How to Write a Personal Statement for Any University Course

Every personal statement has the same goal: to persuade the university admissions office that you deserve a place.

Sometimes the personal statement is called an application essay or a statement of purpose. The name may change, but the goal remains the same: persuasion.

It may only be requested at the end of the application process, but you should never treat the personal statement as an afterthought. Your personal statement is critical to your application for three reasons:

1. It sets you apart from the competition

When applying to top-ranked universities - the Ivy Leagues and Oxbridges - it isn’t enough simply to meet the requirements for English, GPA, or exam results. Every year, thousands of students who meet all of these requirements are rejected. There just aren’t enough places for all the students who qualify. That’s where the personal statement really counts. It’s your chance to explain why you should be selected ahead of the rest, based on your past work, volunteering, or your sincere passion for the subject.

2. It explains your reason for applying

Universities care a lot about drop-out rates (hint: it affects their ranking) so they want to know your reason for applying. They want to see evidence of your interest in the subject and your commitment to completing the course. Justifying your decision to apply is also important if there’s something different about your application. Maybe you’re older. Maybe you’re transferring from another course. Maybe you don’t meet one of the requirements for entry. Use the personal statement to explain what led you to apply and how you will work extra hard or bring extra value to the course if selected.

3. It shows evidence of good writing and thinking skills

The people who read your personal statement and make the final decision on your application are the same people who’ll be teaching you on the course. Therefore, the personal statement is an indication of the kind of writing they can expect to receive from you over the next few years. Your personal statement will be viewed negatively if it’s lazily or poorly written, or it appears to be copied from another source. But it will be regarded positively if it shows an appreciation of how to write formally, but with enough originality to make it interesting for the reader.


Now that you understand the importance of the personal statement, read on for an explanation of the different statement types, common questions concerning personal statements, and advice on how to get expert feedback on your own personal statement.

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Personal Statement Types

Undergraduate

First degree applicants do not typically have much experience, so they should compensate with evidence of good scholastic skills and a passion for the subject they intend to study. Scholastic skills can be demonstrated by awards and achievements, a logically structured and well written argument, and some background knowledge of the subject.

Postgraduate

The same rules apply as for undergraduate statements, but you’ll need to include more evidence of experience gained through employment or internships. Postgrad applicants should also have a clearly defined career goal that justifies their application. Most PG degrees require a resume or CV in addition to the personal statement and reference letter.

Management (MBA)

MBA applications vary greatly. Sometimes they ask precise questions that you answer in the form of an essay. These essays reveal your analytical thinking skills in relation to your industry and your past positions. Sometimes no instructions are given, in which case you should still try to write at length from an analytical perspective.

Research (PhD)

PhD applications are a little different since they usually incorporate dialogue with a supervisor plus submission of a master’s dissertation and separate research proposal. However, the personal statement is still important as a way of tying these various components together into a convincing argument for accepting you onto the doctoral course.

What Makes a Personal Statement GOOD, BAD, or GREAT?

A BAD personal statement includes some or all of the following: (1) It’s illogically structured or includes irrelevant information. (2) It’s too short and appears to be lazily written. (3) It’s full of bad grammar or spelling. (4) It doesn’t mention the course or university and might have been copied from the internet.

A GOOD personal statement includes all of the following: (1) It explains why you deserve a place on the course. (2) It states a clear reason for applying. (3) It shows evidence of good writing and thinking skills. The personal statement checklist below goes into more detail on all of these points.

A GREAT personal statement includes most or all of the following: (1) It’s structured around the applicant’s reason for applying. (2) It describes the unique appeal of the university or course applied to. (3) It supports all of its claims with evidence. (4) It holds the reader’s attention until the end.

Personal Statement FAQ

Q1

How long should the personal statement be?

Some schools tell you exactly how many words to write. Most don’t, however. As a general rule, 500 words is the average length of a university personal statement. You may need to write 1000 words or more if applying to an MBA or PhD, as these applications require you to give evidence of previous work or research.

Q2

What should the personal statement include?

The personal statement should include your reason(s) for applying, why you qualify for the programme, and how it will benefit you in future. As long as you write convincingly about these three points, you will have written a good personal statement. Undergraduate and postgraduate statements will have a slightly different focus. See my checklist at the bottom of the page.

Q3

How formal should the personal statement be?

Universities expect student writing to conform to academic standards, so the personal statement should be written in a formal style. You also don’t know who will read your statement, so it’s better to be too formal than risk rejection as a non-serious applicant. But be careful: it’s not an academic essay, so resist the temptation to stuff it with academic references and quotations. The personal statement is a statement about a person: that person is you.

Q4

How honest should the personal statement be?

There is no point exaggerating your ability, as you will soon be found out when the course begins. However, the personal statement is a sales presentation and you are its object, so you’ll want to be selective and highlight only your best achievements. If there’s a major problem that can’t be hidden - for example, you dropped out of your last course - use the personal statement to explain it.

Q5

What if I don’t have a clear goal for the future?

If you don’t have any idea what you will do after graduation, or you have several conflicting career goals, I recommend you choose (or invent) one clear goal and write about it in your personal statement. Remember that no-one is going to read your statement once you enrol, while a vague or confusing statement is all too easy for the admissions office to reject.

Q6

How should I submit my personal statement?

Some countries operate systems that allow one statement to be submitted and sent to multiple universities. UCAS in the UK is one example. However, the most common way is still to send separate applications to different schools. Some schools might require you to type or paste your statement into a web browser, but uploading an attachment is still the most common method. When uploading your statement, save it as a PDF rather than a Word document in order to preserve formatting.

Q7

Can someone help me write my personal statement?

It is really important that you write the personal statement yourself: the hint is in the name! However, many students ask a teacher or consultant to check and, where necessary, edit their statement in order to give themselves the best chance of acceptance. Just make sure you seek an expert opinion, as most people have no more knowledge than you of what makes a good personal statement.

Q8

Can IELTS Academic check my personal statement?

Yes, IELTS Academic offers an editing and advisory service for university personal statements. We cannot write your statement for you. This is your responsibility. However, we can help you make it as close to perfect as possible, giving you the best chance of a place at university. Read more»

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Personal Statement Checklist

All personal statements Yes No
Does the personal statement indicate a clear reason for applying?    
Does the personal statement indicate a strong interest in the subject?    
Does the personal statement include evidence of positive character traits?    
Does the personal statement justify selection based on your previous studies?    
Does the personal statement explain how the course will benefit you in future?    
Does the personal statement show evidence of good writing skills?    
Does the personal statement contain something interesting for the reader?    
Postgraduate only Yes No
Does the personal statement include examples of relevant work experience?    
Does the personal statement include a relevant career goal?    
Does the personal statement explain the relevance of your UG studies to the PG course?    
MBA only Yes No
Does the personal statement give details of your managerial experience, including number of subordinates, type of work engaged, and duration?    
Does the personal statement show that you can objectively analyse business or management situations based on past experience?    
Does the personal statement explain how you will add value to the MBA by sharing lessons from your business experience?    
PhD only Yes No
Does the personal statement include details of your previous research along with any findings, citations, or publications?    
Does the personal statement include a clear research goal and explain the importance of this research?    
Does the personal statement mention the research strengths of the university you are applying to, including potential supervisors or facilities?    

Other documents typically required when applying to university

High school or university transcript

Reference letter from a teacher or employer

Exam certificates

Secure English language test score (IELTS)

Resume or CV (PG only)

Research proposal (PhD only)

Portfolio (Art subjects only)

Bank statement showing funds