UCAS, Personal Statements and all that: advice for those advising applicants

On Saturday 28th September The Brilliant Club and Teach First’s Higher Education Access Programme for Schools (HEAPS) co-organised and ran a small conference for pupils that we work with who are applying for Oxbridge and competitive courses such as Law, Veterinary Sciences and Medicine.

It served as a reminder for me about both how difficult and how simple the process of guiding Sixth Formers through the application process can truly be.

Here I have first outlined what I see as the two main challenges when proofing statements, then identified a couple of reminders about what needs to be kept simple. Finally, I have put down some top tips for Sixth Form tutors and anyone helping out with the whole process.

What’s so difficult? 

Embarras de richesses. Most Sixth Forms will teach a couple of dozen A-level courses. There are over 50,000 degree courses in the UK alone. Now clearly A-level choices made by the individual student have already narrowed this vast choice down somewhat, but there is still a huge choice to wade through. This requires time and painstaking attention to detail. The chief method used by students to filter down this choice is to read through the course titles on university websites and on the UCAS website. However this has its own problems, since the course titles alone are not sufficiently detailed to make an informed decision. Choosing a course then breaks down to the following difficulties, laid out in the style of that great rhetorician, Donald Rumsfeld:

    • Known knowns. Students know they want to study Biology, but when each university biology course is structured differently, with a variety of content, facilities, curricula and assessments, even the students that know they want to study this subject have to inform themselves of the detail in each course before they can make a decision. The main challenge when you are helping these students is to ensure they have grasped the detailed differences between the way these courses are taught at different institutions.
    • Known unknowns. Students want to pick a course that is a new subject: a language ab initio, medicine, law (if they haven’t done the A-level previously), PPE or Theology, say. They know what the subject is – they are familiar with the name and have some idea of what it might entail – but they have not studied it as a discrete area of knowledge before. When you are advising these students, the main challenge is to check that they have actually taken the time to find out what content is studied in the degree they seem to be interested in.
    • Unknown unknowns. Courses are called things that students have never heard of before. Many will simply scroll past a course title because it rings no bells – Classics, Criminology and Sociology, Hispanic Studies, Material Sciences, Anthropology, Human Embryology, the list goes on, and yet for many pupils this could be the ideal course. The main challenge here for those helping Sixth Formers make the choice is to know about these courses themselves.

Too damn humble. Bragging in the playground is very different to selling yourself in a personal statement. Without a clear idea of how to write about their strengths many students write poorly. Some suffer from the following ailments:

    • Melodrama. Personal tragedies and life-changing experiences do cause students to choose certain courses – especially law and medicine. However a matter-of-fact and precise example from personal experience packs more punch than a convoluted tear-jerker. Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing (via the wonderful @brainpicker) are a good referencing point – especially “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it” together with rules 2, 5, 9 and 10 on the list.
    • Thesaurusitis. Pupils who don’t read much tend to assume that longer and more complicated words make for a more impressive statement. Their voice is lost and malapropisms run riot. If you are advising someone suffering from this malaise, highlight all the dodgy word choices and ask the student to give you a definition of each one. Tell them if they can’t, it gets cut!
    • Nodding dog syndrome. And then this happened, and then this happened and then this happened and then I did this and then I did that and then I learned this and then… Once a personal statement becomes a list, it’s no longer a statement. If you’re helping someone out who has written this, then a good first step might be to remind them that elsewhere in the UCAS application form is space for their lists of academic achievements. Then ask them to rank their achievements in two lists, one headed “I am most proud of…“, the other “Most impressive for an admissions tutor and what tops both lists should be included.
    • Marginalia. The ‘gold’ is hidden in a sub-clause or an afterthought. More space is spent explaining their work experience in a shop, rather than talking about their responsibilities as a head boy or girl. The students don’t consider what might be most impressive in their experience and don’t ‘weight’ their personal statement accordingly; help them redress the balance by highlighting in different colours each example that they have given. The largest areas of colour should belong to the parts of the statement that are most impressive.

