Questions of Style

Questions of Style

The first requirement in your personal statement is that it is written in good English.  You will give yourself away immediately if your English is incorrect or if your style is awkward.  This is more than a matter of simple preference by the admissions tutor – virtually every university course calls for some degree of essay writing, and if you can’t handle this efficiently you will be at a disadvantage.  This is more important for some subjects than for others, of course, and slightly different attitudes will be taken to applications from candidates who are not native English speakers, but for the majority of UCAS applicants, a personal statement which is full of errors or clumsily expressed will not improve the chances of being offered a place.

Again, it is very useful to ask someone else to read your personal statement and comment on the English or the clarity of expression.  Check your spelling, too, and don’t rely on the Word spellchecker, which can’t tell the difference between “bear” and “bare” and makes some very odd comments on grammar.

Try to avoid clichés as much as you can.  This is quite a challenge in writing a Personal Statement because there is a fairly precise list of things to be written about and only so many ways to write about them, and the admissions tutor has seen them all!  Your beginning should try to avoid the predictable “I have been interested in computers from my childhood”, even if it is true.  It is probably not true to say “I have always been interested in x”, because you haven’t.  Something happened to make you interested in the subject and it is much more believable to say “When I was young we had a neighbour who was a Pharmacist and he often used to talk to me about his day-to-day life and the peculiar medicines he handled.”  Two words worth avoiding when describing your interest in your subject  are “passion” and “fascinated”, because they are overused, inaccurate and more or less devoid of meaning.  Some people probably do have a consuming interest in a subject, but to call it a passion is usually an exaggeration. More to the point, the admissions tutor could well find that 400 of the 500 Personal Statements he or she reads will claim that the candidate is “passionate” about the subject and is “fascinated” by it.  If you really want to convey the fact that the subject is the centre of your life and interests it will emerge in the things you say about it throughout your Personal Statement.

There is a strong desire in many candidates to make their personal statement “stand out” by being original in some way, particularly in the way it opens.  Applicants try to find a striking phrasing for the opening, or use a portentous quotation, or try to use a joke or quip to grab the attention of the admissions tutor.  Such methods are rarely very successful, and may well irritate the reader rather than impress him or her.  Clarity, good expression and seriousness are what the admissions tutor wants to see in a personal statement, and what will win you a place on the course is what you say about your motivation, interest and understanding of the subject.

Another line the admissions tutor will read in every personal statement is that the candidate is “a good team player”.  This is unlikely to be true – many people work best on their own and few great human achievements have been the work of committees (unless you include the development of the atomic bomb!).  In some professions, notably Medicine, teamwork is at the heart of things, but not many.  Of course in any workplace you have to cooperate with your colleagues and operate alongside them.  What you might say here is something like “I enjoy working with other people, but I have much initiative and the confidence in my own judgement to be equally happy operating on my own, and I am always ready to accept responsibility for my own decisions.”   The whole teamwork idea, like so many others, comes out of the hackneyed handbook of management-course clichés.  Such ideas are uninformative and second-hand, and the admissions tutor has read them a thousand times.