When drafting your personal statement you usually need to make changes. The first words you get down on paper will probably not be those you send off. You will add, delete, re-arrange, combine pieces of information, and alter the language to make it more concise and readable.
Universities appreciate PSs which are thoughful and well organised. Usually a PS which has been worked through several drafts transmits positive signals. It shows careful connections, a thread of interest running through the whole text (like an argument in an essay), good language choices, and attention to detail. These are all highly valued at university level.
Although your PS will probably be read by more then one person, the amount of time given to your writing by each reader is not likely to be long, maybe one or two minutes on average. So you need to make sure that you communicate in a concise, coherent and interesting way.
When revising, what should you look for?
* be specific but selective: give examples, use details, provide evidence
* emphasise the most important things: don't get bogged down in excessive detail about one thing
* relate what you say as much as possible to your course choice
* create a thread of interest throughout your statement about your academic motivation
* use as many experiences as possible to show that you are ready for university-level study
* avoid telling long stories or anecdotes
* don't just list experiences, but say what you have learned from them
* convey enthusiasm
* write clearly, using short sentences in combination with longer ones
* avoid cliches
* don't overload or have too many paragraphs (aim for five/six paragraphs)
A Thread of Interest
Top priority in a PS is your academic motivation - why you want to study the subject. This is the first thing the universities want to know. An admissions tutor recently told us that he expects at least 50% of a good PS to be about the student's interest in the subject and readiness to study it at an academic level.
Try to create a thread of interest running throughout the statement related to your academic choice. Find ways to connect your experiences (CAS, extra-curricular, out of school interests) to your central motivation. Also, make full use of research experiences like the extended essay.
Drafting your statement: some ‘before’ and ‘after’ examples
These examples all come from the drafts of personal statements written by students in previous years. After each example we give our comments. We are looking at how students used written language to make their statements more focused, interesting and relevant.
I want to study medicine because of my growing interest in science and how it can help people and improve the quality of life.
My interest in medicine grows out of two motivations in my life. Firstly, my love of science, which has become stronger as I have tackled more advanced research, for example an IB extended essay on cancer screening techniques. Secondly, my desire to contribute to an improved quality of life, particularly regarding personal health.
My interest in medicine grows out of two motivations: a love of science, and a desire to contribute to better public health care. My IB research project on cancer screening techniques has made me aware of the some of the issues, both medical and ethical, in public health programmes, but also the importance of people and their emotions in health issues. The combination of these two factors – the power and potential of medical science, together with the complex human issues involved – have made me pursue medicine as a career.
Rob's comments: This is an important part of a PS - the motivation statement. The changes made by this student make her statement more focused on medicine, but also more rooted in her own experience. It has more detail. A whole paragraph grows out of one sentence. The main change is that she identifies two aspects of her motivation and finds a way to present them (using the 'Firstly/Secondly' technique) and add brief examples. She then improves further by connecting the two aspects. She adds a 'summary' sentence (using a colon) and a connecting sentence (using a dash and words like 'combination' and 'together'). The effect is to make the statement more personal and more professional. She has really thought about the role of medicine in the world. At the same time the student comes across as someone keen to learn. Note how the IB extended essay is used. The actual topic is mentioned ('cancer screening techniques') but it is connected to the broader topic of medicine.
Helen’s comments: Reference to ethical issues strikes a good note – honesty and understanding of ethics are important in applying for medicine. This student moves from generalization and cliché in Draft One to more specific weaving together of experience and motivation in Draft Three. Draft One could have been written by almost any applicant; in Draft Three, the student is emerging as an individual – the reader gets a clearer picture of her suitability for medicine. Passion (“a love of science”) is stated (but remember that it needs to be proved by evidence elsewhere in the personal statement). By Draft Three, it is evident that this student has put thought into her suitability for medicine and what its study involves. The increasing precision of thought is matched by increasing fluency of expression. If you are applying for medicine, it is worth thinking about what Dr David Dawson, Assistant sub-Dean of Admissions, Leeds University Medical School, recently said: “Each personal statement is sent to two doctors who independently score each on seven criteria which assess motivation, social awareness, responsibility and extracurricular interests, as well as taking into account [exam] results and predicted grades” (The Independent, 15 September 2005).
I am very committed to environmental issues and campaigns. I feel strongly that we should take more care of our local environment.
I am an active member of Greenpeace and have taken part in local environmental projects. My involvement with this group has shown me the value of people working together to bring about change. In 2003 I took part in a local action to drain and restore a disused canal.
Rob's comments: This is about a student's environmental interests. The first version is full of enthusiasm ('very committed', 'feel strongly') but short on detail. The changes add detail and make the student come across as more active and reflective. Rather than the vague 'we', the statement is now about 'people working together' and gives a specific example of change through local action. Note how the pronoun 'I' is replaced by 'My involvement' in the second sentence of version 2. It is worth finding ways to make sure that not every sentence of your PS begins with 'I'!
