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10 things to avoid in your personal statement for UK

Katharina Kunze

This post is also available in: Spanish Italian German French

University applications in UK hinge on your personal statement. It is your one chance to tell the professors why they should admit you: what motivates you to study the subject, how you can demonstrate that motivation, and how fun you would be to teach.

However, common mistakes in personal statements grate on admissions tutors’ nerves. Having read stashes of applications, these 10 faux-pas are most likely to irritate the professor you are trying to impress.

1. Talking about extracurriculars a lot

The goal of the personal statement is to show why you should be admitted for the specific course you are applying for – not why you are a great rower, a musical person, or recipient of your school’s art prize (unless of-course you are applying for sports, music or arts). Spending time explaining everything you have done there, with a vague side note that it has taught you time management skills, is not likely to excite your professor and makes them think you do not have enough subject-relevant information to write about.

Do: Focus the majority of your personal statement on topics and accomplishments that are relevant to your course. Only mention extracurriculars briefly and if they are particularly impressive, if at all.

2. Overusing the cliché words (passionate, fascinated, etc.)

Anyone reading multiple motivation letters will agree: be motivated but do not resort to cliches. It is OK to say you are passionate or fascinated once, but by all means to do not repeat this for every small detail of your subject! It is more important to show that you are enthusiastic about the subject by explaining what you have already done or read in that area.

Top tip!

Write in a genuine tone and explain why you are fascinated, if you use that term. Without an example or an explanation, the terms are likely to come across as empty words.

3. Using the passive voice

The worst combination in writing is using the passive voice while using enthusiastic words like passion. Make sure it is clear that you have taken initiative in the things you write about, not that they happened to you without any effort of your own. For example, if your school mandated an internship, just say you completed an internship rather than saying you “had to” complete one. Similarly, do not just write you were a “member” of something but say what you did as an active contributor.

Top tip!

Show how you have acted on your motivation for your subject and taken the initiative to follow your interests.

4. Lecturing the reader about something you have researched

It is tempting to tell the reader all about something that you researched for school and held an excellent presentation on, or all about what you read in a particularly interesting book. Bear in mind that the admissions professors want to get to know who you are, and are probably better-read in their field than you. Make sure to write about your learnings rather than summarising the reading or research you have done in length.

Top tip!

Limit a summary of what you read or researched to one sentence. Focus on what you learned and how it relates to other things you have experienced or know.

5. Not telling the reader how something is relevant

Do not just list what you did without linking it back to the subject you are applying for. Make sure to give the reader a “so what” – why are you writing this and how does it make you a good candidate for the degree you are applying for. In addition to making it easier for the reader to understand, it shows that you have reflected on your experiences or learning and that you are intelligent enough to apply it or link it with other subject areas.

Top tip!

Explain why what you did or experienced makes you a good candidate for the degree or how it influenced your motivation for it.

6. Overusing quotes

Using long quotes makes the reader think that you do not have enough of your own thoughts or words to write so you are filling the space with other people’s wisdom, hoping it will make you seem more intelligent, too. Furthermore, quotes do not say much about yourself. If you have the choice between making an introduction where you tell a bit about the background of where your interest in the subject came from, and using a quote, err with the former as it says more about you.

Top tip!

Try to focus on your motivation, your background and your learnings that make you a good candidate so that the professor can get to know you better.

7. Not using the space provided

You have 4000 characters including spaces to write your personal statement. Use it! If not, the professor will think you are not very motivated, haven’t made an effort with your personal statement, or are just an uninteresting candidate.

Top tip!

Use the full space provided to showcase your background, motivation and thinking about the subject.

8. Applying for different subjects

You only have one personal statement in the UCAS application. If you apply to entirely different subjects via UCAS and try to address them all in your personal statement, the professors for each subject will think you are not really interested in their particular subject.

Top tip!

Decide on one area to apply to and focus your entire personal statement on it. If the degree names are a bit different at different universities, that is OK: International Business and Economics & Management are different course names, but require very similar content in the personal statement.

9. Spelling and grammar mistakes

This should be obvious, but: make sure to have someone who speaks (and write) English excellently check your personal statement. Nothing looks as disorganised and demotivated as obvious mistakes.

Top tip!

Find a family friend, English teacher or admissions consultant who can give you good feedback on the writing style. Ideally you will not only get grammar and spelling feedback, but also stylistic and content advice.

10. Not having background in the subject

It is difficult writing a personal statement about something you don’t really want to do or have never dealt with at all. Try to think as early as possible about what you want to study and then look at what you can do that gives you more insight in the area and that you can write about in the personal statement. Alternatively, if you have run out of time, talk to someone who knows the subject well. They can tell you what about your experiences or accomplishments might be interesting to the tutors if you link them with the degree subject in a clever manner.

Top tip!

Think about how you can link what you have done or know to your motivation and suitability for the degree. Ask for second opinions about what one might write about that is relevant to the course.

About Oxbridge Admission

Oxbridge Admission helps applicants at UK universities including Oxford and Cambridge in the following areas:

  • Personal statement: advice and feedback on several revisions
  • Reference letters: feedback and editing for optimal appraisal
  • UCAS form: ensuring correct completion for international candidates
  • Test preparation: practice tests, exam strategy and covering content syllabus
  • Interviews: mock interviews with interview questions from past years

Visit www.oxbridgeadmission.com to view the tutoring offering or contact katharina@oxbridgeadmission.com for a tutoring request.


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