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posted on 5 Oct '23

A guide to supporting students working on their personal statements

Content provided by Abi Bing, when employed by the University of Exeter, for the UniTasterDays Teachers' Guide to University.

Want to hear a good one about a student, a professor, and a dog who walk into a bar?

Maybe, but not in a personal statement you don’t. Jokes, cliches, and truth-bending do not belong in a university application. As tempting as it may be for students to try to stand out through humour and bold statements, it is genuine motivation and commitment that will help students get noticed by universities. If students are stalling and focussing on a punchy opener, remind them it should be written like a job application, not a biography, and needs to be formal, clear, and concise.

Identifying students’ favourite topics, modules or experiences in a subject will help them shape the start of their statements, where the focus will become about the skills and knowledge they have acquired which are relevant to their chosen courses. Help with determining which skills and experiences are most relevant to discuss can be found by looking at course modules and content on university webpages.

It is important that students identify common modules and skills required in different universities’ courses, to ensure that their statement will be applicable to all courses/ universities to which they are applying.

Work experience in personal statements

Whilst the UK aims for pre-pandemic functionality, it has still been a challenge for many students to secure work experience during this period of change. In an increasingly competitive environment, it is crucial that students identify skills gaps they have, to overcome these and increase their confidence and chances of success. Whilst in-person work experience may not have been possible for all, there are still ways in which students can close skills gaps, including through participation in online events and at school.

An example is included below:

• A student applying for Politics studies a Massive Open Online Course - also known as a MOOC (pro-active, motivated, engaged, learning outside of classroom).
• Inspired by the content, they create a debate club to be run in-person or online at school (creativity, leadership, adaptability).
• Topics debated are important to their school, so they create a proposal to bring about changes (written communication, teamwork, problem solving, creating structured arguments).
• Signatures from peers supporting the changes are gathered through an online platform, and momentum gained through a presentation during a school assembly (verbal communication, persuasive writing and speaking, marketing).
• As a result, vegetarian and vegan meal options are introduced at the school canteen (negotiation, implementation).

This process will be beneficial to the student on their course where they will research and understand political and cultural issues - and create and deliver structured arguments. For proactive students looking online to close skills gaps, one advantage is gaining new knowledge and skills with less worry over time constraints, cost of travel, and established/ historic networks.

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