Personal statements: the fear of bragging

Personal statements are a source of worry or even fear for many students, for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s an application for a degree or PHD, the fear of having to sell yourself in 4000 characters or more is a psychological hurdle that must be overcome. For many, the task seems like an exercise in boasting - 'I am great because of this and this'. The right approach strikes a balance between confidence and diffidence. Too confident and you will engender skepticism in your assessor; too reticent and you risk never making an impression.

Compounding the anxiety is the knowledge that the personal statement is an undeniably vital part element of an application. There will be many other students, at least for degree applications, with comparable grades and a similar record of extra-curricular activity – a personal statement is your first and perhaps last opportunity to distinguish yourself from your peers.

Theirs is no magic bullet for this anxiety. But there are ways to mitigate it.

It’s useful to work with an expert, a third-party that won’t be as emotionally invested as you and can therefore be more objective. They can assess your first draft or even create a personalized draft based on a list of your achievements.

Remind yourself that you share this anxiety with many others. Many, many people find it difficult to be open about their skills and achievements. Also remember that your assessor has a duty to read through your entire application, or at least give it a very good go – this is not a circumstance that necessarily repeats outside of academic applications; a recruiter might dismiss your job application on the basis of the first line: such is the level of the competition for certain roles. An academic assessor will not do this (But a great opening line is still important!).

Next, make a list of the reasons why you want to study your chosen subject. Presumably, you have passion for a particular subject or some other very strong reason, like a financial incentive, for wanting to go on to further study. After all, you are removing yourself from the jobs market for three or more years, taking on debt and long hours of self-motivated study. These reasons should be an armour against self-doubt and the worry that will you come across as boasting.

The fear of coming across as cocky is the fear that one’s motivations are paper-thin, that there is nothing of substance underlying one’s desires. If you have in mind your reasons for wanting to go on to further study, or better, written down and stuck on the wall in front of you, it will be easier to write those statements which are an essential aspect of your application – ‘I want to study this because of this and this ’. Communicating passion and enthusiasm will always endear you to your assessor and just to people in general.

Of course, you will actually need to cite achievements. Try to be objective – what have you done that’s really relevant and supportive of your application? Make a list of everything you can think of and then choose from there.

Some anxiety is just an unavoidable part of applying to university. Giving yourself of plenty of time to write your personal statement and seeking the opinions of trustworthy third parties is the way to manage the fear as best as possible.