.Do not make errors when entering your personal information, especially your legal name and date of birth. Do not use a nickname when asked to provide a full name.Do not include incorrect educational histories. Make sure that the institutions and dates attended match the records accessible by the organisation to which you are applying.You must not claim to have read books or publications in your personal statement if you have not actually read them in their entirety. The same goes for lectures, whether online or in real life.
Courses:Internships and Employment:Volunteering and Achievements:Your Ambitions:
If you have attended courses outside of formal education, you should refer to them correctly and without exaggeration. You should not claim to have attended a course if you have not done so.You should not list examples of industry experience if you have not personally completed these. Similarly, you should not exaggerate your achievements or skills in these roles.Make sure that you include relevant examples of these aspects of your preparation. Do not make false or exaggerated claims about the levels of ability or lasting value of these experiences.You should want to actively study the subject you are applying for to a challenging level. If you are not committed to the subject and a subsequent career path, do not claim that you are.
Falsehood and Exaggeration in Personal Statements

Above all, remember that there are no secrets or unwritten rules to writing a mistake-free personal statement. Most mistakes can be avoided through the application of some common sense, some technique and lots of time and effort spent developing the right content. Writing a personal statement should be an exciting and fulfilling process that crystalizes your thinking and clarifies your suitability.

If that’s how you approach the task, then you are unlikely to make too many errors.


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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