Conquering the Dreaded Personal Statement (You don’t need a sword, just your pen)

Personal statement

It is that time of year again for students. Unfortunately, I am talking not about autumn (maple latte season!!) but the approaching university application deadlines. I still remember with discomfort the end of the happy period of my life, and the start of something frightful- a seemingly unending obsession first with a futile search for the ‘perfect’ way to write a personal statement, and later with an attachment to all electrical devices I could get my hands on (don’t worry, yours is safe- my addiction has, thankfully, passed) used to check my emails, which I frantically refreshed at least every hour for several months in the hope of getting some kind of news from my university choices as to the progress of my application.

Personal statements are supposed to be ‘personal’, yet you can lose yourselves in writing them. You imagine painfully your statement being rigorously scrutinised. Your head is suffering a drought and your ideas are dry. And your watch is mercilessly reminding you that time is running out.

Yet it does not have to be like that.

You don’t have to be lost for ideas, don’t have to be overwhelmed by long advise on countless websites you have been using to free you from the stress you are experiencing from having to write up your statement. If you are thirsty for this kind of relief, then read on- here, I hope to rekindle your excitement for applying to university, by giving you some suggestions for your personal statements and some simple yet effective tips to make you feel secure in the knowledge that your personal statement is as good as it can be.

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Think about how you want to begin your personal statement. Like being at a job or university interview, first impressions do count. I know personal statements are meant to be just that- personal- so it is up to you to decide how you want to write yours, but I have to actively discourage you from writing something like “I knew from the moment I was born that it was my destiny to read English Literature at university”. Apparently, this is a commonly used opening, though to be quite honest, I cannot understand the logic behind it.

Students are often discouraged from starting their personal statements with quotes, and I would normally agree with them unless (1). You have a unique quote, or one that you are quite certain is not commonly used, or (2). You have a unique reason why that quote means something to you or has inspired you. You are a noteworthy individual, and you want the person reading your personal statement to know that. Using a quote that hundreds and thousands of other aspiring students used too will make it harder for you to convey that.

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Ask yourself: What does your discipline mean to you? What is it about, in your opinion?  Answering a question like this, and writing about the course you are applying to in terms of how you see it is advantageous in that it prompts you to be thoughtful, to consider the wider picture of your studies.

You might like to start your personal statement with a unique statement– an opening line that grabs the reader’s attention. A warning in advance though: some people will love your opening line whilst others might not. Ultimately, it is your personal statement, rather than theirs, so how you open it should be up to you, and only you. My own opening line was “I am infected with a sort of greed for knowledge, and I can’t say I want a cure”. It received perhaps as many different reactions as the type of English cheese that exist- some laughed, whereas others looked puzzled. Personally, I wanted something different- as weird as it is, I went with it, and have never regretted that decision. As the Roxette song goes, listen to your heart.

Some questions to ask yourself…

(1). What do you love about the field in which you wish to enter? Why? Is there a particular person or happening that sparked your interest? E.g. My passion for finance blossomed whilst I was interning at USB…

(2). How have you furthered your interest in your field? E.g. Reading newspapers, attending lectures/ seminars, foreign trips, volunteering/interning/jobs, books on your interests… Why is this important to you? Is there anything in particular that you liked about any of these things?

(3). Have you overcome any challenges in your studies or your life? Has this changed you in any way/ made you a stronger person?

(4). Do you take part in any non-academic activities? What is their importance? How do they make you unique?

(5). Have you ever done/ experienced anything special or significant in your life that you can write about? How has it changed you/ what have you learnt from it? Do you have a story to tell?

(6). Is there a specific topic/ area in your discipline that you particularly enjoy? Why are you interested in it? How do you plan to further your interest? E.g. Instead of writing that you love Politics (as a general subject) you can talk about your passion for Renaissance Politics, or your interest in the relationship between Politics and Business.

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DO NOT be too random: E.g. unless you have a good reason as to how your love for pizza is connected to your discipline or extra-curricular activities, best not mention it.

DO NOT just list committees you are on, job positions you have held, etc. Explain what you have learnt from these activities– what is their importance? How have they helped you to develop key skills?

DO NOT focus too much on extra-curricular activities. An important word for you: Balance.

DO NOT exaggerate or make up things. There is nothing worse than claiming you have read all of Charles Dickens’ novels and then ending up staring blankly at your interviewer when they ask you specific questions about certain characters who you don’t know anything about. It is the kind of embarrassing situation you really want to avoid.

DO NOT use excessively flowery or over-complicated language. This usually gives the impression that you are trying too hard. Focus on the ideas you want to convey instead. Avoid verbosity. Those of you who have read Hamlet will remember Osric, the courtier who is over-extravagent with his words. Warning: You do not want to be an Osric.

DO NOT submit your essay when you are in a rush, without checking it, or at midnight. When I submitted my statement, I submitted it late at night despite the fact that I still had a few weeks until the final deadline. I should have waited until the morning. Although I had taken many pains to make it as perfect as I possibly could, in rushing to submit it, I had missed a ‘to’ in my statement. It seems small now, but for something that took hours and hours to write up, that little mistake meant a lot then. Check your work, check your work again, and, as much as it pains you, check your work another time. Check and re-check it until you know every word of your statement by heart. Only joking, but it is best to make sure spelling and grammar are correct. You want to avoid silly mistakes.

What you have to remember is that you are a special individual. Ultimately, there is no ‘perfect’ statement. What makes your statement original is your input, your personality- you. The best advice I can give you is to just be yourself. Don’t change who you are for the sake of trying to please other people. They will like you for your uniqueness.You are perfect just the way you are. Make sure that your readers can hear the real you when they read your statement. You are gifted with a voice, and you deserve to be heard.

To all of you submitting your university applications, I wish you all the best of luck. Be creative with your work, appreciate the beauty of your writing, and most important of all, enjoy it. You don’t get many opportunities to brag about yourself. Take this chance. 

Creative Commons Licence
BreakTheEnigma by BreakTheEnigma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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