Helen's comments: Stating something doesn’t make it true. Admissions tutors are looking for evidence. By Draft Two, the student is beginning to give some proof. I’d want to read something on why this student believes in the need for change and in the importance of environmental projects – in other words, I’d want to see some passion and commitment, particularly if course choice is involved.
I speak English and Russian. I think being bilingual has helped me a lot.
Being fluent in two languages helps me to see the world through different perspectives. Teaching a friend my native language, Russian, helped me to see the value of this.
Rob's comments: Being bilingual is definitely something to put in your PS. But you need to make something out of it. The reader may be automatically impressed. But they may also think 'So what? What have you learned from that?' In this example the experience is made more reflective. The student shows how being bilingual has helped him as a learner and an international student. He also draws in another experience - teaching- which gives the bilingual identity another dimension. Note again how the pronoun 'I' can be changed - he uses 'Being fluent in two languages' instead of 'I speak'. Further additions could be made. This whole experience could perhaps echo the student's academic motivation, expressed earlier in the statement.
Helen's comments: By Draft Two, this applicant is beginning to address how and why bilingualism is an important aspect of his/her experience. As it stands, Draft Two leaves me wondering what the different perspectives are and why the student thinks they are valuable: In writing the personal statement, you don’t want to leave your reader with unanswered questions. As Rob says, it might be better to make bilingualism echo/support another point (e.g. motivation, reasons for course choice, links with chosen course/career…). Although the English are not known for their language skills, it’s worth remembering that 61 languages are being taught in Britain and children in England speak 300 languages. Being bilingual is not remarkable on its own.
Being in an international school has shown me the importance of other cultures and made me more tolerant as a person.
Being in an international school has shown me how differences between cultures can be turned into strengths by debate. My experience as part of the school debating team working with other students from many countries helped me to see this.
Rob's comments: This is a typical example of a cliche - a set of ready-made phrases taken off the shelf and telling us nothing about the individual person. They are rather common in personal statements. The second version shows the person reflecting on her experience in a way which is more individual. She connects two aspects of her life - the international student and the debater. More additions could perhaps be made . Could, for example, this focus on debate and cultures now be related to the student's subject choice?
Helen's comments: There are the seeds of some good points in Draft Two. Universities are looking for students who will contribute, academically and socially, to their institutions. “Cultural understanding” and debating skills are desirable, but it is better to SHOW these aspects rather than to state them. Embed the message you want to convey. As Rob says, perhaps the student could relate language skills to another aspect, e.g. course choice, career thoughts, or personal qualities desirable in the chosen field. It is also worth asking if this student wants to foreground “cultural awareness” or something else. The answer depends in part on subject choice – everything you say has to be relevant. The debating skills could be part of a larger point about, for example, commitment to school activities, another desirable quality, or about learning to create convincing arguments, vital in university writing.
Demonstrating academic qualities and potential
How can you show you are on an upward learning curve? That you will be an interesting student to teach? Admissions tutors and staff expect you to show awareness of your academic ability and promise without being arrogant. How can you do this?
We hope the following examples from the drafts of personal statements written by students in previous years will help you to write about your academic qualities and potential in a convincing way.
In some examples, academic qualities overlap with other aspects of the students' experience; this is effective weaving together of key aspects and provides a connecting thread to the personal statement. After each example, we give our comments.
The International School of X’s emphasis is centred on independent learning and interdisciplinary awareness, which, as a consequence, has taught me to recognise the nature of a problem, devise a strategy for its solution, make an assessment of progress, as well as constructively evaluate the outcome – important for the study of economics and philosophy.
The International School of X’s emphasis on independent learning and interdisciplinary awareness has taught me to recognize the nature of a problem, devise a strategy for its solution, make an assessment of progress, as well as constructively evaluate the outcome. This approach has provided me with tools to tackle unfamiliar problems through a variety of different knowledge areas. In reading Economics as well as Philosophy texts, such as Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, I have come to understand that this aptitude is essential for their study.
ISX’s emphasis however, has more significantly allowed me to become responsible for my own learning. It has taught me to question the manner in which I learn best, and subsequently has allowed me to satisfy independently my curiosity for knowledge beyond the assigned curriculum.
The International Baccalaureate’s Diploma Years Programme emphasises independent learning and interdisciplinary awareness. These past two years especially have taught me to recognize the nature of a problem, devise a strategy for its solution, make an assessment of progress, as well as constructively evaluate the outcome. This rigorous approach to learning has provided me with tools to tackle unfamiliar problems through a variety of different knowledge areas. In reading Economics as well as Philosophy texts, such as Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, I have come to understand that this interdisciplinary awareness is essential for their effective study.
Developing this awareness into an aptitude has allowed me to independently address my curiosity for knowledge beyond the assigned curriculum. This in turn may well be a contributing factor as to why I often fall naturally into leadership positions on committees and team projects. Living in several countries, including Greece and the UK, has made me trilingual, but has also taught me to integrate myself both intellectually and socially in an intercultural setting, without compromising my own values.
