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Top 3 tips for writing an authentic personal statement for UK university admissions

Sara's take:

Applications for the UK, typically made through UCAS, officially opened last week, and we're excited to provide you with a guest blog post from Ashley Monaghan, the Senior International Officer in North America for King’s College London, one of the world's top universities and an American/Canadian-student favorite.

Ashley shares her top tips on writing the UK personal statement/essay, which is definitely worth a read if you're planning to apply for college in the UK.


Written by guest blogger Ashley Monaghan

“Finished is better than perfect,” says University of Mississippi professor Elisa Modolo, discussing dissertation pointers in an article for Inside Higher Ed. And while you are not (yet) researching and composing a dissertation, the art of writing a successful personal statement to land you an acceptance letter from one of your top choice universities follows a similar, proactive model.

Different from the essay you write for a U.S. college admissions application, for which you would follow a prompt from the university or The Common App, there are more distinct expectations for a UK university.

Specifically, you will focus on your academics way more than a lesson you learned or who your role model is and why—all in 4,000 characters or less (including spaces).

Assume any university you apply to is highly competitive, so you therefore need to prove your academic motivation and back your claims.

King’s College London, for example, received 52,000 applications in 2019 and accepted about 10 percent of those, so admissions representatives expect you to go above and beyond just running a spell check before submitting.

King's College London
King's College London

“While the 'U.S. college essay versus UK personal statement' consideration does throw U.S. students for a loop, it is often their first experience in navigating a new educational system and the cultural differences within that realm,” notes Meghan Godding, Senior International Officer for London Metropolitan University.

But I am here to tell you that finishing your UK university personal statement, while seemingly impossible now, is in sight.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive checklist for a personal statement that guarantees acceptance; that would make writing your personal statement so much easier! You wouldn’t even be reading this. I wouldn’t even be writing this!

But, since the approach is more abstract, here are my ideas to help you stand out favorably to UK admissions officers.

Start Now

Thinking about completing a component of your application that bears the decisional weight of a personal statement is nothing short of daunting.

Where to begin? Just begin!

Start by putting words to paper (or screen) in a Word document so you can easily copy and paste into UCAS later.

If writing with pen and paper gets the creative juices flowing, go with that. Either way, make a list of examples unique to your academic background and then use these experiences to formulate sentence after sentence.

When you break up the work, it makes the overall process more manageable.

Planning ahead isn’t just for you; it also applies to whomever you ask to read and review your personal statement. Ask for feedback from people you trust, like teachers, advisors, and coaches or club leaders, and allow them ample notice.

Once you have gathered their feedback, redraft your personal statement and read it out loud to yourself. Expect to write several drafts to get it just right.

If you do not feel you have enough relevant experience to convey in a personal statement, there are steps you can take right now. Ask an English teacher for recommended reading material, go to an art or science exhibit, volunteer with children, join a language club.

Your personal statement must be at least 1,000 characters, so you want it to be concise and thorough, rich with developed, first-hand experience. You don’t want it to seem rushed or impulsive.

Formulating an essay is a skill you will hone over the next three years of your undergraduate career and beyond.

Remember the “D-word” (dissertation)? The more practice you get early on, the more confident you will become. Take your time and allow others to help so you have the advantage of making your personal statement the best version it can be.

Relevance is your new middle name

Your academic background is really the substance of your personal statement, so I recommend spending the most time and characters to explain how your education has been consistent and successful.

The idea is to prove that you will approach your university courses with the same rigor. Include evidence you understand what is required for the course. Show that you have the skills to excel as a student and enough curiosity to learn more from the subject.

Now is the time to tell Admissions how you will use this knowledge and experience in your future. Convey the symbiotic relationship between you and the university – what you will learn from your program and what you will contribute your knowledge in the classroom and community.

“When writing a personal statement for the UK application process, focus less on storytelling and more on why you are admissible for the program you’ve chosen,” suggests Anuli Iloabachie, International Officer for the University of Manchester.

“UK schools want to know why you qualify for the program, why it is meaningful to you and what your future plans are in relation to that particular subject.”

Assuming your favorite subject in high school is what you want to study at university, demonstrate why it is your favorite subject.

The “why” is crucial in a personal statement. Showcase what research or independent study you have done on your own outside of the classroom. Show off your examples and relevant experience first at the beginning of the essay rather than a chronology of your studies and interests.

Mature students writing personal statements can explain what practical skills they acquired since leaving education and provide additional work or volunteer experience to support the personal statement.

Universities are not arbitrarily reviewing; they want the right students for their university and their programs. Admissions counselors are looking for someone who will appreciate three years of education on that specific subject, especially since the UK teaching style is more autonomous and independent compared to the U.S.

You will need self-motivation to complete your courses and, ultimately, your major.

I believe the saying goes, “If you chase two rabbits, you won’t catch either”; meaning, limit your focus to be successful.

For every example you put down, there should be a clear connection to its relevance to the program you selected to study, which can be difficult if you’re applying for Sociology and Psychology (which in this case are the two rabbits).

Remember, you can choose up to five programs on your UCAS application – all now or some later – but they do not all have to be for the same university.

Put the “personal” in personal statement

Think of this as your sole opportunity to showcase your personality to the admissions team. Your teacher reference is the other opportunity to showcase more subjective information about your background, but your personal statement is your chance to shine in your own voice!

Unlike many U.S. universities, we at King’s recommend that 75 percent of your personal statement be geared toward your academics, but that does not mean you can’t bring it alive through dynamic writing.

Please note that you cannot use formatting like italics, bolding, or underlining in your personal statement because the UCAS system automatically removes that.

And avoid any kind of “Thesaurus Speak,” as that can come across as imitative and more difficult to read. Use your own narrative and language.

Your personal statement should be an extension of you – your values, achievements, and goals. Any admissions team would want you to be passionate about the subject you will be studying for three years, so be authentic.

“I have been interested in studying Biology from a young age” is the equivalent of starting a novel, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Spare the cliché.

And while every Admissions rep is different, you can assume no one wants to read a static essay that sounds like someone else or that it could have been written by anyone.

Students who are accepted into a university program are the ones who convey what they will contribute in the classroom and to the university through a successful track record in their own academic, professional, and personal communities. They know they have a lot to learn, but they are eager to do so.

The bottom line?

You now have everything you need to write a successful personal statement, and UCAS applications for Fall 2021 studies are now open.

But keep reading, and you’ll get my most important, save-the-best-for-last piece of advice.

Do your best with what you have this year.

Writing a personal statement to apply to university away from home takes a lot of time and courage, especially in our current climate, so have grace with yourself and the imperfect, tremendous work you submit.

Ashley Monaghan

Ashley Monaghan formerly worked as the Senior International Officer in North America for King’s College London.


Interested in applying for college in the UK?

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G'day! My name is Sara, and I'm the founder of College Apps Abroad and a Certified Educational Planner (CEP), one of only 40 CEP's in California and 300 worldwide. I have more than 10 years of experience working in international recruitment and admissions, and I've studied and lived overseas myself in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Brazil for almost a decade. I've also worked for some of the world's top institutions, including The University of Edinburgh, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and The University of Western Australia (UWA)!

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