The basics
Study abroad : Applying to University

Writing your personal statement

Read our guide to writing a personal statement, including how to approach writing it, what you can write about and more.

girl writing a personal statement

Are you sat in front of a blank Word document? Is that notepad which you were brainstorming ideas on, still empty? Or worse, full of meaningless doodles?

A personal statement is submitted by applicants alongside their application, to demonstrate how they are qualified to study a particular course, beyond simply their academic grades. It is also an opportunity to present yourself as an individual and a real person, distinct from other applicants. Presenting yourself so you and your strengths stand out can be difficult if you’re not used to writing about yourself in such overtly favourable terms. If you’re an eighteen year old undergraduate, you have likely never attempted something like this. When writing extensively about all your qualities, there’s also a delicate balance with not sounding repetitive or egotistical.


Complete all required information

It may seem basic, but fill out ALL the required information about you on the page. By failing to do so, you can come across as sloppy, ignorant or inattentive to details. From an administrative perspective, missing details makes the lives of admissions staff tougher, and they are the ones with your destiny in their hands. It simply makes sense to appear as favourably as you can without them having met you. If they have to struggle to process your application because you have left out mandatory information, they may simply pass and move onto the next application in their very large pile.


Answer the questions or prompts they give

Some institutions will give prompts or specific questions they want you to address in your personal statement. Note these.....and then note them again! Underline them, and even write these out yourself – just don’t ignore them. The institution is trying to help you with these, because they understand that students may have never done this before. Address what they ask of you and actually answer these specific questions. As you write and review your statement, constantly ask yourself whether you are answering what they ask of you. If you’re not, it’s best to start again and consider your first attempt as valuable practice.


Stick to the rules

If they ask for a personal statement to be handwritten, comply with their instructions! Most applications are submitted electronically, but there may be some institutions or departments which request a handwritten statement to test your writing ability without relying on a computer (particular English courses). Stick to either blue or black ink as these are standard and appear professional (also, they may use a machine to process applications, which only recognise this colour ink). If you’re not used to writing neatly because you type all your assignments, practice beforehand. As far as presentation, if you have to mail your application, printing it on high quality paper is an easy way to make yours stand out, and to show that you’ve made that extra effort.


Why that course?

This is probably the most important aspect of the personal statement. Why should you be granted the opportunity to study this course? What have you done to prepare for such an intense level of study? This may be work experience, previous assignments or extra-curricular activities. Some areas and disciplines can be broken down into very specific courses, each with a particular focus. Furthermore the professors who lead these take them very seriously, and you will want to demonstrate a similar interest out of respect to them. Show that you appreciate that ‘Medieval Literature’ is not simply ‘English’ and that you have a somewhat developed interest.


Why that university?

Read up about the university so you can impress the admissions officer with your ability to research, which may be a key skill for the course you’re applying to (e.g. law). Either way, it shows you can take initiative, which they’ll like. However, don’t simply rely on what you can find in the opening few pages of their prospectus, or what’s on their website – everyone will think of that, and it will get really old to read for them. Sign up for their newsletters, or start following them on social media to provide some extra insight into the community and what they value. Read about their history online. How were they created, and for what purpose? What areas do they specialise in? What have graduates gone on to do? Do they have any notable alumni who inspire you? Make them feel like they are your primary choice.


Why that location?

Is the university’s location particularly popular for or relevant to what you want to study? For example, prospective computing students may wish to study in California, close to the Silicon Valley where the likes of Facebook where conceived; or business students may want to study in London, where most international companies have their UK or European offices. You can show how integral the area is to the culture and history of the subject or area you’re passionate about. Again, this will demonstrate that you have gone out of your way to research that university, and further emphasise why they are the only choice for you. No admissions officer wants to have to convince a student to study with them.

Perhaps more importantly, as an international student you must illustrate why you want to travel so far from home to study at that particular location. It’s not about being able to simply travel, because you can do that with a holiday. Study abroad is more than that. Can you show that you would continue to learn outside of lectures or seminars, taking full advantage of the surrounding area and what it provides (e.g. important exhibits, landmarks etc.)?


Demonstrate your knowledge, humbly

It’s perfectly acceptable to demonstrate what you know – in some ways that is what a personal statement is all about. However, how you decide to do this is important as you risk appearing arrogant or boring if you do this in the wrong way. Simply listing what you are good at is very repetitive too, so change how you structure your sentences throughout. It’s not very exciting to read a long list of what someone is good at. Don’t be afraid to admit what you would like to improve on, provided that it is not something which is integral to the course (e.g. your ability to speak English). Is there an area of the course which you have not been exposed to as much as you would like? This shows that you’re humble, have aspirations and are eager to add to your knowledge.


Don’t go wild with a thesaurus

Sometimes keeping things simple is for the best. If you can say something in five words rather than ten, do that. It can be tempting to use a thesaurus or look up synonyms online to appear more intellectual; but if you use too many in the wrong context, a sentence can lose all meaning. This is especially true if English isn’t your first language; if this applies to you, then writing a statement to even a good standard will impress whoever reads your statement (they will be well aware that you are an international student). Most of all, make sure your statement is easy to read and flows well from one point to another in an order which makes sense. If you use a word incorrectly, it will stand out and be confusing. Written assignments may well be a key part of your assessments, and your statement will indicate if you will be capable of these. The key thing is that the officer enjoys reading your statement, and may one day want to meet you.


Show personality, but not too much

What you should take away is to distinguish yourself the best you can in your personal statement. You have to get across the individual that you are. While you may be applying for the same course as a hundred other students, you should stick out as unique and be remembered; just ensure it is for the right reasons! Unless requested to do so, do not include an image of yourself, nor anything to make your statement stand out. You will be asked to submit a portfolio of your work if you need to, for particular courses like art. The tone of the statement should always be formal. Mentioning extra-curricular activities is always encouraged as they help distinguish you as a real person, as long as they reflect in some way the course you are applying to. Charitable endeavours or those activities affiliated with your previous educational community are usually received well. Think carefully about what your activities and personal interests say about you as a potential representative for that institution.


Have someone proofread it

While you may spend weeks on your personal statement, a new set of eyes can do wonders in pointing out things which you don’t see. Staring at the same piece of writing for extended periods means you grow too accustomed to it, and can easily miss glaringly obvious oversights or mistakes. These can be spelling, punctuation and grammar pointers, as well as the actual content of your statement (i.e. what you are trying to say). If you submit a statement with just one error, it will reflect badly on you as a candidate. Work on your statement as soon as you can, so you have time to ask your parents, friends and teachers to look at it and make suggestions (if you have an older sibling who has written their personal statement relatively recently, ask them for their advice). It’s also a good time to seek out distant friends and family who work in similar admissions roles (or those where they hire others in a professional context) for their input.

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About Author

girl writing a personal statement

Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.

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