My experience over many years as a tutor of students applying for university is that they often overemphasise the importance of extra-curricular activities, and fail to meet university admissions tutors’ expectations for strong personal statements to be specific and detailed about students’ academic studies and how these relate to the courses they are applying for.
Recent research by the Sutton Trust suggests that often the fault may often lie with teachers advising students without being aware of what universities are most likely to look for in personal statements.
Perhaps the most useful part of the research report from your point of view as students is the presentation of extracts from personal statements, comparing how teachers and universities commented and graded their effectiveness at helping the student to secure an offer of a university place.
|Extract from Personal Statement||Comments from Teacher||Comments from Admissions Tutor|
|[Here the student is writing about studying Flaubert’s novel ‘Madame Bovary’]
“I researched psychoanalytic studies and was surprised at Ion Collas’ claim that ‘bovarysme’ is usually beneficial, while in Emma’s case it is morbid’.”
|“More theory than analysis … Lots of opinion and theorising.”This Personal Statement neither increases nor decreases the likelihood that the applicant would be offered a place.||“Excellent evidence of intellectual curiosity… Good account of how the applicant responded to being stretched.”This Personal Statement strongly increases the likelihood that the applicant would be offered a place.|
It is worth clicking through to the details of the report (see links below) for further examples that show how admissions tutors generally seem much more impressed by academic detail than students and their teachers sometimes suppose. The overarching message from this, I think, should be for you to genuinely develop your intellectual curiosity about your subjects so that you can write about specific topics beyond the core curriculum with detail and enthusiasm, rather than sounding ‘forced’ or out of your depth. The kind of extra-curricular activities and reference to generic skills such as ‘teamwork’ and ‘communication’ that often take up a large part of students’ personal statements should be no more than a little seasoning in, or icing on, a rich and well-baked academic cake.
The Sutton Trust’s press release about their findings can be found here:
While the full report can be downloaded from this link : http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Making-a-Statement-FINAL.pdf