Degreekey Blog

How to Write a Great Personal Statement

Eliza Mahoney
October 16, 2020

Writing your personal statement can seem a hugely daunting task, whatever stage of the process you find yourself at. It is very likely that you will never have had to write or produce something quite like it before, which means it can feel overwhelming and very vague. This blog aims to reassure you that with some thought and planning, writing your personal statement can be a rewarding and even enjoyable process!

Before you start writing anything - READ and EXPLORE

One of our most important pieces of advice is to establish your content before you start trying to write. A personal statement is frustratingly short (it may seem long before you have written it, but it soon fills up!); this means you need to develop a concise and succinct style, that also manages to convey as much as possible about you - no easy task! Before you try and develop this style, you need to have done your reading. This reading and exploring should extend outwards from your schoolwork. The primary aim of a personal statement is to show intellectual and academic curiosity beyond your school curriculum, so spend some time reading, listening to and watching resources that extend your thinking. If you are not sure where to look to find these resources, create your free Degree Key account now and explore our reviews; each review is written by an undergraduate at a leading international university, and focuses on a book, video or podcast that could be useful to develop your knowledge around your subject. 

Be authentic - your personal statement is about you

It can be very tempting only to read (and then include in your personal statement) what you think might look impressive on your application. Whilst you of course do want your statement to be impressive, it is more important that it is authentic (and this in itself, if done well, will impress a university more). This means it should genuinely reflect the areas, thoughts and topics you are interested in, even if these are niche or little covered. Admissions teams and universities are very adept at seeing through ‘performative’ personal statements, which are pretending to be interested in ‘impressive’ resources. Not only will writing an honest statement convey your sense of drive and academic interest more effectively, but it is also much easier for you to write! Genuine interest always enables more fluent and charismatic writing. If your degree requires an interview, it is even more important that in it you are talking honestly, and that you are able to answer questions about your personal statement; if you have written about ideas that you’re not really that passionate about, your interview is going to feel a lot more difficult. A good place to start is with your schoolwork; is there a particular topic, theme or idea that particularly engages you? Follow this thought and only read and absorb things that make you excited and stimulate further thinking.

Your personal statement should have a thread - show links

It is helpful to think about your personal statement as having a thread running through it; from this thread hangs everything you wish to show off and discuss, be it thoughts, ideas or points of discussion. As you are doing your reading and exploring, you can start to develop this thread; you might be studying a particular idea at school that you find interesting, and so decide to read a book that takes this topic further. You might then listen to a podcast that builds on the book you have read, and then from there you might read a newspaper article that argues against the ideas voiced in the podcast. By exploring and following up these links, you are already creating a basic structure for your personal statement. The most effective statements follow this thread format; presenting an idea that personally interests you, interpreting it in your own way, then showing how you have furthered or challenged the thoughts involved. You can do this multiple times (a possible structure is to have three chunky paragraphs, each with their own thought thread running through). It can seem difficult to achieve a broad-raging personal statement that covers a substantial amount of content, and also manages to convey your thoughts and ideas in effective detail. Following the ‘thread within a paragraph’ structure should make this feel much easier!

Extracurricular activities

There is often much confusion when it comes to inclusion of extracurricular activities in your personal statement. Our advice is to aim for the majority of your personal statement to be academically focused, then to include a couple of sentences at the end with relevant and targeted detail of extracurricular activities. It is of course important that you are a well-rounded person and that you are able to show this, but universities are more interested in your academic potential and personality - keep this in mind! The perfect compromise is if you can make your extracurricular activities link in some way to the degree you want to study (although this is not always possible). It is also good if you can identify supra curricular activities or events that compliment and boost your academics; these are outside of, but linked to, your studies, such as academic societies, debates or clubs.  

This blog post should show you that starting, writing and sending off a really great personal statement is not an unachievable task! Give yourself plenty of time before the deadline so you are not feeling rushed; it is also really helpful to let other people read your statement if you can. Constructive feedback is always useful, and it’s vital to make sure your writing is objectively clear, characterful and an accurate reflection of you and your interests. Sign up for your account today and check out our reviews to start building a successful, informed personal statement.

about the author

Eliza Mahoney

Eliza Mahoney

Eliza is in her third year at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where she is reading English. This year she has taken optional papers in the Victorian period (1847-1872) and in visual culture (art, photography and film). Her first dissertation centred around beginnings in the prose of Stevie Smith, and her final dissertation explored the relationship between dance and literature, focusing on Charlotte Brontë's 'Jane Eyre'. She is a Full Blue in dance and spent this year as the captain of the Cambridge Dance Team - she has danced for 19 years! Eliza has been accepted to study for a PGCE in Primary Education at Cambridge and looks forward to returning for her fourth year in September.

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