When To Write A Personal Statement: A Pathway To Success

Ideally, when you start to think about writing a personal statement for school, university, college or employment, you’ve got plenty of time ahead of you to plan the process and maximise your content. 

If that’s the case, then this post will outline the ideal pathway to personal statement success and give you lots of ideas about how to use the time you have effectively.

But when should you write a personal statement?

You should start writing a personal statement around 18 months before you plan to submit it. The process is in three phases. Firstly, research courses and subjects and complete practical activities. Then collate your notes and write drafts prior to polishing and submitting your application.

I’ve outlined each of these three phases in more detail below.

Regardless of which country you’re in, your field of study or your ambitions, if you need to write a personal statement at some stage of a future application, this pathway will work for you.

If you’re up against a personal statement deadline, then check out my advice at the end of this post, or get some last-minute personal statement tips here.

Phase 1: Start Writing a Personal Statement Early

In an ideal world, you should start work on your personal statement around 18 months before the deadline.

Don’t worry; you shouldn’t be writing specific content at this point, as it’s too soon to set anything yet. Instead, give yourself the space and time to lay the right foundations.

After all, your current success is built upon yesterday’s efforts. It’s no different with a personal statement. It’s just that most people don’t purposefully plan that far ahead.

However, this is the time when you should be making sure that you will eventually have all the content you need when it comes to getting great words on a page.

So, what should you be doing 18 months out?

10 Activities to Prepare Your Personal Statement

  • Identify a field of study that inspires you. Use this time to really explore and identify a subject or field that will satisfy you. The idea is to pick a subject that inspires and challenges you, that you enjoy, and that you have the potential to be successful at. Increasingly, degree courses are no longer definers of careers, but you’ll have to live with the subject for a number of years, and getting it right is vital. There are some great resources for this here.
  • Research courses, institutions or employers that connect with you. When you’ve got a subject in mind, research the colleges, universities and employers that offer courses. Check out the potential course content, the module and assessment structure, the fees and the student support. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you need answers. The way an institution interacts with you will give you a good idea of whether they are right for you. Here’s a good starting point for UK students, whilst this will work for those in the US.
  • Speak to teachers, peers, counsellors, alumni, employees and family. You might feel as though no one around you understands your ambitions, but most of the time, you’ll find that speaking to as many people as possible and getting their thoughts on your suitability for a subject or role or opinions on courses or employers is valuable. Importantly, these people know you, and it’s wise to listen to their thoughts. You don’t have to follow their advice, but it’s wise to listen to it! For some valuable free advice, check out my post on why having support to write a personal statement is so important.
  • Focus on the skills and knowledge gained from your current academic course. Do not forget that if you are currently in education, one of the most valuable things to do is to stay on track and fulfil your academic potential. Tutors are often asked to award predicted or provisional grades early – sometimes a year in advance of the start of a university course – so part of your preparation is to place a priority on your academic progress, being realistic when it comes to making course choices, and reaching out for help early in order to achieve your best.
  • Undertake wider reading and research. Alongside completing your academic studies, you’ll need to be researching your intended field of study outside of your taught curriculum. Reading books by industry experts, attending short courses to improve your subject knowledge and learning how to undertake online academic research, perhaps through a MOOC, will give you a significant advantage when it comes to proving your suitability in a personal statement.
  • Engage practically in your subject area. The 18 months before you submit your application is a golden opportunity to find ways to engage practically in your subject and build up a range of specific skills and experiences that will allow your application to shine. You’ll need to find work, social or charitable opportunities outside of a school environment. If you’re interested in physiotherapy, you could work at a sports club. If you are a potential biologist, see if you can volunteer at a city farm or zoo. Most organisations are happy to give passionate candidates some experience within an industry, although you might not get paid.
  • Join, build and develop networks. This can be effective in real life but is more likely to have a bigger impact online. Join forums, groups, societies or organisations that allow you to expand your specialist knowledge. Comment on forums, create discussions on social media and follow leading figures. The more immersed in the subject you can become, the more you can make effective links later.
  • Find volunteering and personal opportunities that develop transferable skills. A small but important part of your personal statement will refer to your broader hobbies and interests and in particular, the transferable skills that they have given you. There’s no value in spending months leading up to your application so focused on your studies that you can’t illustrate your social and personal strengths to an employer or college.
  • Research your potential industry or next academic steps. You should ensure that you are frequently spending time looking at events, changes and opportunities within a range of industries or in higher education so that you are informed about future progress. Your ambitions need to be realistic and educated, but they also need to link to the content being offered by institutions you are applying to, who will want to see that your goals align with both what they have to offer and the way the industry is developing.
  • Take advantage of open days. Individual colleges, universities and employers will post details of open days on their websites, and the 18 months before you apply gives you a wonderful opportunity for in-person visits. Experiencing a campus, getting the feel of a city and speaking to members of the community are just as important in the decision-making process as researching courses and subjects. After all, if you apply for a place in a location you turn out to hate, you’ll soon be re-applying. Check these things out early so you are confident about your choices.

Make sure that you keep a record of all these activities.

