Life After Sixth Form

Helping you get that university place or career

UCAS application and personal statement advice


The talk on Personal Statements on Wednesday got really good feedback from the questionnaires I’ve looked at this morning. Unfortunately it was yet another session I missed, as it was my day off. However, two years ago sixth form tutors had an excellent talk by Mike Nicholson who was senior admissions officer at Oxford and had previously been at Essex and Newcastle universities. I took detailed notes which I reproduce below, with one or two alterations to account for changes since then. I would be interested to know if any of this advice differs from what you heard on Wednesday. Remember, ultimately you will be writing a Personal Statement so it must be distinctive to you, and you will have to negotiate your way through the different emphases in the advice you will hear and read to produce something that you are comfortable as representing you at your best.

As the number of applications changes, Universities are struggling to decide how to differentiate between candidates, and it is difficult to know what kind of offers will be made. Prospectuses for 2013 entry will typically have been produced in January 2011 so it is likely that offers may be different from those published in the prospectus. Make sure you double check the grades you are likely to need for a course by reference to university websites which should have the most up to date information. You can get more detailed information about the actual UCAS points achieved by students who gained entry to a particular course at

Check carefully for any other requirements beyond A-level grades and UCAS points. For example from 2012 entry all applicants to UCL will need to have a modern foreign language at GCSE. Other courses may have unexpected requirements so make sure you check all entry requirements information carefully, even though it often looks very similar.

Start the process of writing the Personal Statement by coming up with one sentence that answers the question; “What’s your motivation for doing this subject?” If you can’t answer that, you haven’t found the right subject. Once this sentence is established, it can be used as the basis for the first paragraph of the PS, fleshed out by considering ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions:

  • what do you most/least enjoy about the subject?
  • what outside interests relate to the subject you want to pursue?
  • why is the subject interesting to you?

Before making the final decision about application choices, ask yourself have you considered any subjects other than the one you are going for. Look for related subjects. For example rather than just going for ‘English’ or ‘History’, think about what you most enjoy about those subjects, and you might find it would be better to apply for, say, ‘Medieval Studies’ or ‘Anthropology’. Rather than just applying for ‘Chemistry’, you could consider ‘Perfumery’ or ‘Brewing Studies.’ Look beyond the subject titles of your A-level studies. Also many students are unaware that for many courses you do not need to have studied that subject at A-level, even if there is an A-level in that subject. For example Psychology and Sociology courses do not require an A-level in those subjects.

The PS should have a ratio of about 70/30 in favour of concentrating on the subject and course as opposed to the ‘hobbies & interests’ material. In an increasingly competitive environment, admissions officers are increasingly looking for reasons to turn people down, so the two key things to get right are:

  • the basic research regarding the nature of the course & its requirements. If there is any hint that that the candidate hasn’t read and referred to all the information available about the course, it is easy to reject.
  • displaying the more general skills, qualities and knowledge that are relevant to the course, such as awareness of current affairs issues that relate to the subject area – you have the summer to put this right.

It is vital to quantify and make specific anything you put in the personal statement. Generic comments such as ‘I enjoy reading’ or ‘I like socialising with my friends’ are the ‘kiss of death’. Subject related interests that you may feel are seen as ‘sad’ or ‘geeky’ by many of your peer group are likely to be just the sort of things that may make you stand out as an appealing candidate.

Most universities make decisions without interview so the PS is likely to be the one chance you get to impress. You need to make sure that your statement is individual and has impact, but making it wacky/eccentric is likely to be counter-productive. Use the selection / success criteria published by the universities for your course, and link these to your hobbies and interests.

When was the last time you want to a museum? What was the last book you read not directly connected with your school studies? Have you been to public lectures / exhibitions? Evidence of taking advantage of free and universally available cultural activities such as these carry more weight than paid for or ‘organised’ experiences such as medlink courses, which are often pushed by schools (or wealthy parents).

The most important characteristic admissions tutors are looking for is evidence of independent critical thinking, including the ability to think critically about ‘respectable’ material. Students are often happy to pull The Sun apart, but accept The Independent uncritically. The more competitive universities that do interview students will often present challenging material at interview and ask students to evaluate it critically, often using very open-ended questions. The ability to identify and evaluate different points of view is important, not just to repeat learned material.

If you are only thinking about the subject you are considering applying for in relation to your school lessons, you are not right for that subject. You need to show evidence of genuine interest and engagement beyond the limits of your current course and show that you are engaging with intellectual ideas not directly connected with your subject. Don’t apply for different subjects (this does not apply to joint honours degrees). Your personal statement needs to be geared firmly towards a particular subject, and if you apply for different subjects at different universities this will be diluted. If you apply for different courses at the same university this will immediately be seen by the admissions officer as evidence that you haven’t committed yourself, and that is suicide for your application.

Extended Projects are looked on very favourably, as they help to develop research and independent study skills needed in Higher Education. It is particularly valuable if the Extended Project shows evidence of beginning to engage with the course being applied for. Try and get reading rights at a local university to get access to more advanced material than will be available in school or local libraries [please note – there is a clear assumption here that you are already using libraries as a matter of course!]

2 thoughts on “UCAS application and personal statement advice

  1. We were told that:
    – 4000 characters (500 words)
    – well written in terms of punctuality and grammar etc.
    – clear layout and structure with good development of ideas.
    – must flow well – intro, conclusion.
    – originality.

    At least half should be academic, social, cultural:
    – 50 – 80% on the course.

    It should be clear what subject we are applying for right from the start.

    We could use examples of subject-related questions.

    Include any voluntary work or extra curricular activities.

    Show that we have skills such as:
    – time management, team skills, organisation, enthusiasm.


    • Thanks Richard. I’m glad somebody’s awake & thinking! So from what you’ve said there’s no conflict with the advice I posted. I think that “at least half academic” advice should be even stronger. Lots of the advice I’ve seen directly from admissions tutors suggests it should be well over half, and I’ve heard some quite scathing comments about the parade of Duke of Edinburgh / sports teams / voluntary work stuff, if it isn’t clearly linked to specific skills that have a relevance to the course being applied for.

      I hope others won’t think that just because you’ve given a good response that there’s nothing more to say. Any more details about the talk, anyone? Any advice or resources anyone has come across that you think worth sharing?

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