Life After Sixth Form

Helping you get that university place or career

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Personal Statement Editing – keeping it brief and clear

Below you will see a Google Document that I put together to show how personal statements can usually be edited down considerably, thereby freeing up space to say more things about yourself, and usually with the happy by-product of making the style crisper and more readable, too.


Targeting your Personal Statement

Most of you will be applying to five universities.

Each of those universities see just the one Personal Statement, and do not have access to information about where else you have applied. So somehow, you need to perform the trick of making your statement seem to each admissions tutor who will read it that it is their specific course and institution you are applying for.

Obviously this is, strictly speaking, impossible. If you are applying to Durham, you have the option of sending a substitute personal statement while Cambridge has the Supplementary Application Questionnaire, but such formalised opportunities to provide additional information are rare.

So, what can you do to get round this problem? well, firstly, for most courses, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. The core content of an undergraduate course is likely to be broadly similar whichever universities you are applying for. However, you need to check all the core modules and options of each course you are applying for and make sure they are right for you, and you for them, and tailor your application accordingly as much as possible.

You should have a clear idea of which course you most want to get onto, so it may be that you wish to slant part of your application in a direction that links with some specialism of that university, in a way that still shows generic skills and interests that would apply to any course. For example, if you want to study English at Newcastle, a look at their website reveals: “we now have strengths in, for instance, creative writing, post-colonial literature, children’s literature, film, as well as in traditional areas such as Renaissance drama and Romantic poetry.” So you may want to make reference to an interest in one or more of those areas in your personal statement: doing so would certainly not be detrimental to applying for courses that didn’t happen to have those particular specialisms.

You will also find that many universities have quite specific guidance on what they look for in a personal statement. For example Durham has some very detailed guidance most of which is relevant to almost all applicants to any institution. Nottingham Trent has a guidance page that is perhaps a little simpler and more structured in approach. Almost all university websites will have reference to the selection criteria and qualities they are looking for from applicants in each subject, often with specific advice for the Personal Statement, so make sure you search thoroughly for such information. It would be helpful when looking at your draft Personal Statement for you to provide links to any information of this type you have used, so that I can see that it is indeed tailored appropriately to your specific choices.


Extending your personal statement

About four years ago I wrote this:

I think it still applies – perhaps more so. But I still haven’t seen anyone in my form do it.

Just imagine how often an admissions tutor reads something like this:

To further my insight into the medical field I participated in a work shadowing week at a GP surgery. I gained a valuable understanding of the workings of the surgery, with opportunities to observe and speak to the doctors regarding a medical career. I arranged another placement week myself at a local hospital, which was a superb opportunity to observe medicine from another point of view. I observed the ward rounds, an MRI scan, a skin biopsy and an endosocpy clinic all which I found interesting. I spent the most time with the haematology team, responsible for patients with diseases such as Chronic Myelogenous Leukaemia (CML), haematology being one of my interests it was captivating that I could see the specialty from a more complex side than the AS biology course. For example I was able to understand how the level of platelets affects blood clotting. Throughout the week I expanded my confidence and communication skills through speaking to patients and doctors. Although I enjoyed the week it was at times extremely heart-rending, I was able to get close to many of the terminally ill patients helping and caring for them where I could, getting them tea or just talking and empathising with them to build their spirits.


Now don’t get me wrong: that is very impressive, but applicants for competitive places have to be impressive, and there will be more very impressive applications than there places available.

So imagine if, in addition to the catalogue of work experience comments, an applicant could add:

You can read more about my work experience, and my interest in medicine at the website I set up for me and my fellow prospective medical school hopefuls at

That is very impressive example, but to be honest I’ve found it a bit difficult to track down good blogs about work-experience, or the learning journey undertaken by people before university. This is good  news. It means you have a chance to really stand out. Even a simple blog like this that tracks a prospective vet from struggling to find a placement at the start to dealing with impalas and rhinos in South Africa is a lot better than nothing. I’m sure you could do better than that though. Let me know if you want any advice on setting a blog up, but it really is very straightforward, and it’s yet another way of showing your commitment to whatever you are pursuing in life.


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!]

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UCAS preparation

Hello everyone,

As I said in PSHE last week, now is the time to be getting on top of your preparation for what you intend to do after leaving school, and for most of you that will involve applying to Higher Education through UCAS.

To help you focus and to ensure I know who may need more guidance and support, I am asking you to update your personal information documents on Google Docs by putting the following information at the top of the document. Even if you think I know some of this information already from our academic mentoring or other conversations, please do this anyway to help avoid any confusion as we go on.

1) If you are not intending to make an UCAS application (or are undecided and may choose another alternative instead of, or as well as, applying through UCAS) please let me know what your plans are, and what steps you have taken so far (eg. Any applications made, interviews held, conversations with other staff members etc).

2) For those intending to apply through UCAS, please give me an outline of the progress made so far (eg. Open days attended, or due to attend; reading and research you have done; people you have spoken to or contacted by email such as admissions tutors or former students/acquaintances doing courses that you are interested in etc).

3) List the courses you are intending to apply for (institution, course name and course code) AND the entry requirements for that course. At this stage you may still be deciding between several different types of course, or not have narrowed your options down to the five choices available to you on the UCAS form, but what we need to see at this stage is that your research is detailed enough to show that you have considered your options, looked at a range of potentially suitable courses, and know what the entrance requirements are so that you can tailor your applications realistically to the grades you are likely to get, so please put all the courses you are considering. You can delete them or add to them as you narrow your options down or do further research and make changes in the light of your results in August.

This may be seem a bit of a pain for some of you now, but there is a good chance you will be thanking me in the autumn term 😉

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Oiling the wheels of the PS machine

Now I’m ploughing through drafts and multiple revisions of your
personal statements it has occurred to me that there are a couple of
things you can do that will help to make it a little quicker and
easier for me.

To check that your PS is appropriate for your application, I am having
to check the courses you are applying for, and that those courses are
suitable for your qualifications. If you can put those details at the
top of your personal statements, it will save me having to log in to
UCAS-Apply and scroll through each application.

So just pop at the top your five course choices, the subjects you are
taking, and the grades you got in summer, and it will help me to get
through the process a little more quickly, easily and with sharper
focus on what you need to do to target your PS more precisely to your

Thank you.

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Keep Your Personal Statement Tidy

As you re-draft your PS, you should be revising it in the light of comments made in the margin. Once you have changed something, if the original comment is still there it can be confusing or misleading when I come to look at your PS again, so please delete the comments as you go along (just click the 'dustbin' icon in the comment to do this). 

If you are unsure about whether your revision is good enough, or deals with the comment adequately, you could add your own comment at that point to draw my attention to the issue. For example you might add a comment saying something like: " You suggested I should be more specific about my work placement. I've changed it now. Is this OK?"

That way it will always be clear what stage you are at in the revision process and we can make it more of a dialogue towards making your PS shine 🙂