Everyone finds writing the Personal Statement hard, and it's not difficult to see why. You've only got 4,000 characters, and somehow you have to make yourself stand out from thousands of other students from all over the world. Although there's no single recipe for a good statement, a few general principles can help you do your best.
Most advice you'll read on Personal Statements will say you have to sound enthusiastic. That goes without saying. But everyone else is going to say they're enthusiastic about the course they want to study too, and, if you try to out-compete them, it's all-too-easy to sound false or melodramatic. Much better to spend your time proving your enthusiasm. Anton Chekov famously said 'Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass'. He was talking about writing stories, of course, but a similar principle applies to writing Personal Statements. If you really are passionate about your subject, don't just tell me you are, show me the evidence that it is true. Write about what you've read outside of your school work. Write about the hobby that is related. Write about the lectures you've listened to on-line, or attended in person. Any activity might do, as long as it's the sort of activity a person enthusiastic about your chosen subject would do.
But, naturally, admissions officers don't just care about whether you really really want to do the course. They want to know you are capable of it. This is harder to demonstrate in a Personal Statement, because you only have 47 lines to work with. But it can be done. If you've read a book related to your course, don't just say it was interesting. Tell them why, and be specific. Summarize one of its arguments. Give them a supported opinion on it. In short, show them the sort of thinking skills that a good student in your subject would show. If you can do that clearly, and in as few words as possible, then you're proving that you can write well too, which is a necessary skill for a great number of university degrees, not only in the humanities.
And what about sounding unique? Lots of students assume that the final paragraph of the statement, about personal interests, is the place to add a touch of personality. I agree, but you can do it elsewhere too. If you've completed some sort of Extended Essay or other coursework related to the subject you want to study at university, the Personal Statement is a good place to say something about it. Chances are nobody else has written on exactly the same topic, so it's a great way to stand out. The trick is to sum it up as concisely as possible, and find a way to link it to your general interest in the course you've applied for. If not, then maybe there is a particular topic on the course syllabus that grabs your attention. Say something about why it interests you, why it's important, and what you think about it. This is going to prove that you know what you've signed up for too.
In short, find something specific and interesting to talk about, talk about it in a way that suggests that you are the right sort of student for the course, that you think in the right way, and in general try to prove your enthusiasm by what you've done, what you've read, and where you've been. Don't just tell them you're right for the course, show them.
About the author:
Dr Beard completed his undergraduate degree at Oxford University in History and Languages, before reading for a doctorate in literature. He taught in the Faculty of Modern Languages at Oxford for several years, and participated in the Admissions round at several colleges for a total of 7 years. He is now Senior Tutor at Hertford Academy, a brand-new tuition centre in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. If you need help with your Personal Statement, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org