The personal statement is a crucial part of university applications in the UK. It’s your chance to show what makes you unique, besides your birth name and UCAS ID. In just 4,000 characters you have to convince your chosen university that you are the best applicant, and that they should make you an offer immediately. These 4,000 characters are your only chance, so your personal statement needs to be good. Really good. Here are some tips on how to write a truly outstanding piece.
1. Make a draft without a character counter.
When I started writing, I thought it would be a good idea to start with the character counter turned on, so I wouldn’t go over the 4,000 limit. First mistake… After 3,500 characters I started panicking because I was only halfway through my story. So I turned off the character counter and continued writing. At the end I had 7,000 characters instead of 4,000, but I had written down everything I wanted to say, and I only had to delete some words and compress it. That’s far easier than inserting more ideas while keeping it under 4,000 characters at the same time. By the way, the final version was 3,999 characters!
2. Take your time.
Do not rush it. A superb personal statement will not be ready in a couple of hours. Or even a couple of days. It took me more than a month to complete the version I finally sent in. Sometimes it’s worth taking a break for a few days, then coming back to it afresh.
3. Find the perfect words and expressions.
It sounds more professional and elegant if you use ‘accomplish’ rather than ‘do’, or ‘presume’ rather than ‘think’. As an international applicant, it was even more difficult since English is not my native language, but there are some useful translation and synonym programs on the internet to help with this. I used Google Translate primarily, which includes a great deal of synonyms if you translate words from English to another language. But this synonym thing should be carefully performed, as using too many fancy words could make your statement sound overdone and difficult to read.
4. Concentrate on your strengths.
In these 4,000 characters you are trying to sell yourself to the university. A perfect product proposer is all about how great that thing is, and it’s the same with your personal statement. You should write about your experiences, your knowledge and your future plans. You should NOT write, “I wanted to learn Spanish but I gave it up after a week” or “I am not very good at maths, but I think this is understandable since I hate it so much.”
5. Find the perfect opening sentence.
Starting with something funny, interesting, unusual or surprising will give a good first impression. But do not try to squeeze something funny out of your brain; that is useless. The perfect opening sentence will just hit you in a random moment, when you have already worked hours and hours on your personal statement. So, just wait and do not overthink it.
6. Make it your own work, voice and ideas.
I suggest that you should not read any other personal statements before writing the first few drafts of yours. It will simply give you a false idea. You are most definitely unique, and it is worthless to follow some set rules or patterns, or someone else’s ideas. After all, this is about you, not somebody else.
7. Be honest.
Do not write that you are fluent in Spanish if you can only say “I love you” in Spanish. Do not write that you are good at problem-solving if your sole example is a trick of carrying five bottles in one hand. If you are good, you are good the way you are. There is no need to create a false image, and indeed the truth will always come out sooner or later.
8. Get someone to proofread your statement.
Your parents, your teachers, your friends, your enemies… The more people you show it to, the more feedback you will get, and the better the final version will be. Of course, some advice will be better and some less so, but it is easier to ask many people first, and differentiate later.
9. Read it out loud many times.
It helped me a lot when I read my personal statement out to my family and friends. When you are writing it sentence by sentence, you might not realize that there is no cohesion between your paragraphs. But when you read it out, all the vague parts will magically appear, so you can correct them.
10. Once you submit your university application, stop reading it!
I’d recommend not reading it for a few months once you’ve sent it in. You might feel it’s not as good as you thought previously, but this is normal. Waiting to hear from universities is the worst part of the whole process (even worse than completing the application form…). After you get the offer you wanted (which you will surely get, I know!), you will know that your application was just perfect the way you sent it.
To sum up, be yourself and write honestly about your experiences. Use your own voice, because that is who you are, and the universities are interested in you, not an ideal text based on a “how to write a personal statement” article…
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"Shock tactics don't work in personal statements," Dr Kevin Murphy, admissions tutor for medicine at Imperial College London, says. "Sometimes candidates describe a scene from their work experience where someone gets their leg sawn off in the jungle – or something similar. But that's not the most effective way to start."