Just a few notes in a dedicated file or document should be enough to remind you of why you made specific decisions and how important a particular experience may have been.

You’ll need to use these notes in the next phase.

Phase 2: Gather Your Personal Statement Elements

You should begin to collate and shape the most relevant notes and resources approximately three months before you intend to submit your personal statement.

This gives you as much time as possible to generate valuable content and develop your skills and knowledge. 

It’s important to remember that you will usually need to complete other elements as part of an application for higher education, which all support your personal statement.

At this stage, most application platforms like UCAS, UAC, CUCAS and Common App are open for registration and will be offering a wide range of up-to-date resources and support.

But what kind of content should you be gathering, and how should you be structuring it?

Putting Personal Statement Content in the Right Sections

Section 1Section 2Section 3Section 4
Your Inspiration Details on the people, experiences and opportunities that have inspired your interest in a subject or roleAcademic Skills Evidence of a range of relevant academic skills and strengths that indicate your suitability for study at a higher levelWider Reading Contextualised examples of the reading and research you have carried out beyond the scope of the taught curriculumAcademic Initiative Examples of the ways in which you have pursued your academic interests as an independent learner
Section 5Section 6Section 7Section 8
Practical Experience Outline as many examples as possible of the ways in which you have engaged with your subject or field in a practical settingTransferable Skills Make connections between your suitability for study and the ‘soft’ skills you have developed through hobbies and interestsSubject Goals
Outline your professional, personal and academic goals and explain how the contents of the course or role will help you meet them
Mutual Value
Offer suggestions, based on relevant evidence, of ways in which the opportunity will be of value to you, and ways you will add value to the organisation
Putting Personal Statement Content in the Right Sections

For even more detailed support with a UCAS application, you can download my free personal statement template here, or by clicking on the banner below. It’s full of useful tips for developing a super-successful statement.

For help with putting all the elements together, you can check out my post on how to start a personal statement here, or read this post for some outstanding personal statement examples.

Phase 3: Polish Your Personal Statement & Submit

Once you’ve gathered all of your content, you’re ready to enter the final phase of writing your personal statement.

You should aim to write the final draft of your personal statement around two weeks before you plan to submit it.

By that time, you are likely to have had the chance to generate all the content you need and to have refined your notes.

But what exactly should you do to make the best use of this final window?

5 Key Elements to End a Personal Statement Process

  1. Gather the opinions of others. At this stage, it’s a valuable idea to share your personal statement with a small number of people that you trust will give you honest, constructive feedback. If possible, share one document electronically rather than having to manage multiple versions. You are going to be particularly interested in finding out a) if each point you are making establishes or develops your suitability for a specific course, subject or role and b) if there are any important, obvious omissions. At this stage, do not ask for feedback about whether you should be applying for a particular course or role – those decisions have already been made, so stick with them!
  2. Proofread your work. Once you have taken note of feedback and are happy with your completed draft, you must proofread your personal statement. You can find some excellent strategies for checking your document here, or you could use a piece of software like Grammarly. The vast majority of students make use of this kind of software, which not only spots errors of spelling, punctuation and grammar more effectively than most word processing apps but makes excellent intuitive suggestions for developing the style and quality of your writing. Check out the free version, or hit the banner below.
  3. Finish the broader application. Whatever platform you are using to apply (or even if your application is direct), you should ensure that you have completed the other application elements accurately so that the priority can be your personal statement. Make sure your achieved qualifications and academic and employment history are fully completed and that your personal details are correct. It’s a quick and easy thing to get right. Unless instructed otherwise, make sure you use a personal email rather than one provided by your current school, college or employer, as these can often change in the time between your application being submitted and the start of a new course or job.
  4. Reflect on your writing. By giving yourself a two-week window, you have the time to ‘put your personal statement away’ and come back to it after a couple of days. In that time, you’ll have had the chance to think about what you’ve written and, at the same time, will come back to it with fresh eyes. Double-check it’s right, and then hit submit.
  5. Allow time for references to be added. Unless you are applying directly, with references included, you should be aware of leaving time for these to be added and your entire application to be processed. This means that once you hit send, it will often take several days for your application to reach its destination. All the more reason to write your personal statement in good time, having taken a strategic approach.

Once you’ve completed these steps, you should have written a stunningly effective, compelling and relevant personal statement and have a great chance of receiving some achievable offers from your ideal institutions. Good luck!

Can you Write a Personal Statement in 2 Weeks?

It is possible to write a personal statement in 2 weeks, but writing from scratch in a limited amount of time presents challenges. An effective solution is to identify 3 relevant academic skills, 3 formative experiences within your field or subject and 3 goals that will be met by your application.

Once you have these nine points, you can create three substantial paragraphs, and from there, it’s possible to add further elements, such as examples of wider reading, volunteering and transferable skills.

Most important of all, remember that it is far better to submit a concise and well-written personal statement that evidences your suitability clearly but is under the word count than to pad out a document with filler.

You can check out my post on beating your personal statement deadline here, or click the link to my post on last minute personal statement application tips below.

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...

Recent Posts