Writing an undergraduate personal statement

Wednesday 28 July 2021, First year

by Charlotte Stevenson

Writing an undergraduate personal statement

Charlotte Stevenson
A popular past post of mine was about how to construct a personal statement. Since that time, I myself had to re-write my own personal statement in order to re-apply for my literature degree. Going about doing this on my own was quite tricky, as I didn't have the same amount of advice as I had had in sixth form due to already being at university. Also, second time round I was writing for a more academic institution opposed to a performance based one (conservatoire)

In my second personal statement, as I have mentioned fairly briefly in another post, I was able to veer away from the specialist music performance element I had first had to focus on when writing for a conservatoire directly. This was interesting as it meant although the academic side of things was not too different (I talked about my A levels, how they tied together with useful links and resources) yet my hobbies included not only my music education and extra curricular but also my interest in writing, being published in the school newspaper and hiking. It was quite surreal really, writing it a second time and in a much shorter period of time, to find myself branching out and talking more about other things I loved because I didn't have to focus in on one thing in as much depth. I think this is because there was the opportunity to talk about literature hence all the books I have enjoyed reading and all of these are so different. Being able to be eclectic opposed to specialist was something I found easier to achieve, although the aim was of course to be eclectic within a set, defined, structure.
With September coming up, Oxbridge and conservatoire students will probably be finishing up their personal statements for the earlier October deadline whereas those of you applying elsewhere might have a little longer, but will none the less be trying to cancel down those characters so that you have a concise partial definition/presentation/recommendation of yourself to submit as soon as possible. If you're struggling with this, here is some information I found useful to bear in mind when I was writing my second personal statement (academic) 
1. Write a list of your qualities + mind map everything
I remember when I was first starting my second year of sixth form, our tutorial teacher told us that if we found it difficult to talk about ourselves or didn't know where to begin, to make a list of our qualities and to ask our friends, families and peers to provide us with their insights into who we were as people. Did they think us responsible, sensible, studious, creative, funny? Any of these details were useful because it meant we could see ourselves not only from our own perspective but also many others. This meant a better idea of how to express ourselves as an individual on the page. Because we were able to see more clearly what our unique attributes were in a surround sound kind of way. 
Once this list was ready, I was luckily mindful enough to keep it so going back to that this year enabled me to create a huge mind map of all of the things that I thought were important to get into my personal statement. This meant jotting down the links between previous classes, courses, experiences and work in my life and then talking about my attributes in relation this. For example, being creative through music and being eager in my studies via extra reading. Class wise, being able to spot that there was the opportunity to talk about my enjoyment of Russian music as we were studying Shostakovich at the same time as we were writing a 3500 word essay on 500 years of Russian history. Having these contrasts balanced out the mind map (along with several others) so by being able to go into more detail on certain things it became obvious that these were the content worthy options to go for.
The reason this is so useful is because it almost leaps straight into the second of these tips - you find some structure in the chaos which will save you a lot of time. And because mind maps sprawl across the page, it is supportive in a reassuring way - it makes you feel like you are getting somewhere and you definitely do have something to say, even if it isn't written up neatly and edited yet. It takes the stress off (or the immediate stress, at least) for sure. Plus, it can be pretty fun to colour code it all!
2. Plan out a structure
Every kind of university has a recommended set up for your personal statement as they each look for different qualities. For example, a conservatoire will want to hear about your performance based attributes and hobbies, whereas Oxbridge and most other universities will value the academic over the majority of other content (though you should make sure it is well rounded enough to feature some information on your hobbies, classes, and how these create a positive, fresh outlook and new input into the subject you are applying for that makes you and your ideas different)
