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Anecdotes aren’t mandatory, though. You could also start with an unusual thought or observation about your subject, which, if punchy, unusual and interesting enough, will win the reader’s attention. A lot of people start with quotes; you could opt for this opening, but make sure the quote you’re using is an obscure and possibly contentious one. Remember: this is a personal statement. You’re supposedly tunnelling your own path, not following in somebody else’s.
The final paragraph is short, and tends to be a reiteration of what you want out of the course, and what you can offer the universities. The penultimate paragraph tends to be about school activities – A-levels, extra-curriculars, etc. The paragraphs inbetween are up to you; try to include at least one on work experience, or on delineations of how you’ve got involved (and shown interest) in your subject.
As the statement goes through its various drafts (a good number might be about seven – the differences between first and final draft should surprise and please you), your statement will mature and become increasingly natural, coherent and convincing. The best way to allow this to happen as well as possible is to…
Get started in mid-July
“July?! As in, the month of July? July, more than twelve weeks before it’s even due?!” Yes, the month of July. It may sound absurdly early. But if you leave it ‘til September/October, you’ll be hitting the teachers at a busy and competitive period. They only have a certain amount of time, and when that time is divided among more pupils – as you’ll know from basic Maths – you’ll get less of a look-in. Get a first draft handed in in July (say, ten days before you break for the holidays), and things will be far more relaxed. You’ll get more attention, as well as something to work on at your own pace during the holidays that lie yawning before you.
Possibly even more importantly than the teachers’ time is your own time. That period when school gets going again in Year 13 isn’t easy – UCAS forms (electronically) flying about, deadlines looming, coursework to get started on, frostbite, inevitable procrastination, etc. So do yourself a favour, and make sure there’s some corner of your mental field that is forever sane.
Arjun Sajip co-edited and consulted on 'Successful Personal Statements to get you into a top university' (eds. Hemant Mohapatra & Warren Zhang, pub. Constable & Robinson, February 2014)
Making a (Personal) Statement
For any student about to embark on their final year at school, two words in particular are sure to flood the heart and brain with dread and tedium: “personal statement”. By this point, most students will have knocked together a curriculum vitae, but personal statements are a step up – bullet-point lists of achievements and qualifications no longer cut it. Discursive persuasion, in the form of terse and cogent full sentences, is now the order of the day.
As with coursework or hang-gliding, getting started is the hardest part. You’ve been given a smorgasbord of unhelpful advice, like “Sell yourself”, “Make sure your opening sentence grabs admissions tutors”, and “Don’t forget to proofread”. Obviously, these are all good tips. But they don’t make getting started any less daunting. So here are four tips designed to build a solid personal statement, proceeding from first principles.
Get the contents right
It’s like building a house. You don’t just arrive at an empty construction site armed only with some bricks and a can-do attitude; there needs to be a good bit of planning beforehand. First, list all of the educational and self-improving things you’ve ever done: a brief summary of your grades, your extra-curricular activities, that time you went and followed your uncle around the bank for a week and called it ‘work experience’ (you know who you are). Feel free to include some things you’ve done at school, but only if they’re really notable: don’t bother mentioning that you helped at Homework Club, or were a House Representative in Year 10, because no one will really sit up and take notice. If you’re applying to a top university, engagement with your prospective subject is more important than engagement with your school.
Once you have a list of achievements, group them into categories: “What I did at school”, “Work experience”, “How I’ve shown an interest in my subject beyond school and work experience”, “Extra-curricular activities”, etc. You can choose the categories. I’ve simply suggested common ones. Briefly note down what each activity/qualification has taught you, and be as specific as possible about your subject. This specificity isn’t always possible, and when it isn’t possible, note down how the activity/qualification has improved you as a prospective student. Embellish as much as the bounds of honesty will allow: if you could say “This demonstrated my ability to lead teams” rather than “This demonstrated my teamwork skills”, say it.
You want to come across as smart. Apart from arts students, not a lot of people mention a specific book or a specific journal article they’ve read. You should, whatever you want to study. Ideally more than one book/article. And don’t just name-drop it: explore it. What did it teach you, exactly? Why is it important/interesting? And, most impressively (this is easier if you’re an arts student), how can it be criticised? Having a keen, critical mind is crucial in any discipline, and subtly interrogating a text – even if you’re just picking apart its assumptions – will impress admissions tutors. Try also to ensure your writing standard is about as high as the standard of the articles you’re reading. Use a wide range of punctuation, even if it means learning how to use commas and semi-colons correctly; try to repeat as few words as possible; and employ a sophisticated, but not pretentious, vocabulary.
Structure it well
So now you have the categories, and what they contain. The easy bit comes next: ordering them. There’s no real right or wrong order, but remember that you’re writing a personal statement: the opening should be personal, not general. So if you can, perhaps start with an anecdote that relates to you AND your subject. A good anecdote might read thus: “When I read the biography of Francis Crick at fifteen, I was intrigued by the journey he had taken from physics to genetics.” You’re giving an example of something that interests you; you’re mentioning a specific figure in your field whom you admire; and you’re displaying your precocity without being too precious about it. It’s just an example, of course, but it’s a good one.
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