Writing personal statements

Advice on writing your UCAS personal statement when applying to university.

A laptop and notebook It can be a stressful time when you start writing your UCAS personal statement, as so much rides on what you say on that piece of A4. Faced with a blank page it can feel very daunting, but the IET is here to help. We asked the universities themselves what they look for on a personal statement, so you can get it right.

The personal statement is the only part of the UCAS form where the universities get to find out about you in your own words and understand your interest in the course, so this is what you need to focus on. In a nutshell it should be two thirds course relevant, and one third personal information.

Tell them why you want to do the course

"The most important thing to remember is that 50-75 per cent of your personal statement should be spent explaining why you want to do the course," says Amanda Hall, marketing manager (Schools and Colleges) at Brunel University. "We're looking for demonstrable motivation and enthusiasm for the subject, as well as evidence of maturity and responsibility.

"Knowledge of, and interest in, the subject is absolutely vital. Make this shine. You should write in some depth about why you want to study the course and include aspects you have already studied or researched that interest you."

"Those wishing to study chemical engineering should focus on their interest in the application of science and technology to problems that face us in every day life for example," continues Holly Smith, Home/EU assistant recruitment officer at the University of Surrey.

"Civil or mechanical engineers may have a more broad interest in the area of engineering, but their desire to apply reason, science and the creation/updating of relevant technology to almost anything will certainly stand them in good stead. With a more general engineering degree, students may have the opportunity to 'tailor make' their own degree by choosing modules. This can prove very appealing to certain students, and may be a point to mention if it applies to all courses the student is applying to."

No 'gaps' in your career plan

For those that are considering taking a gap year either before or during the course it is also important that you share in the statement what you plan to do during this time.

Skills to highlight

If you have room you can also try to highlight other skills that may make you a more appealing candidate.

"Initiative is also important," says Hall, "give examples of where you've taken the initiative, the same with analytical and communications skills. Showing you are able to adjust to a new environment is key; this should also come through on your personal statement."

How to stand out

A good way to stand out is to show your active interest in the topic by highlighting any extra curricular activities you've undertaken.

"Activities that are related to your course that you've undertaken in your own time, such as work experience or taster days, particularly stand out," says Hall. "Remember this is your showcase, your chance to sell yourself, but be selective and focus on providing the information that will make you stand out from all of the other applicants."

"Be reflective rather than descriptive," adds Smith. "They should write about their experience in this industry and any other relevant work experience, but more importantly how they can recognise and utilise the skills acquired through this experience back to the course they wish to study. This will show the admissions tutor that the student is able to reflect, analyse, write coherently and demonstrate their potential to be an excellent student for their course of choice."

Positive personal statements

You also need to steer away from being negative in your personal statement.

"The personal statement is often the only opportunity for universities to see what a student is 'really' like, so negative information on a personal statement form will generally not count in the students' favour. For example, if the student does not have any career ideas, this is OK, but they do not need to tell us that they do not know what they want to do. It is a negative point which tells us nothing," says Smith.

Spend time preparing

All the universities agree that the most important thing is to start early on your personal statement, as you'll need to do several drafts.

"Start well in advance i.e. the summer holidays before submission," says Smith. "Students should do as many drafts as they feel necessary; from my own experience, this is often more than three or four. I would advise initially writing too much, and then to 'cut down', rather than writing too little and struggling to find extra info to 'bump up' their personal statement."

As you draft things, share it with people around you such as teachers, parents and friends to get pointers and feedback. To make the most out of this, ask them to be critical but constructive.

What NOT to do!

Silly mistakes can make a bad impression so be sure to check your statement time and again before sending in. Go over the spelling and grammar but also check other things, such as the date. As Hall highlights, many people wrongly type the date they filled in their form and not their date of birth!

You also need to come across as professional so choose a sensible email address to use on the form: saturdaynightpartyboy@yahoo.com is not a good idea for example.

If you take on board all the advice above, you'll be giving yourself the best chance at getting a place at university. We wish you good luck!