Helena Pozniak
+44 7990 518862

Personal statement: first impressions count

The Telegraph
Get a head start: Helena Pozniak talks to three successful university applicants who share their tips for a top personal statement

The grades you get are almost certainly more important to universities than what you put in your personal statement. However, if you’re competing against other academically competent students, a punchy statement might swing the balance in your favour. So, it's definitely worth giving this some early thought.

“I find that statements tend to be quite formulaic, with candidates simply listing interests. I like to see clarity of thought, and any activity that demonstrates real commitment over a long period of time is good,” says Dr Martin Skinner, admissions tutor for the University of Warwick’s psychology department.

“You don’t get into a regional or national youth orchestra, for example, without a lifetime of practising, or become a cross-country champion without devoting time to it.”

Learning where a student’s interests originated or how they have expressed them can also be more revealing than a list of “CV-fodder” experiences, he adds.

Dolly Williams, 27, was rejected when she applied as a dancer to the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Lipa). Six years later, she successfully reapplied for a degree in music, theatre and entertainment management, and now works in the Northern Ballet’s communications team.

“When I was three, I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be a dancer,” says Williams. “I attended summer schools and performed in competitions. Aged 15, I won a place to perform with the English Youth Ballet. I foolishly believed I had done everything I needed to get into dance school, so I only applied to Lipa. When they told me to go and get broader experience, I was devastated.

“But I’m stubborn and my dream was to go to Lipa, so I found dance work in the Canaries and mainland Spain and Cyprus. After three years, I took up the position of entertainment manager and realised I was more interested in dance management than performing.

“Having returned to the UK, I spent some time working in administration to arm myself with business experience. Besides Lipa, I applied to four other universities and received unconditional offers from all — and I certainly didn’t have brilliant A-levels.

"My statement made clear I had been rejected but was coming back, and showed what I had done and why. I also tried to be original and project my personality.

Top tip Get work experience that proves you are dedicated to your course — universities want students who are serious about their chosen subject and subsequent career. And rejection doesn’t mean you can’t reapply.

Kieran Howard, 17, is in his final year of sixth form at Hazelwick School, West Sussex, and has accepted a place at University College London (UCL) for September 2014 to study chemistry and German.

“As soon as I decided chemistry was my subject, I began thinking about the Ucas process,” says Howard. “Knowing universities would be swamped with applications, I wanted my personal statement to stand out, have a spark, and show I was ready to take on the challenges of a degree course.

“Because I’m keen to study two contrasting subjects, I set about showing how I could draw links between them. I researched the German chemical industry, which in the past few years has been booming, and became interested in the work of German chemist [and Nobel Prize-winner] Fritz Haber.

"Researching academic papers about him in German really stretched my language skills, but I was trying to prove I could cope with it.

“I also investigated the research interests of the tutors who would be teaching the degree course and might be considering my application. So in my interview with UCL, I was able to talk about my research of German-language texts and how they helped expand on my interests in organic chemistry, which coincided with those of one of the course tutors.

“When writing my statement, I tried to use specialist vocabulary and deal with complex ideas to prove my genuine interest. It also helped that my teachers at school were brilliant and gave me lots of advice.

"I received an unconditional offer from the University of Birmingham and have accepted an offer from UCL.

Top tip Go beyond the curriculum to prove your dedication, and find a way to connect with university teaching staff.

Christina Ramsay, 24, took a BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma at Croydon College, London, and is now in her first year of studying international relations at Queen Mary University of London.

“Having sent off my personal statement, I really didn’t think it would make much of an impact,” says Ramsay. “But I received a call from theUniversity of Sussex saying they liked my application so much that they wanted me to put them down as first choice. I ended up with five offers.

“I wrote about my voluntary work and tried to link it with my choice of subject. In the first year [of sixth form] one of my tutors had suggested I sign up for some enrichment activities; as an institution with Rights Respecting status, Croydon College offers a lot of volunteering opportunities.

"I signed up for Unicef UK and volunteered 700 hours during my time at college. I became a lead member of the Unicef steering group and was nominated at a national level to represent the charity at the United Nations youth assembly in New York. That was the first time I’ve travelled outside the UK, which was a great experience.

“I also volunteered at other charities, such as Crisis at Christmas, and organised a meeting between mothers and daughters in Croydon to try and air grievances. The latter was part of a project to help youths stay out of crime and encourage them to change their path in life.

"I met [South African rights activist and retired Anglican Bishop] Desmond Tutu as part of my volunteering with the Tutu foundation, and one of the most exciting moments was speaking to the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. I was nervous before meeting them, but they were really friendly and interested in the volunteering projects.

“I like being busy and motivated. I’ve volunteered during every half term — it’s gruelling but fun at the same time. Most importantly, I’ve gained skills, experience and confidence, which I was able to relate to my personal development and my chosen course in my personal statement.”

Top tip Voluntary work can build generic skills, such as leadership, teamwork and time management, and offers a huge range of opportunities that could be relevant to a degree.

Back to education articles

Back to Portfolio