Of course you will need an introduction and a conclusion, the rest will differ according to your university/course. For myself, I found it the simplest solution to leave my hobbies till just before the conclusion and to use the bulk of my personal statement, split into two, to talk about my academic progress so far and my academic hopes for the future and how these two things suited the course, why, etc. Make sure that you tailor your content to be suitable for your course as otherwise your intentions will not fully bloom, this meaning that the course supervisor might not be able to see as clearly why this is the path you want to take or why it is right for you. But bear in mind that you are probably applying for several universities, so it needs to fit all of those to an extent (for example, don't mention specific university names) Those are the types of questions you should answer in your statement. It is good to share your interests, just make sure you explain how this is relevant to the course and how you are supporting this. For instance, you might have a love of American literature - you might state that you hope to go on to do some dissertation research into how American dystopian literature has impacted on the literary works of Europe and beyond in the twentieth century. 
Also, don't make your structure too detailed. Keep it simple - as I said above, what worked for me was something along the lines of what you can see below. By keeping it simple, you can always throw in the extra detail later but for now you can look at your concise plan and not be frightened by it and also clearly understand it if you leave and come back to writing later. 
What my structure looked like: 
-  Introduction 
-  Current study/study so far + how has developed + how is relevant to course (A level links)
-  Future plans + connection to past study + more future aims + how is relevant/suitable to course
-  Hobbies + interests + how this develops your interest in applied for subject
-  Conclusion = Summary of the above + reminder to university of why you are suitable/interested 
3. Write without word count
When you are writing any piece of work, especially one that has a deadline or is particularly, ominously important, it is easy to fall into the bear trap of wanting to procrastinate, or of feeling afraid, or not knowing where to begin. I, as many probably have before me, have set in front of the open document with the cursor blinking back at me making no progress in several hours and feeling worse for it than I did before. 
You can avoid this by starting to write without the word count. Of course you need to cancel down to a specific amount of words and characters, but you shouldn't let this rule you. The number one rule in this process is that what you are writing is your work - you want to make something that you are proud of and you can't do that if you are thinking inside a box. You need to unleash your mind and use that empty canvas in front of you to show off all those amazing things you are, will be and have achieved so far. So don't keep yourself on a leash. 
The second rule is that you shouldn't get too attached to phrases or words you come up with (for when you start editing/cancelling everything down) as otherwise it is going to be impossible to get down to the amount you need. If you come up with particularly interesting ideas that you have enjoyed talking about but seem to be taking up precious statement space, you can always make a side note of these in an exercise book or something to save for another day (you could even start a student blog, like me, full of those ideas!) You are author and editor which is what makes it a difficult job. But remember you don't just have one shot to write this - you have time to edit. So make the most of it, but don't start editing before you have even started. The best personal statements begin to a bumpy start, and by the time hard work has led them to be completed, they are unrecognisable from those initial first drafts (rule number three - constantly save your copy so that you don't lose anything!)
4. Edit, draft + cancel down
Once you have written a full draft according to your none word count policy, you can then return to it and begin cancelling down your draft and editing it. This also gives you the opportunity to change completely the sections you don't like, to go back in the process and add in anything else as a replacement if you think it is more significant. 
When I cancel things down, I like to imagine I am the examiner/teacher/university admissions officer. When you take this approach you are able to take on a relatively unbiased outlook upon the material and think, this isn't necessary, why is this here? When you look at it this way, it is almost as though you are looking at it afresh with new eyes. But cancelling down to the right amount of words isn't just enough, use the first part of this particular paragraph to be your advice when you are drafting. Draft as much as you can and remember that things don't always come easily first time. When I drafted my personal statement two years ago now, it took me 24 attempts to be 120% happy with the final project. 
5. Proof read, proof read, proof read! 

This is a must! Proof read in the library, on the computer, printed off and with a red pen. Scour for mistakes, pick them out, erase them and place the right spelling, punctuation or grammar there instead with utmost scrutiny.  The more you proof read the more likely it is that your personal statement will be clean of all those dreaded typos. Let your family and friends (the trusted ones who won't plagiarise) read through and help you - the more eyes, the merrier, and the more supported you will feel. Proof read because this is your last job, other than exams, to prove to the university of your dreams that you are capable of working hard and are in possession of the skills which will lead you to the greatest success.

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