Some medical schools take personal statements more seriously than others – while Cardiff, Leeds and Keele formally assess non-academic aspects of a student's application, other universities, including Oxford and Imperial, use them more informally to get an impression of a candidate's suitability.
They all agree, though, that a personal statement gives students a chance to relay what they've learned from work experience and demonstrate that they have the non-academic skills required for medicine.
"Becoming a doctor is hard work," says Helen Diffenthal, assistant principal of Farnborough sixth-form college in Hampshire. "So use a personal statement to demonstrate your commitment, and that you won't give up when the going gets tough."
One way to show tutors that you are committed is through your work experience. Use it to prove that you have a realistic view of the profession.
Admissions tutors warn against naming places where you have worked, without any reflection on your time there. "Too often we get applications that look like a shopping list," says Paul Teulon, director of admissions at Kings College London. "We'd like to hear about a patient a student has come into contact with, or an experience they've had. It's just as valuable to have spent time with a hospital porter, as it is to have followed around the lead clinician."
Think also about the things you've done outside of school and how they demonstrate your skills. Teulon says: "A student might be involved with scouting or guiding, in a church group, or have done the Duke of Edinburgh."
Don't be afraid to include more unusual activities, as these can stand out. "If you were in a rock band, you could explain that you formed, led and developed it," Mike Jennings, senior lecturer at Sheffield Medical School, says. "Students might think a medical school won't be interested in that, but it shows staying power, teamwork and leadership."
Medical schools give varying advice on how to structure a personal statement, and about what skills they want applicants to demonstrate. This can make it difficult for students who want to impress a range of schools with one application.
"It can be a minefield for an applicant to work out whether they meet the criteria for different medical schools," admits Dr Austen Spruce, who is in charge of admissions for medicine at Birmingham University. "I advise students to write their personal statement to the highest threshold set by any of the universities, and then it will meet the criteria for all of them."
If you're applying to more than one school, check to see if they ask for different skills. "There's a certain amount of game-playing involved," Mike Jennings explains. "Applicants can phrase something in a certain way to meet more than one school's requirements."
When you've figured out what to include, it can be difficult to know how to begin your personal statement. Some teachers advise pupils to start with the second paragraph, get the statement written, and then pull out an interesting sentence or quote to use as an introduction.
"We tell them to write the first paragraph last," explains Diffenthal. "The first paragraph is often the weakest, so start with the second – a sentence about your experience might stand out and you can reorganise it afterwards."
What introductions should students avoid? "The weakest personal statements begin with 'I want to do medicine because my grandfather had a disease'," says Kim Piper, from the school of medicine at Queen Mary University. "I'd be nervous about someone who wanted to go into medicine for personal reasons, because they could be a nurse rather than a doctor."
While a well-written and coherent application is a must, students should be careful not to use overly complicated language. "Don't write your personal statement and then use a thesaurus to make it sound more grandiose," Paul Teulon says. "You're not using the language you would normally use, and that comes across."
The difficulty is in trying to tell everyone how fantastic you are, without being boastful, says Murphy. "It's a hard line to toe. I warn people against making grand pronouncements that they know they'll make a great doctor."
Ask for help if you need it, but avoid asking too many teachers or family members to go over your personal statement. "We want to hear the voice of a young person," says Teulon, "not a 55-year-old parent. I don't mind if they say they want to change the world because, frankly, if you can't say that at 18, I don't know when you can."
So be honest. Explain how you came to love medicine, and why you will be able to cope with a course that is tough, demanding and competitive. "The goal should be to receive one offer," says Paul Teulon. "Any more than that is a bonus."
And once you've sent it in, keep a copy of your personal statement and be prepared to back up everything you've written, because some medical schools will use it as a prop for an interview.