How to write a good personal statement for university or college

How to write a good personal statement for university or college

In the UK, now’s the time to get working on personal statements for most university courses …

Today, October 15th, is the deadline in the UK for “the receipt at UCAS of applications for all professional medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine and veterinary science courses, and for all courses at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.”

But if you are (or your son or daughter is) not destined to be a medic or a vet, there’s a bit of time left to get those personal statements done as nearly all other courses apart from most art and design varieties, which have until March 24th, have until January 15th.

So here’s some help to get going with!

Before I go any further, I have to point out that there are myriad resources both on the internet and within print books that will indicate exactly what you need to include in your university personal statement – and if in the US your admission essay, which is similar – so for me to detail it all here would be superfluous.

In addition to that, whichever university to which you are applying will undoubtedly offer detailed guidelines on what they expect you to include in your statement. Beyond that, your school or college from which you will be graduating to university will have trained staff who know just what you need to include in your personal statement and/or admission essay, for whichever and however many universities.

In the UK, the key contact forum is UCAS which as you probably know already can be accessed here: Its section on personal statements is very helpful – click here.

So why have I included an article on this at all?

Business writing approaches can be very helpful

Those of you who read my business writing stuff regularly will know that I bang on endlessly about the “you” angle, and particularly the need to infuse your writing with an emphasis on “what’s in it for me, the reader.”

Much as university personal statements and the US-favored admission essays would appear to be all about “me” the applicant, let’s not kid ourselves. What’s going to get you in the door is not “all about me” but “all about how I am a suitable student to work well within your university and probably help bring it some good brownie points into the bargain.” Cynical? Yes. Unrealistic? No.

As I have suggested, there are endless websites and books available that will tell you the structures, approaches and “tones of voice” which work best for any particular university application. I can’t duplicate these here (no space) and in any case, in the main they offer you lots of good advice.

Please use these – and especially use the advice given to you by your school or college – as much as you can.

So what advice can I offer?

What I do know about as I suggested above, has little to do with university requirements and everything to do with basic business writing psychology that helps you, as the “product,” to get your foot in the door.

Take a look at these tips, because they will help you to angle your university application material in a way that can grab readers harder. Try to include the tips as and when you can, and don’t let the academic types in your life deflect you from creating material that appeals to its readership rather than anything else…

  • Write as people speak, but don’t just write down a monologue
  • Write in terms of “me,” but don’t use a pompous “royal we” approach
  • If you want to use your “personal brand voice” (see below) make sure it speaks the reader’s language
  • Make every sentence relevant to the audience – “what’s in it for them?”
  • Wherever possible write to “you” – not to anyone in the 3rd-person
  • Don’t just get to the point – start with it, and phrase it so it will grab the audience’s attention
  • Say what you mean and don’t procrastinate with fuzzy language
  • Be informal but be careful not to be overly familiar
  • Use go words, not slow words – sharper nouns, stronger, shorter verbs
  • Use active rather than passive phrasing (“go to bed now,” not “it’s time you went to bed”)
  • Although simple is usually better, don’t over-simplify – it can seem childish or patronising
  • Especially with online text but with print too, avoid long blocks of text because they’re uninviting to read
  • Visually break up long sections of text by peppering them with cross-headings or emboldened key points
  • Keep online sentences and paragraphs short, and vary the length of offline sentences
  • Don’t go into more than one idea per sentence
  • Write so that one sentence flows logically into the next
  • One-word or verbless sentences are useful for pacing and effect, but only if you use them sparingly
  • Where possible start new paragraphs with links like “Of course,” or “However,” to keep the audience hooked
  • Use a list or bullet points to put across more than two or three items in a sequence
  • Keep jargon to a minimum and be sure your audience will understand what you do use
  • Avoid meaningless or valueless clichés because they make your writing seem unoriginal
  • Learn the difference between poor clichés and your subject’s commonly used terms, and use the latter intelligently
  • Avoid adjectives and superlatives that smell phoney, e.g. “best,” “fastest,” “exciting”
  • Use the most visual adjectives and adverbs you can think of – they’re powerful
  • Use “Plain English” wherever possible – even college professors are unimpressed with a lot of long words where short ones will do
  • Check for small grammatical and punctuation goofs – they make you look amateurish
  • Check for spelling mistakes and don’t rely totally on your spellchecker
  • Proofread your work backwards – it sounds crazy but you don’t miss spelling mistakes that way

Get the grownup help you need to make that statement sparkle:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English




  1. Good advice Suze, talking about the ‘you’ and the me/product make so much sense.

    Good luck to the students applying.

    • I suspect another reason why the “you” angle is important in this case is because 99 percent of personal statements will be “I” focused. Ergo a “you” focused statement will be a pleasant surprise for the people reading it….

  2. Very helpful tips—and not just for younguns writing university applications. Unless you’re penning a memoir, it’s always wise to keep the focus on the audience rather than oneself.

    • Very true, Mary. Even with very personalized writing like these statements it’s not so much about “what I do” as it is about “what I do that can benefit you and others,” ergo “the result of what I do / can do.”

  3. Thanks for the wonderful tips, Making sure what really to write in personal statement now for my higher studies.