James Turner on how to make the most of the UCAS personal statement

Exactly one year ago the Trust released research from Steve Jones at Manchester University which showed that differences in admission rates between independent and state school pupils with the same A level grades was in part down to their personal statements.  While the better off could highlight glamorous internships and enrichment activities, those from poorer homes struggled to draw on suitable work and life experience.  The research, which was not without controversy, prompted the Trust to consider what else it might do to support low/middle income students through the admissions process.

The answer was the Academic Apprenticeships Programme (AAP), which we funded to support 100 of our summer school students through their university applications, with a particular focus on their personal statements.  The students were assigned an expert mentor who is assisting them through a subject specific pathway, providing support and feedback through a set of structured tasks.

What are we learning from the first year of the programme?  Certainly that students and universities warmly welcome this type of support (in fact, we intend that the programme will reach many more students next year with matched funding from higher education institutions). One of the biggest challenges, though, has been schools un-doing the work of the initiative.  Some offered advice that was contradictory; some insisted students followed a very rigid structure; one said a student’s application to read History was too “History-heavy”.

Of course, hard-pressed teachers should be forgiven for not being experts in crafting personal statements – and their interventions were made with the best of intentions. Universities could also be clearer on what they are after in a good statement.  But the consequence is that students are left scratching their heads – what should they do?

Michael Englard and Sam Holmes, the young academics who are the brains behind the AAP, have condensed the lessons from their work into ten key points.  These are as relevant for teachers and careers advisers, as they are for young people putting pen to paper ahead of the January deadline:

1. Understand who you are writing to: your first priority is to show academic potential.

Your statement is likely to be read by an academic or a trained admissions officer. They will be subject specialists whose priority is to offer places to candidates who demonstrate academic potential to do well on a degree course.

2. “It’s not personal enough”.

One of the biggest misapprehensions about the UCAS statement is that you are involved in a personality contest with other candidates. You are not. Academics and admissions tutors are interested in the way you think and your understanding of a subject. They are less likely to be swayed by autobiographical details.

3. Show don’t tell.

Time and again students think that they will impress tutors with rhetoric. Telling a tutor that you find a subject “thrilling” or “wondrous” is pointless. You need to show your enthusiasm through actual work. Depending on your chosen subject, this means examining specific texts, experiments, or ideas which go beyond the A-Level syllabus.

4. Don’t just describe: analyse.

Simply re-stating a piece of existing information has little value. You need to show your ability to analyse a question in the manner of a future lawyer , medic or computer scientist. You can show analysis by selecting an interesting idea or text and thenfocusing your work on particular aspects. The best way to start analysing is to think in terms of specific questionsproblemsarguments and counter-arguments.

5. “It’s too subject-heavy”/”There’s too much analysis”.

Admissions tutors mainly use the personal statement to try and get a sense of youracademic potential and interests. Going into great detail about your tap-dancing or Grade 5 piano is likely to waste space which could be used to show you have explored material beyond the syllabus. As a rough ratio, four fifths of your statement should be used to explore and develop specific analysis and one fifth should be used for extra-curricular activities.

6. Don’t tell an academic what their subject is; do some research and think about the main branches of your chosen subject.

One way of starting a personal statement is to try and define a complex subject in two or three sentences.  It is highly unlikely that such an approach will pay off. It is much better to show that you understand the complexity and reach of a subject by identifying particular areas of interest and exploring one or two in detail.

7. Avoid cheesy openings and clichés.

Space is limited: start talking about your subject in precise terms straight away. A cheesy quotation will not set you apart from other candidates; clear thinking and engagement with difficult concepts will. Saying that you want to study engineering because you are fascinated by the Burj Khalifa won’t help you gain a place.

8. If you don’t have impressive material, do some research

Showing that you have researched a subject in depth will demonstrate that you are an independently-minded and self-motivated student. Don’t repeat what you are studying at A-Level. Break some new ground and do some real research and thinking.

9. Listing books or activities is not going to show your academic ability.

Just providing a list of texts you have read or topics you are interested in does not prove your enthusiasm or aptitude for a subject. It is much better to talk about a couple of selective ideas, texts or experiments.

10. Develop your analysis of work experience.

If you are lucky enough to have gone on relevant work experience, then go into detail. Simply listing multiple placements won’t help your application. You need to analysespecific observations or ideas, or use the work experience as a starting point for further research.

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Of course, there is no magic formula.  But the ideas above are helping scores of Sutton Trust students to write engaging and relevant statements.  The proof of the pudding will be in the university offers they eventually receive – but things are looking good and, as always, we’re carefully evaluating AAP’s impact.  So with the right advice, there is no reason why Tyler from Toxteth’s personal statement can’t shine as brightly as Henry from Hampstead’s.

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