How to write an effective personal statement

Welcome to Wednesday’s WORKING WORLD brought to you by the Edanz Learning Lab team! On Wednesdays, to soften the middle of the week, we provide a little bit of gentle career advice and words of encouragement. 

The other day a friend of mine in Kazakhstan wrote me an email:

‘I’m applying for a place to study at a business school in the UK. The application deadline is tomorrow. I have no idea how to write a personal statement. Help me!’. 

This is a very common problem, in my experience. Writing in a second (or third, or fourth …) language is always very hard and, also, people often don’t understand exactly what is being asked for when a university or college in another country asks for a ‘personal statement’. What is that? 

So-called ‘personal statements’ are short documents written by candidates applying to universities that are very often used for assessment by admissions tutors. In the UK, for example, 500 word statements form the basis for admission to university degree courses and are read by decision makers, alongside CVs (resumes). Although my friend was in a panic about how to write something about herself in less than a day to meet an admissions deadline I was able to help and give her a template for writing an effective statement. 

The first thing to keep in mind when writing these short documents (and I know, its very hard to write anything about yourself) is that an admissions tutor is probably going to have to read a lot of these; when I worked in the UK as an academic I was in charge of admissions to a Masters programme and often had to sift through piles of personal statements one at a time. 

The first things to do then are to write your statement in such a way as to capture the attention of the admissions tutor. She, or he, will be reading lots of these in one sitting and will be looking for something that stands out, and also something that is specific to the course in question: don’t simply recycle the same statement over and over again for different courses (this is a bad idea); you need to ensure that each personal statement you write is specific to that particular course. 

So, first few sentences: capture the readers attention and get them interested in you. Why is your personal statement going to be worth reading? Get the most important points, the things you really want people to know about you, into the first sentences of this document. There is always a danger that an admissions tutor might not read the whole of your personal statement. 

So, here’s the opening part of the one we wrote for my friend in Kazakhstan: 

‘I grew up and attended University in a small city in Kazakhstan. My career to date, working in the Kazakh capital, Astana, the most northerly in the world, has involved business, management, and accountancy roles’. 

Note that the reader in this case, an academic from the UK, will not know anything about Kazakhstan, so we included something here to make the first sentences interesting (in bold). The following sentences, after grabbing the readers attention, should then summarise your most recent and relevant experience for the course you are applying for. This needs to be specific: what are your qualifications and experience for this particular course? In this example, my friend is applying or a business management MBA course: 

I am currently the Front Office Manager for xxxx; a public relations and management role that brings me into contact with a range of people on a daily basis. I successfully manage a team of ten people; based at my former employer, xxx, I took the initiative to implement new optimisation processes, and designed and developed a novel client discount system. I love languages; as well as my mother tongue, Kazakh, and my second language, Russian, I speak English and French. My background, work over the last years, and passion for languages and cultures makes me an ideal candidate for an international scholarship; this has already been recognised by the Kazakh government with a Bolashak Scholarship. During my second year at University I was awarded a scholarship because of my high grades and active participation.’ 

All good so far, but what next? The next section of your personal statement needs to tell the reader (the admissions tutor) why you want to come to their university. Why is this your dream? Put in things that are specific to that particular course and city; the tutor will be looking to make sure that your statement is not recycled from others and will be checking that you are actually interested in their course. Don’t just use the same statement over and over, don’t just cut and paste New York for Oxford! 

So, in our example, the course is in a city in the north of the UK: 

‘xxx is a global city, a hub within the north of England and a growing economy. The education team at xxx have a unique skill set and international perspective that I am keen to learn from; networking with academics, colleagues, other students, and business leaders, sharing my connections from Kazakstan and unique cultural perspective, will contribute considerably to my own development as well as the course. My international perspective will be valuable to all students; I am a proven team worker, functioning well as part of a group, as a leader and as part of a collective.

My interpersonal skills are also excellent due to my considerable experience in hospitality and corporate environments. I am excited to study course modules including corporate communication and reputation management as those that relate directly to my work experience; I believe learning should be a two-way process as students interact with lecturers. A company should pay attention to its reputation from the perspectives of partners and the market, while also nurturing employees.’ 

Note how this is very specifically written to fit with both the course being applied for in this case and its location. This personal statement reads as if it were written specifically with this course in mind (that’s what you want to aim for). 

And how to end? Just 500 words? Wrap up with something that tells the reader how this course of study will allow you to achieve your goals and ambitions? What is your five year plan? Something like this: 

‘This programme will enable me to further my education and experiences via networking and academic skills. My aspiration is to return to Kazakhstan, set up my own business, and contribute to the development of my country using skills that can only be learned from the international experience I will gain from the corporate communications, marketing, and public relations course at xxxx.’ 

Personal statements need to be short, and specific to the course you are applying for. They need to tell the reader: 

  • What are the key skills that you have that are relevant for this particular course? 
  • Why do you really want to come to study this particular course? 
  • Why in this particular university? 
  • What will you gain? How does this course of study fit with your plans for the future? 

Edanz can help you write personal statements and CVs that people will want to read. We can help you to achieve your potential, gain work experience placements and get into university courses around the world to further your career. Contact us for more information!

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