Making the decision to apply to university is a time of real excitement

Making the decision to apply to university is a time of real excitement, and looking through all those prospectuses and university websites gives most students a rush of exhilaration when they think about the friends, the fun and the experiences that await them next year.

But then once the universities and courses have been chosen, the beautiful view of student life that is on the horizon becomes blocked by a dark, gloomy cloud: the UCAS personal statement.

Writing this document is both a teeth-grinding and nerve-wracking experience. Teeth-grinding because it feels all kinds of wrong to write several hundred words about how great you are; and nerve-wracking because you know that it plays a big part in deciding whether you'll be made an offer, or whether you'll be thrown onto the rejection pile.

While we'd never make the claim that writing your UCAS personal statement will ever be a fun experience, we can give you some advice that'll make the whole process a lot easier. You see, the secret to making the process of completing a UCAS personal statement a painless one is to know exactly what categories of information to include, and using those categories to make the structure of the statement.

Below you'll find the most important categories you should talk about in your personal statement. Write a decent-sized paragraph on each of them and you should find you've got the information that the admissions officers will be looking for, without there being too much damage done to your teeth or your nerves!


1) Your motivation for studying your chosen course

This tends to be the category that your statement will lead off with, as answering the question of why you want to do the course you've applied for is perhaps the most important question the admissions officers will have in mind when they read your UCAS personal statement.

Unfortunately, this tends to be the category that people like writing about the least. But it needn't be. You don't have to come up with a reason that no one has ever put before (just so long as your reason isn't that you've 'always been fascinated by' your chosen subject). It could be that the subject has helped you to understand the world around you better; it might help prepare you for a chosen career; or it may be that the course overlaps with passions you have outside of school (for example, people often become interested in engineering as a result of Formula One, or a visit to a particular building inspires a love of architecture).

If you are really struggling with this category, you can always come back and write this paragraph later; you don't have to write them in the order they'll appear in the final version of the UCAS personal statement!


2) What you've studied that's relevant to that subject

This category essentially involves talking about the bits of your chosen subject that you've enjoyed learning about the most. This could take the form of explaining why certain bits of your A Level syllabus have captured your imagination, or alternatively you can talk about things you've read on the subject at your own initiative.

It can also be useful to talk about the academic skills you've gained from your A Levels. For example, you might be applying to study philosophy, but there's certainly no harm in mentioning that your A Level in English Literature has helped you to become an accomplished essay writer who knows how to really delve into the complexities of a source text.

3) Work/voluntary placements or experience

This category is more important for some subjects than it is for others. If you're applying to do a course that prepares you for a specific career (for example law or engineering), it'll help your application no end if you can talk about a period of experience you had in that area. So tell them what you learnt at your week of attending your local crown court, or the attention to detail you saw quantity surveyors possess when you shadowed one for a few days. Voluntary work is just as valid here, especially if you're applying for a course that involves caring for people.

If you're applying to do a more 'academic' course (that is, one that doesn't prepare you for any particular career), then having relevant work or voluntary experience isn't a priority. Nevertheless, it can't do any harm to talk about the key work experiences you have had to date, whether they've taken the form of shadowing or weekend jobs, especially if they've taught you skills that are considered important for life at university, such as working as part of a team or participating in complex discussions.


4) Extracurricular activities

This is something of a miscellaneous section, in which you can talk about anything (within reason!) that you do or have done that you regard as important in your life or an achievement. So tell them about your love of the great outdoors, anim' or baking; and recount your experiences as a school prefect, cricket captain or first aider. The key thing here is to be able to tell the reader why these things are important to you in terms of how they have shaped you into the person you are today.

With these four categories to write about, you should find you'll have plenty of material. In fact, you may find you have too much to say. If this is the case, simply be more selective in deciding on what to include. Don't write about every single experience you've ever had; it's far more productive to choose the most interesting ones and talk about them at length. That way you'll have the space to explain why they are important, which is the single most important thing to do when it comes to writing your UCAS personal statement.