How to write compelling personal statements for UK universities (UCAS)?

Wait, first off, what is the UCAS? Well, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services, aka UCAS, is the organisation whose main job is to facilitate the application process for British universities. In other words, if you want to enter a British University (think Oxford, University College London, University of Edinburgh, etc.), you will have to go through the UCAS.

A key component of the UCAS admission criteria is to write a personal statement, which is somewhat like an application essay for your university – except for the UCAS, you are only required to write a personal statement for all your applications to the various universities.

So, what makes a personal statement good? More importantly, what makes ​your​ personal statement stand out from the thousands of essays?

Before we get started, let’s go through the ​limitations​ of UCAS applications.


4000 characters. That’s all you’ve got to leave an impression. That adds up to about 47 lines of writing. Moreover, you’re only allowed to write one personal statement for all of the universities and courses you’re applying for. Not only does it have to be relevant to the university and course applied, it has to be really good as well. Feel the pressure yet? No worries, we’ve compiled a list of tips for you to ace your personal statement!

Let’s see what UCAS has to say about that first!

UCAS’ Recommendation

UCAS actually has a page titled “How to write a UCAS Undergraduate personal statement” . it contains multiple tips and expectations from experts and the people who are behind reading your essays.

We’ve condensed their advice into separate, concise parts that are easier to understand!

First off, the purpose of the personal statement is to show “why you’re so much better than everyone else who applies for your course”. In order to stand out, don’t limit yourself to a “standard” way of personal statement! Bring your own​ unique personality and style ​into the essay.

If you are unable to start, UCAS suggests writing down words onto a blank sheet of paper.

Write down words that are related to you: ​your interest, abilities, ambition.​

Other questions to prompt are

–        Why are you so excited about the course you’re applying for?

–        What is it that gets you excited about that particular course?

–        What floats your boat?

–        What makes you unique and exciting?

–        What have you done previously that can value-add to the course you want?

As for the tone, UCAS advises applicants to sound enthusiastic and only write about positive things!​ Tell them how excited you are about the course, and supply plenty of evidence for it! Did you have a relevant work experience that led you to be interested in the course? Or was it an outside reading or a meeting with someone in the industry? Let them know!

Don’t forget your ​transferable skills​ as well, such as communication skills, and leadership! These skills are great at showing how you can better cope with the taxing course requirements!

Lastly, condense everything into 4000 characters. It’s important to have a​ clear structure when approaching it. Their advice? Split everything up into three main parts.

The starting paragraph is ideally “very punchy”, where you tell them how excitedyou are​ about the course you’re applying for and show your ​understanding​ towards the course.

The middle paragraph tends to be the “chunky” part, where you go on to provide ​evidence that show your interest in the course. It’s also where you talk about your ​skills and other good qualities​!

Finally, end off with a ​personal touch​! Show the reader how you’re unique! It’ll help if you elaborate how the things you like will help you fit into university life as a whole.

UCAS also warns against verbal vomit, emphasising the importance of keeping the essay focused and relevant​ to the course you want. Also, avoid flowery language! Keeping to plain English might actually be more helpful, it keeps your content concise and straight to​ the point.

Cliches. Sentences like “I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer since young” must absolutely be avoided! The people processing your application isn’t interested in your formative years, nor do they actually believe what you’re saying. Come on, we all know there’s a bit of an exaggeration there. The professors usually find these cliches difficult to believe because they know most people have a limited level of understanding towards it. Instead, show how you’re ​passionate​ about what the course might entail! Tell them how you’ve mulled over the course and how you’ve ​engaged with it​, be it through a work experience or reading an outside material relevant to it.

Also, ​never copy off another applicant’s essay​. There may not be a turnitin for your personal statement, but the UCAS has a way of finding out if you’ve plagiarised! Wouldn’t that be embarrassing? I know it’s tempting to just base your essay on a peer who had a successful application. But to be safe, just write your own essay! Let your own ​personal voice and style​ shine through and write. Just write, rewrite, and write again. Most applicants underestimate the importance of​ drafting, but most of the successful personal statements​ are at least the 5th or 6th drafts of the applicants.

For the ​international students​, UCAS shares how you can strengthen your essay by sharing​ why you would like to study in the UK instead of your own country. Not only that,​ by highlighting your ​English language skills​, or elaborating on any English courses or tests that you have taken can be really helpful as well. What the readers are looking for is to see how you will be able to fit into a British university, on top of being right for the university and course.

The UCAS gave really solid advice on how to improve on your personal statement. However, we’ve added a few extra “Do”s and “Don’t”s to help you out more!


DO: Apply to one course only, if possible

The more courses you apply for, the more problematic your personal statement will potentially be. You only have one personal statement for all of the courses you applied for, so it’ll be wise to just apply for one course and cater your essay to it. However, if you are applying for more than one course, do some research before you get started. Find the similarities between the courses. Is it the way they are taught? Or the way they contribute to society? Use the similarity as your angle when writing the essay so that it does not seem like you are privileging one course over the other.  

DO: Your research

The last thing the professor reading it wants is to read another essay done by an applicant who isn’t clear about the course he or she applied for. Do some research and show how you understand what the course entails! Talk to experts or peers who are in the course, and let your understanding of the course show in your writing.

