What makes a great personal statement? transcript

University of Birmingham admissions tutors inform you of what makes a great personal statement on a UCAS application.

Title: What makes a great personal statement?
Duration: 6.09 mins

So the opening paragraph to your personal statement is really important. So you want to draw the reader in. Recently, we had a student write, “well, without chemical engineers we wouldn’t have everyday products such as shampoos and detergents, and I want to be the person that creates these products of the future”. So this really shows they understand the scope of Chemical E ngineering and how it relates to the real world, and that’s really nice to see in a personal statement, because it shows you’ve done your research as well.

What we don’t want to see is lots of people saying I first wanted to be a dentist when I was 5 years old, because lots and lots of people say that, we don’t think it’s particularly genuine. What’s much more valuable to us is telling us what kind of things you think appeal to you about the career, what makes you think that you’d be a good fit for it. And do you have a kind of an awareness as to the good points and the bad points of the career so that you’re fully prepared to go into it.

What makes a good personal statement is when a student really goes into detail about why they want to study that particular subject. What I’m really looking for as an admissions tutor is something unique to that individual, and something that shows that that student has taken a bit more time than just thinking about the things that they’ve studied within their class. It might be that they’ve thought about what they want to do with a law degree in the future, whether that’s to become a solicitor, a barrister, or do something completely different with their law degree. What I’m looking for is for them to talk about their extra-curricular activities, the wider reading that they’ve done, and how that’s going to make them effectively a better law student in the long run.

One of the things that I might look for if I’m reading a personal statement maybe, for instance, is there something that the student has read recently that demonstrates an interest and a passion for the subject? Students can also evidence their interest in a topic by talking about a particular academic lecture that they may have been to see, or if they’ve been on-line to see a TedX talk, for instance - and they should really reflect on how this has sparked their interest in a topic. 

Applicants often ask the sort of work experience they should include in a personal statement. For me, this doesn’t have to be a prestigious internship, in many respects it can be a summer job or it could be a Saturday job. For instance, if you’ve applied to a Sociology or a Social Policy Degree, you might reflect on how that Saturday job has offered a series of insights into the flexible labour market, zero hours contracts, that have sparked your interest in these disciplines. I suppose the point is that no experience is wasted if you relate that experience to the course you’re applying to.

We really want students to show us what skills they’ve got beyond academic achievement. We are interested in finding out about your part-time jobs, but not necessarily the specifics of what you were up to every day. We’re looking for what transferable skills you’ve managed to get from your job, be it leadership, team-working, etc, and how this can enhance your CV.

We have a lot of applicants that say “I like maths, I like chemistry, so I want to do Chemical Engineering”. But Chemical Engineering is more than just maths and chemistry. So it includes business, it includes physics, it includes biology. So we really want you to bring that all into your personal statement. A really easy way of doing this is talking about your experiences. Maybe you’ve read an article or you’ve read a book or you’ve seen a TV programme and it’s really inspired you to study Chemical Engineering. Bring this into your personal statement and really show your interest for the subject.

In Biosciences, it’s a numeric degree, so we like to know that students can do basic numerical functions, look at statistics. We also like students to emphasise if they’ve had any lab experience - this can be obtained at school. What have they enjoyed about practical sessions? What have they gained out of it?

For a student applying for a joint honours degree I would recommend that they include both of the subjects they are applying for in their personal statement. This is because it’s likely that admissions tutors for both of those subjects will have a look at the application and at the personal statement. So, for example, if the student was applying for History and English I’d be looking for them to find a way that those subjects actually link together and complement each other. And go into a bit of detail about why they want to do that particular combination of subjects.

So the things that we look for in a personal statement are basically the things that you can’t get across on your UCAS form or anywhere else. So the things that we think are really important are you telling us about some work experience that you’ve done. Ideally, we want our candidates to have 3 days work experience in an NHS or an NHS and private mixed practice. And also tell us a bit about the things that you reflected on from that, and the things  you learnt from it. Was it the kind of job that you expected it to be? Were any things different? Rather than just listing the procedures that you saw. And also voluntary work - so, we ask all of our candidates to undertake a voluntary placement. And that’s to show a few things, really. To show that you’re willing to give back to the community, and that you enjoy working with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. And, again, we’ll give credit to candidates a little bit more if they push themselves a bit outside their comfort zone with that voluntary work. So maybe if they work with people they wouldn’t normally come into contact with during their day-to-day life, possible a care home or helping in a homeless shelter, something like that, rather than maybe just tutoring children within their own school or working in youth clubs they might have attended themselves when they were younger.

We’re looking for applicants to convey a passion for the subject. This says something in particular: you’ve had an interest in, on your A’ Levels or BTEC, that you want to learn more about across three years. How will your degree help to contribute to the sort of career that you might want to go into? Or is it that you have a set of skills that you wish to develop through your degree? Or more broadly, what’s the sort of person that you want to be when you leave University?

You’ll be studying with academics who live and breathe their subjects. They do not only teach them, they also research them for a number of years. And so we’re looking for students to demonstrate the same desire and interest that our academics have.