8 of the best – top tips for what not to say in your personal statement.

It’s too hot to think, much less create fascinating content on a daily basis. So instead I’m going to take the lazy route and do a list. Yeah, lists are good right? Easy, digestible, bite size morsels of fact based goodness without all the filling excesses of a paragraph. It is that time of year when Lower Sixth or Year 12 (whatever butters your parsnips) students will be thinking about a glorious meandering summer that stretches out until the beginning of September with not a single responsibility on the horizon beyond getting under their parents’ feet and getting a tan.

All well and good, and after working so hard with your six hour school days, long holidays, half terms and fully 190 days of school you deserve to put your feet up… Before you do get too comfortable though do have a think about what September means for you. It’s about making choices, uni, apprenticeship, working or gap year. It’s much too hot and involved a subject for me to embark upon the relative merits or otherwise of those choices in just one article but certainly you should make yourself aware of what the options are  – particularly as your school is unlikely to tell you anything useful (I’ve been partially vindicated in a report released today – https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/pupils-lack-information-about-alternative-routes-through-higher) . However for those of you lucky enough to have made a decision and specifically those that have set their sights on university now is the time to start thinking about your personal statement. Yes, it is far too early to actually write it but you can start to get a jump on it, for no other reason, if you need one other than just my authoritative voice suggesting you should, by making a start on it now, you expose where the gaps in your experience and thinking lies and you’ve the whole summer to remedy it. Hooray!

Anyway a few titbits to get the ball rolling, more in depth later but as I say, frankly it’s too hot and both of us would just be phoning it in at this stage… So here it is my list of the 8 most important traps to avoid.

·         Quotations – Don’t squander your space (you’ve only got 4000 characters) using quotes that the tutors could read anywhere else and probably have done several times, most likely in another personal statement. They want to know about you and what you have to say.

·        Irrelevant, contextless thoughts – Listing countries you’ve been to, work experience placements, films that changed your life etc is not a fun to thing to read. Give it context, why is it relevant to the course, what did you learn from it, either about yourself, your goals, the subject and so on. Make it mean more than just something you once did.


 ·        Weird unnatural language – The personal statement is an opportunity to sell yourself but it’s also an opportunity for the reader to get an idea of who you are. Write from the heart and avoid words that you wouldn’t use in real life. There’s a risk you get it wrong and misuse a word and secondly if you have to interview and the curtains don’t match the carpet when you speak in real life it’s going to put a question mark over your head.

·        Clichés – Almost too many to mention but speak to your peers and you can pretty much guarantee at least a few of the following, ‘The world today is’, ‘Ever since I was young’, ‘I’ve always been fascinated by’ and so on. ‘Passion/passionate’ and ‘fuelled my desire to X’ are another two perennial offenders. They are a waste of characters and it’s the linguistic equivalent of a place holder. It tells them nothing and doesn’t help you.

·        Unsubstantiated lies and bragging – Bragging – selling yourself is not the same thing as making wild, unsubstantiated claims. Show, don’t tell, people want evidence and facts, not unsupported self congratulatory whooping. Secondly, lies and more importantly plagiarism – UCAS has very good software aimed at stopping people copying, you WILL get caught. Lies are easily disproved, particularly around certain experiences, speaking a language, a book you might claim to love etc, if you don’t speak the language or didn’t finish the book, don’t say you did – if you get quizzed on it at interview – there’s no way back from that.

·        Gags – You don’t know who will read your statement even if they don’t dislike the joke, is it worth the risk and the space used? Better to be slightly more conformist than throw it all away with a misjudged line.

·        Irrelevancies – Every letter counts, unless something actively enhances the essay and serves the narrative you are trying to create then bin it. As you read through try and apply the shrug test, if there’s any part of you that thinks that someone who doesn’t know you would read through this and shrug, scrap it.

·        You have to accentuate the positives – Don’t focus on things that didn’t go your way. This is a sales document, sell yourself and frame your experiences in a positive way. You want to do science, you conducted an experiment that trashed your hypothesis? That’s great! Think about all the things you learned from that, not ‘and that was that.’

So there you go 8 delicious thought canapes to masticate upon over the summer. Did I mention it’s hot?

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