University Tips Blog
Students working on a personal statement
A headshot image of the author, Michelle Tang

by Michelle Tang

Deputy Head of Widening Participation at the University of Cambridge

posted on 2 Mar '21

A school and college guide to supporting students with their personal statements

In my experience, students often think of the personal statement as the most important part of their application because it’s the part they have the most creative freedom over. But with freedom comes a lot of potential pitfalls! Here are my top tips to steer students in the right direction.

Tip 1: Engage in supercurriculars early.

Early on, when students are narrowing down their choices and considering what courses are out there, it shouldn’t just be about reading prospectuses. Instead, encourage them to engage in some supercurricular activity. These are academic activities which go beyond the curriculum in the courses they are considering. This could take the form of reading an article, watching a documentary, listening to a podcast, developing their academic skills and much more!

This serves a double purpose in helping students figure out whether they enjoy the subject, but also starts to build up the list of potential things they could write about in a personal statement.

Tip 2: Help with drafting and proofing, and enlist others!

Everyone knows how valuable it is to have another pair of eyes on something they’ve written. As a teacher, you’re in a great position to proofread but don’t let it all rest on you! Encourage your students to share their personal statements with family, friends and peers – especially someone who knows a bit about their subject.

As well as looking out for grammar and spelling mistakes, you should also check that all the content is relevant to the subject they’re applying for. The statement should be in the students’ own words, avoiding clichés and quotes, avoiding jokes which might get misinterpreted. Encourage students to put their best foot forward and keep things positive!

Tip 3: Understand what Admissions Tutors are looking for.

When you’re proofing, emphasise quality and depth of understanding over quantity. Admission tutors at top universities are looking for students to write about a specific topic in detail in order to demonstrate their understanding. They are less impressed by broad sweeping statements or generalisations, so students will need to back up anything they include.

Furthermore, many of the top universities are less interested in a student’s extracurriculars, work experience or general ‘personal’ life so these things should be kept to a minimum; instead, think about including personal details (particularly extenuating circumstances) in the teacher reference instead.

Overall, tutors want to confirm that the student is motivated about their subject and is someone who would be well suited to studying it for at least the next 3 years. With so few characters to get this across, you want to help applicants make every word count!

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