DO: Engage your course with your observations and surroundings

This is especially helpful for courses like Political Science or Economics, where you have plenty of referential resources in the news. Bring up global affairs or recent events and share your take on them! It’s a great opportunity to show your interest, awareness, and opinion regarding the course and the events related to it.

DO: Use strong and impactful words

“Achieved”, “Developed”, “Learned”, “Committed”, “Spearheaded” – these words are powerful words that paint a very strong image of you. Sprinkle them across your personal statement when describing yourself, but don’t use them excessively too! You might come off as arrogant if you don’t substantiate these claims with evidence.

DO: Show that you are a critical thinker

Critical thinking is one of the qualities valued by universities and future employers – but how do you show that you’re a critical thinker? Maybe you can talk about how one of your A-level subjects has made you think more critically, or how a previous work experience has taught you how to be a critical thinker.

DO: Show that you are a team member

Universities are very project-heavy, and more often than not, you are required to work in groups. Some professors will be looking for team players – people who are capable of working in a team and add value to it. Perhaps you can talk about your previous work or project experiences, but remember to keep them relevant to the course you are applying for!

DO: Show that you’re an active member of the community

Some courses look out for individuals who actively contribute to the community and help the people around them. Write about your community services and how they have made you passionate about the course of study, or maybe how your volunteer work has made you realise how important your course of study is in improving lives around you.

DO: Show your long-term plan

What do you want to do in the future? Do you plan to pursue a career related to the course you’re applying for? Share your long-term goals with the reader and be creative about it. If you can’t think of anything long-term, don’t lie your way through! Instead, talk about what you’re looking forward to in university and what you hope to gain from the course. You can even talk about possible ideas for your dissertation! Things such as “I want to study English Literature because I have always been interested in classical literature and I want to research on how the classical literature influences politics through the years” can be eye-catching for the reader if done right.


DON’T: Start off your introduction with a quote.

You may be tempted to introduce a bit of a flair and drama into your essay by starting off with a quote. But remember, your essay will be read by all of the universities you are applying for. You’ll never know how receptive they are to it. Best be safe and begin with a short introduction about yourself. Be clear on the course you are interested in, and be enthusiastic about it. Show them your excitement, tell them why you are interested in it. Let them know your motivation, and remember everything has to be relevant!  

DON’T: Write too much about the course

This is your personal statement, not an essay about the course of study itself. Don’t tell the professor what he or she already knows about the course. Tell them about how the course is applicable to you, and why you are interested in the course. Maybe it’s because of the way it is taught, or the relevance it has to the career you are interested in. Don’t let your personal statement sound like a Wikipedia page about the course of study.

DON’T: Have poor grammar and sentence structure

This is pretty self-explanatory. Don’t make any grammar mistakes! This is why it’s incredibly important to have drafts, in order to prevent embarrassing grammar mistakes. Not only do they make you look unprofessional, but also make it seem like you are not serious about your application. Have multiple drafts of your writing, and let teachers, friends, and family read them. They might be able to spot the mistakes better than you.

DON’T: Be repetitive

Remember, you only have 4000 characters, and you might not want to waste them on repeating content. Unless absolutely necessary, refrain from repeating words in close proximity. It implies how you’ve got limited vocabulary – but don’t flowery words as well. There’s a fine line between sounding pompous and like a kindergarten kid, so tread it well.

DON’T: Use “I” all the time

I know the personal statement is supposed to be all about you and what you’ve done, but overusing the “I” might make you seem self-absorbed as well. Also, if you’ve been dropping the “I” too much, chances are, you’re probably making more “claims” than substantiating them with evidence. On another note, when you’re elaborating on your Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs), projects, or any other team activities, feel free to use as many plural possessive pronouns like “We” or “Our”! This is one of the ways you can use to subtly show that you’re a strong team player!

DON’T: Be Negative

I know the UCAS guide has touched on it, but I cannot emphasise enough how important this is! If you have had traumatic or negative events that happened, only write them down if they have made you learn positive things about yourself. Don’t make a sob story out of it, but rather, use it to empower yourself. Instead of writing about how your parent’s divorce has traumatic effects on you, write about how being brought up by a single parent has not only made you a more independent person but also motivated you to become a law student so that you can better the situation of single parents out there.

DON’T: Name drop universities

Unless you are applying to only one university, don’t name drop certain universities in your personal statement! No university likes to read a personal statement that is catered specifically to another university.

DON’T: Lie on your personal statement

You might want to exaggerate certain events or even lie about your achievements. However, they will shoot you in the foot eventually. If your application is shortlisted, there is a high chance there will an interview conducted, where the interviewer will most likely ask you questions based on your personal statement. Be truthful about your achievements, less you make a fool of yourself during the interview.

Applying to Oxbridge? Here’s what to consider

Every university is different and has its own set of expectations. But one thing for sure, Oxford University and Cambridge University care a lot about academics! If you are applying to these two universities, it’ll help to show more of your understanding and thoughts on the course as well as the academic material you have been exposed to. Share your opinions regarding theories, topics, relevant issues to talk about past work experiences and how it is related to academia! For more information about applying to Oxbridge, you can check it out here.

A Parting Note

If there is anything to take out of this article, it is to ​start early​! By working on your personal statement earlier, you will have more time to improve on it and submit the best version of it possible. There are also plenty of ​online tools​ to help you out, such as a worksheet designed by UCAS to help organise your writing. Keep it concise and simple, and most importantly, ​unique​! Nothing stands out more than your individual personality and goals!