Personal statement

Writing a personal statement is a crucial part of a successful application for a place at an English-speaking university.

Unfortunately it is quite a difficult thing to write, which is why British schools usually train their students in how to do it.

Sometimes it is helpful to read a bad statement to see how not to do it.

The following text was written by student at an international school in India who asked one of my sons for some comments (those are given in the in the box at the end).

Personal statement

Having lived and studied in India for 2 years, I have got to know that the world which surrounds me is far more complex than I knew it before. Unique experiences which I had during this time helped me to broaden my mind and to look at thinks from a different point of view. As a student of *** College I did not only get to know new(diverse) people with different cultural backgrounds, I also realized how important cultural understanding is. I saw how different people treat their environment and how different they value their surroundings. The experiences I had in my exchange year in *** and my time in India showed me that the world “becomes smaller” and that barriers for trade diminish and cultures mingle more and more. Everything is interconnected and nowadays it is impossible to do one step without affecting someone else’s on the other side of the world. For that reason it is even more important that every government takes responsibility because global warming, water pollution or deforestation do not shy political borders.
Throughout the time I worked with Community Development, a school based program which works with rural Maharashtran communities and Untouchables, the interaction with them gave me insight in Indian society and useful experiences which strengthened my desire to go on with further studies and learn more about sustainable development. During my trip to the Himalayas I worked for two weeks with an NGO which is engaged in mountain conservation and the fauna and flora which is affected by growing population, rise of temperature and increased use of motorized vehicles in this area. This again, was one of the key events which gave me a completely different point of view on the complexity of issues which exist all over India.
Since last year I am leading the recycle-group in my school which deals with waste management and recycling of second-hand items on campus.
Last year I got a scholarship as facilitator for “Pearson Seminar on Youth Leadership” in Canada, a four week summer program which focuses on leadership, social justice and environmental issues. This year I was elected to facilitate a similar program in UWC of India. I am an active part of the “Office of Development” which raises funds, scholarship money and organizes summer programs such as the one just mentioned. Through the work with the Office of Development and the experience with youth leadership programs I gained a lot of useful skills, which I am applying in my day to day life on the campus of the *** College and will be useful for my future life and studies.
Before I came to India I was an active handball player. I trained several times a week as the captain of the junior team and together with the adult team. During my stay in Spain I played for the state team of “Extremadura” with which I participated in the Spanish championship. In India I learned how to play Cricket since Handball is an unknown sport in India, I am now a passionate cricket player. Through these experiences with sport I learned how to work in a team and stay focused even in extreme and stressful situations.
My enthusiasm to discover the world and travel brought the passion to learn new languages with it. Already speaking 4 European languages, I know how important communication skills nowadays are and that is why I want to broaden my communication skills with Asian languages during my future studies.
In my opinion one needs to combine many of these skills in order to be able to tackle global challenges which concern our societies. That is why I would like to study a joint degree which covers several subject areas which enable me to bring about a positive change in our future life.
To achieve my goal of serving the society, I believe there is no better way than to study an undergraduate degree in the United Kingdom.

Dear ***,
You have a lot of good ideas in the statement, but you MUST organize them in a clearer and more linear fashion so as to present a concise and SPECIFIC argument as to WHY you want to study whatever the course is you are applying for. UK statements of purpose/personal statements are first and foremost about presenting an argument explaining why you want to study the course you are applying for, they are NOT (or much less) about simply giving an impression of who you are or listing your achievements. They are a statement Why you want to study XYZ and what you hope to do with that, not a ‘Lebenslauf’-style essay or list.
So, I would advise doing the following:

  1. From the start explain clearly and precisely WHAT you want to study and WHY. What course(s) are you applying for? Do you have any idea what thematic issue areas or geographical regions you might like to specialize in? What excites you about these courses? What reasons or experiences have made you chose these courses? How do you hope to benefit from your chosen subject, intellectually and professionally? How do you hope that it will deepen and advance your thinking? What do you want to DO ultimately with this degree, for others and for yourself? Where would you like to be in 5 or 10 years?

THIS POINT 1 IS THE HEART OF YOUR STATEMENT. THIS IS WHAT THE PEOPLE ASSESSING YOUR STATEMENT ARE MOST INTERESTED IN. YOUR STATEMENT AS YET LACKS SUCH A COMPONENT, AND AS LONG AS THIS ASPECT REMAINS AS UNDERDEVELOPED AS IT CURRENTLY IS, I MUST HONESTLY TELL YOU, I THINK YOUR CHANCES OF SECURING AN ACCEPTANCE WILL BE LOW.

  1. Your statement contains a lot of somewhat impressionistic material on yourself and your experiences. It is not per se wrong to include material of this type, BUT it should be linked as much as possible to Point 1., what you want to study and why. You mention your work with Community Development, with the Pearson Seminar, and with the Himalayan NGO – this is good, important stuff, and something you might make more of: What exactly did you do in these capacities, what skills precisely did these experiences teach you, and how did they contribute to you deciding to study XYZ/what is their relation to your interest in XYZ? You also frequently mention that your outlook on the world and society at large has somehow changed – try to be more specific! What has changed? Why? Finally, you might mention your sporting interests in 1 line, if at all. They are not so relevant for the purpose of this text.
  2. Get a native speaker to correct your English as there are numerous instances of incorrect or ungainly language use. Also, check it carefully for spelling!
  3. You might want to take a couple of hours to read through some Statements of Purpose of earlier *** College grads.)
  4. Change your email address!! dercricketfreak@aol.com will do for personal communication with friends, but not for official correspondence – would you sign an official letter as "Cricket Freak"?
  5. BEST OF LUCK!!!

Of course, there are plenty of websites offering useful suggestions about writing personal statements. Here is a useful collection to start with:


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