What should be kept simple? 

Analyse, don’t narrate. Each example should be used to illustrate why they’re the best student for that subject.

Talk about something you’ve read recently. If you don’t – why bother applying for a degree where you’ll have to read a lot?

There’s no formula for success. So don’t impose tick-box style prescriptions. Among the bad personal statement advice that I have heard given out by schools has been:

    • It should be 3 paragraphs long
    • You should have a work experience paragraph
    • Don’t use the word enjoy
    • Don’t use quotations

It has to be clear, analytic and synoptic. Details are better than generalisations, strengths should be confidently and clearly articulated, and it should be sincere without being preachy. Apart from these principles, there are no real catch-all top tips that apply to every statement.

Top Tips: how should you advise your tutees or a student you’re helping?

Talk to them. Sit them down and have a chat. I would suggest asking them the following questions: what have you read recently? What do you hope to study in your first year of this degree? How do you think your A-level study has prepared you for this course? With these 3 questions you will be testing their passion for their subject, their understanding of how it’s taught at university and the amount of thought they have already put into their suitability as a candidate. You will also get a feel for how much research they have done into the detail of the degree courses they have chosen, which is crucial.

Play some writing games. As a form group, or with an individual, there are several good short activities that require the pupils to think about how they write and sell themselves. Here are two that I would highly recommend:

    • Amazing lists. In pairs, give the students 3 minutes to write 15 things that make their partner an amazing person. Read aloud and share. After the laughter subsides, consider how many people said pretty much exactly the same thing about their partner as someone else. “You have nice hair”, “good sense of humour”, “hard-working”. Generic phrases, while nice enough, are not that interesting. By the time the students have to think of the 13th, 14th and 15th ‘amazing thing’ about their partner, they get really creative and surprising – sometimes you will even learn new things about the students that you’re working with. Then make the students write 15 things that make their choice of a degree subject amazing. Again, the last few things on that list will be the most interesting and may be worth including in their personal statement when explaining what attracts them to the subject.
    • Start at the end. Ask the students to write their final sentence. Share and critique. Discuss what they want the purpose of their final sentence to be. Typically the purpose will be to either sum up their strengths or reiterate their passion for the course they are applying for. Once both you and they are happy with it, keep this final sentence in mind when drafting and re-drafting the rest of the statement. Use it as a litmus test – does everything that you have written, allow you to end your statement in this way, or have you failed to demonstrate your passion?

It’s a tree, not a check-list. At the risk of sounding slightly wishy-washy, it might be helpful to think of a personal statement as a fruit tree: it should explain the roots of the student’s motivation for the subject, the trunk sets the direction (the course of study), before branching out to explore how previous study, wider reading and extra-curricular experiences will bear fruit in the form of an exemplary university student. If you know what I mean.

Read it aloud. Nothing can substitute reading the statement aloud. This is the best way to test for coherence of theme, over-use of certain words, appropriate use of language and judicious weighting of academic interest vs extra-curricular experience.

Phone admissions offices. Draw up a list of questions – the more specific the better – and actually phone the universities to ask the admissions office for their answer. I am always surprised by how many students apply to a university without ever having spoken to someone at the place! Regarding talking about work experience and extra-curricular activities, for example, did you know, that while Oxford University explicitly wants the focus to fall on academic interests for most subjects, Durham University explicitly wants to hear what you will bring to the university community?

Make ’em read. The more, the better. And then get them to mention it in their personal statement saying what they’ve learned from it.

This is by no means comprehensive, but will hopefully help some of you who are in the position of advising students through the application process and helping proof and re-draft their personal statements.

Finally, do have a look at the free University Access Scheme of Work that The Brilliant Club has produced with the University of Sussex and the University of Warwick to help Sixth Form tutors and others advising students. Click here.

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3 thoughts on “UCAS, Personal Statements and all that: advice for those advising applicants

  1. Pingback: The 75% rule and the personal statement | Studying at university

  2. Pingback: Personal Statements | easgblog

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