Helen’s comments: Notice how this student has expanded the topic of interdisciplinary awareness to include an example and link it to choice of courses (especially important for joint honours). One paragraph becomes two, the second focused on the aptitude acquired and on how it has affected his experience in other areas (leadership skills, language ability and adaptability). He mentions a particular book on Philosophy and going beyond the curriculum – both show a motivated learner. He could well be asked questions on these aspects at interview. Notice also how the focus on the school becomes a focus on the IB programme, which is known to prepare students well for university. The link between the paragraphs makes for a coherent piece of writing. This student has synthesized aspects of his learning experience and presents himself as someone who will not only benefit from but also contribute to the university. A final note: admissions staff know the IB is “rigorous”, so there is no need to say it is.
Veterinary medicine is a profession that has sparked an interest in me from a young age. This was initially awakened by regular visits to a wildlife animal shelter where I ended up performing my first period of work experience. Later in high school I was able to explore more, including a research project on horse doping for Chemistry and an oral on animal rights for Spanish. Furthermore, my love of chemistry and Biology has been ardently stimulated by the challenging IB course that I follow, allowing me to develop my curiosity and understanding of the continuous learning involved in science.
Veterinary medicine is a profession that has sparked an interest in me from a young age. It was initially awakened by regular visits to a wildlife animal hospital where I ended up performing my first period of work experience. Later in high school I was able to explore more, including a research project on horse doping for chemistry and a Spanish-language report on animal rights. Furthermore my love of Chemistry and Biology has been stimulated by the challenging IB course that I follow in which I have carried out much individual research. I have also had the opportunity to develop my curiosity and understanding of the continuous and inspirational learning involved in science. An example is my extended essay which I am currently drawing together in which I discuss pharmacology and physiology of humans and animals, as well as some of the dilemmas surrounding vivisection in today’s drug industry.
Helen’s comments: Writing about the Extended Essay, especially if it is on a subject connected to your course choice, can strengthen your application. It is important, though, not just to say what the EE is about, but to show what you have learned from the experience. This student is connecting course choice to the subjects she enjoys and to her work experience; in the next draft, she needs to show why she enjoys these subjects rather than loading them with adjectives (“challenging”, “inspirational”, etc.), and to give details of what she got out of her work experience. She will probably reorder the information in order to make the content more convincing: does it strengthen or weaken the personal statement to write about two projects before the subjects? Could the work experience be developed into a paragraph that follows one on academic subjects? What has she learned from the EE experience? This student would be well advised to take a close look at the language: there are some colloquial expressions; there are unnecessary words and phrases.
I have always been fascinated by the physical sciences. My interest has developed in the last few years. When I was 10, I was the proud owner of a chemistry set that transformed a room into my own laboratory. At the age of 12, I had won top place in [name of country’s] Universities School Science tests. By age 15 I was reading one of Stephen Hawking’s research papers. Now I’m taking a challenging course of IB Higher Level Physics and Chemistry, and realizing how far I am from truly understanding such papers.
My fascination with the physical sciences has grown and solidified in the last few years, but it is not new. Even at the age of 10 I was the proud owner of a chemistry set that transformed a small room into my very own laboratory; at age 12 I had won top place in [name of country’s] Universities School Science tests; by age 15 I was struggling to understand one of Stephen Hawking’s research papers, which at the time I worked out was a discourse on 'where black holes go'. Now I’m taking a challenging course of IB Higher Level Physics and Chemistry, and realizing how far I am from truly understanding such papers. One year from now I hope I’ll be on track to discovering these answers.
Helen’s comments: This student succeeds in demonstrating both achievement and modesty. He shows a consistent interest in the sciences and has a clear sense of what he wants from university. The frequent use of “I” in the first draft has decreased as the student uses alternative phrasing (e.g. “My fascination with…”). The first sentence of the second draft introduces and sums up the paragraph. The focus moves from narration of a series of events to skills and attitudes, partly achieved through using semi colons rather than simple sentences. The last sentence takes both writer and reader forward – it is important to show that you have considered what university study involves. The student’s upward learning curve is clear, and his ironic touch (the comment about black holes) suggests a sense of humour.
It is crucial that your PS contains no errors of spelling and punctuation when you send it off. At the final stages of writing you should take special care over this. Ask others to read the statement for you and do not rely on a computer spellcheck to pick up everything.
Pay special attention to:
* Spelling, especially of key words related to the subject choice, titles and names
* Typos ('form' instead of 'from' etc)
* Punctuation, especially use of commas
Make sure also that your PS does not contain lengthy paragraphs which can be offputting for a reader. If you have a big chunky paragraph, try to edit the language or break it up.
At the same time, don't use lots of short paragraphs as your text could come across as fragmented and disorganised.