The Parents’ Guide to UCAS personal statements – 2021 edition
The UCAS “personal statement” is an important part of the university application process; it’s also the part many young people find hardest to complete. We’ll take a look at what should be included in a personal statement and give you plenty of suggestions so you can encourage and guide your child if they get stuck.
What is a personal statement?
As part of the university application, your child will need to submit a personal statement. Effectively, this is a short advert that lets your child showcase why they would make a great student and must not exceed 4,000 characters (about 500 words). Your child can only submit one personal statement, even though they can apply to up to five different universities. This means they need to be careful that they are making themselves attractive to all the universities and not just their favourite.
Why it’s important
Alongside your child’s predicted sixth form qualification grades and their teachers’ references, the UCAS personal statement will help university admission tutors decide on whether to offer your child a place to study with them. This is particularly important when interviews are not held as the personal statement may be the only opportunity your child has to showcase their talents, accomplishments and interest in applying for the course.
What should be included in a personal statement?
The personal statement is an opportunity for your child to provide the admission tutor with an insight into what they are like as an individual and why they are the right fit at their university. Admissions tutors want to make sure that both the course and university is the right choice for your child to excel.
Broadly speaking, a personal statement should demonstrate:
Your child’s passion for wanting to study their chosen subject or field;
What they’ve done to engage with this subject inside and outside of the curriculum;
Their interests and hobbies and how these relate to their chosen course;
What relevant experience they have;
What makes them unique – some hobbies may have nothing to do with the course, but tell a lot about their personality.
If your child is struggling to think of reasons for wanting to study this course, it might be a good idea to talk with them about whether this is the right course for them. At this stage, it’s ok to go back to the drawing board and start researching alternative course options as its important to get this right. We’ve got more information on ‘helping your child choose the right course’ here.
Why it’s good to start early
Content for a personal statement isn’t something that can be created overnight. It takes time to assimilate ideas and finesse them, so it’s good to encourage your child to start thinking about this well ahead of submission time. This doesn’t necessarily mean a heavy-handed desk bound session, but prompting them with questions on a regular basis to help them clarify why they like something or what makes an experience pleasant / unattractive for them will help them consolidate their thoughts and prompt an understanding of ways to describe clearly what they like and dislike and why.
Prepare your child for a pretty long cycle of reading, editing and rereading their personal statement until it is ready to be submitted. If your child is in Year 12, it’s a good idea to return to school in September with a first draft of their personal statement completed. If they don’t yet know which course to study once they leave school, they can focus the draft on their skills, achievements and hobbies.
Most students find that starting their personal statement is the hardest part. If your child is struggling to get motivated, encourage them to make a list of all the things they might want to include without worrying whether or not these will be included in the final version. Don’t let them get caught up in trying to think of a catchy opening line - this can be left until much later in the process.
A good way to approach the personal statement is to break it into more manageable chunks. This will make it less daunting and might even help them to structure it. Try using mind-maps, notes, spider diagrams, bullet points (or whatever works best for your child) to help them put pen to paper and get the ideas flowing - no one is expecting a perfect first draft.
Ideas to inspire them:
Get your child to look at the university’s website to find out more about the course they are applying for. Help them identify the qualities and experience they will need to do well on the course as this can often help them decide what to write about.
Ask your child why they are applying for that course. Get them to expand on their reasons by asking them what excites them about the course, which modules they are particularly keen to learn more about and where they want the course to take them in their professional journey.
Mindmap their interests, hobbies, talents, skills, achievements and any involvement in clubs or societies. This exercise will help your child see what they’ve done so far and helps them identify examples to include in their personal statement.
Don’t panic if your child’s list is looking quite ‘thin’ at the moment – there’s plenty of things they can do during the summer holidays and in the autumn term to help them stand out – check out our blog on ways to help your child stand out.
Avoid seeing ‘lockdown’ as a disadvantage.
It can be hard not to worry how lockdown has impacted your child and whether they are as far ahead in their studies as they would have been under normal circumstances. However, there has been learning of a different kind from this unique experience and this will be something they can build on positively going forward. Universities will be interested to know how they’ve used their time if they haven’t been able to attend school, so help them think about what they’ve done during lockdown, especially things they might not have had chance to do if they were at school.
There are plenty of ways outside the classroom that your child can use to show a university that they are adaptable, resilient and willing to seek out the positives in any situation.
For more ideas, click here.
With relatively few words allowed, it is essential that the university understands why this is the right course for your child. Wider reading, additional courses, hobbies and relevant work experience associated with their degree choice will help demonstrate their interest.
Make sure your child doesn’t just list what they’ve done and achieved. The key to a good personal statement is to include what they have learnt and how this has impacted them. A good way to approach this is to use the following three steps:
Identify the activity or experience
Explain what they have learnt
Explain how this has changed them and link it to why it makes them a suitable applicant for their chosen course.
Addressing different course choices
If they have chosen several different types of courses, they will need to focus on themes (i.e. creativity, communications, organisation, mechanics, research etc) rather than specifics (i.e. anything unique to one of the course titles). If possible, they should seek out the themes common to all the courses.
Notwithstanding this, every effort should be made to articulate their suitability and passion for their chosen courses, even if this means explaining in general terms rather than specifics depending on how different the areas of focus in each course may be.
It is worth noting that more academic universities will seek greater evidence of your child’s passion for the subject versus their skillset, less academic universities will place more weight on skills.
Setting the right tone
Like CVs, there are certain descriptors that can be over-used (creative, great communicator, diligent, willing to learn, team player, problem solver to name but a few). It’s fine to use these expressions, but the focus should be on why this applies (and examples to prove or demonstrate) rather than listing them without qualification.
Sequence, paragraph order and a broad remit covering a variety of aspects of their personality are important. This is no time to be shy or secretive. Your child should share drafts to get feedback and input from a range of people that have unique insight into their different strengths.
Make sure they spell-check! Misspellings look sloppy, so make sure a fresh pair of eyes reads over your child’s personal statement before submitting the final draft for any mistakes they might have overlooked.
Most schools and colleges will have their own internal deadlines for when personal statements must be completed by. It’s important to stick to these dates as they provide your child with time to receive feedback from school staff and make any necessary changes to their statement or application before the official UCAS application deadline on January 15th (note some universities and courses have a much earlier deadline).
Is your child applying to university this year?
For more support on how to help your child through the UCAS application process check out The Parents' Guide to University 2020 - 2021.
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