Common Personal Statement Mistakes to Avoid
By Antonia Chui
(Admissions Consulting Partner at The Edge Learning Center)
Overemphasizing the “personal” in the personal statement
A few years ago, I attended a UK university fair. During the hour I was there, I hung around a few universities’ booths, I was surprised to find out that the most popular question asked by prospective students was “how personal should my personal statement be?” Admission officers from different schools all gently warned of an essay that ventures too far into the personal. An admission officer from my alma mater, LSE, even said they should be at least 75% academic and at most 25% personal.
With the pressure to stand out, it’s not surprising that students feel the need to share a unique story about why they’re applying to their chosen course. As an admissions consultant, I usually applaud this, as long as it’s kept under one-fifth of the entire word count. For students that are also applying to the US, this is especially important for them to note as US personal statements tend to focus more on personal experiences. As such, US statements cannot be used to apply to UK schools as they do not focus enough on an applicant’s ability and commitment to their course. In a UK personal statement, a memorable ‘origin’ story can help admission officers remember you, but the priority is to leave the impression that you are capable of handling, if not excelling at, your chosen course. Instead, students should put more word count into discussing relevant experiences, like high-level course-related readings, research projects, internships if applicable etc.
Spending too much time discussing minimum entry requirements
Many majors in UK universities have very strict entry requirements. Most students know about this and are often anxious to make clear to universities that they, indeed, have taken or are taking those subjects in high school. Students often make the mistake of spending too much of their personal statement word count discussing subjects that all other candidates applying to the same course are required to take. Remember, before entering your personal statement, you have already filled in a form to indicate all the subjects you are currently taking in your UCAS application. So, admission officers will already know that you are taking those courses. For example, mechanical engineering applicants are required to take mathematics and physics at high school. Many are then tempted to outline how specific modules helped develop their quantitative skills and analytical abilities. The problem is that if a student speaks extensively about how their high school curriculum has helped them prepare for university-level mechanical engineering, they risk overlapping material with every other applicant who all have to take the same subjects.
However, there are exceptions and ways around this. For example, for applicants who did an EPQ at A Level or the IB Extended Essay in these subjects, they can focus on highlighting their research process and their takeaways from such serious projects. Since everyone has to do a unique topic, discussing your research can help refocus attention on your individual abilities and unique perspectives.
Listing out achievements
The UK personal statement is a unique form of writing that stands between an argumentative essay and a descriptive one written in the first-person point of view. Students often feel stumped at such a strange and foreign format and turn to listing out all their achievements and bunching them in relevant paragraphs, for example, putting all competitive events in one paragraph, all in-school extra-curricular activities in another etc. This is unwise as personal statements are used to access a student’s commitment and ability in a subject. By listing out achievements in their barest form, students are depending on the reader to extrapolate from it their abilities and lessons learned from prior experiences. Remember, admission officers have to read thousands of personal statements. The vaguer and more difficult you make a piece for them to read, the worse an impression you make. Instead, students should opt for the format of presenting an achievement accompanied by an explanation of what they have learned from it, what skills the experience has conferred to them and, in turn, how this has made them a better candidate for their chosen course.
Including too much of non-academic achievements
I have met many students with extraordinary talents that are in non-academic areas, such as outstanding swimmers, nationally ranked chess players, and even handstand experts. I understand that these students have often worked very hard to attain these achievements and want universities to know about them. However, UK personal statements are used to evaluate a student’s academic ability and commitment to a course. If you spend too much of your statement discussing something irrelevant to your course, the admission staff will struggle to find ways to assess your academic capabilities. Students have been rejected for submitting ‘imbalanced’ personal statements before. Usually, I suggest students to dedicate no more than a few short sentences to highlight their extracurricular achievements. If you truly believe your extracurricular achievements are so exceptional that they require extensive attention, then speak to your counsellor, teacher or whoever it is that is going to write your recommendation letter and have them outline it there.
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