Why your students are writing poor personal statements & what to do about it

Up to 80% of a university’s decision on an applicant is based on their personal statement. But studies show that about 75% of teachers’ judgements on students do not align with admissions officers’. Only 6% of young people are educated privately in the UK but they make up 55% of students at Russell Group universities.

I started UniRise to address this educational inequality. We interviewed over 20 admissions officers from top UK universities to understand exactly what they’re looking for in an “outstanding” personal statement, and it was striking how it was different to what I was told as a teacher. 

Have a read of these two introductions. 

Which one do you think increases an applicant’s likelihood of being offered a place?

We surveyed 6,000 students, 120 year 13 tutors and 30 admissions officers about what they thought. 96% of students and 90% of year 13 tutors found example 2 more compelling, noting that it was a “sophisticated” statement that demonstrates the student’s passion for law. 

100% of admissions officers disagreed. 

They found the first example far better because the student reflects on their experience to show why they are interested in management and reflect on a range of prompts, whilst the second statement was deemed “vague” and “fluffy”. 

This study shows the difference between teachers’ and admissions tutors’ thoughts on the first sentence of the law statement:

Let’s dig into what admissions tutors are actually looking for. 

First, of the following common structures, which is ideal?

Whilst the content is more important than the structure, admissions tutors unanimously agreed that they preferred structure 3. A common myth is that students should spend a paragraph writing about their motivation for studying each of their A level subjects or how it relates to their degree. 

This is often irrelevant. 

Students also often focus a significant portion of their statement on their extracurricular activities, but admissions officers consistently noted this should be only mentioned during the last paragraph. Whilst it’s important for students to show that they’re rounded, tutors from Oxford, UCL and many other universities highlight that at least 80% of your personal statement should be on your academic interests, and less than 20% on extracurriculars.

Ultimately, they care a lot more about students demonstrating interest in their subject by engaging in academic material than students’ passion for volunteering at the local refugee centre. 

What makes a good topic paragraph?

Here’s an example of a low-quality topic paragraph from a physics applicant:

This is a poor topic paragraph. The student has listed a series of books and lectures but has failed to critically engage with and reflect on his experience of them. He goes into no detail describing how the books challenged his opinions, or whether he agrees or disagrees with their arguments. He then states how they compounded his “passion” for physics, but doesn’t explain exactly what he’s passionate about and why. Compare it to the following topic paragraph from an economics student:

This student has chosen a specific topic within economics (poverty), has mentioned a book and most importantly has reflected on what they learnt about reading the book. They then use that as an opportunity to show that it led them to watch a TED talk – we call this “bridging” – which he reflects on again. It’s clear that this student is far more passionate about and engaged with economics than the physics student is about physics. He doesn’t say they’re passionate; he shows it with nuanced reflection. The more students reflect on their experiences/books/lectures and write about what they learnt and how it challenged their opinions, the more compelling their personal statement will be. 

If you take away only one thing from this blog post, it’s that it’s not really that important what the students have read/done, but how they engage with and reflect on it. They don’t have to pretend they’ve read lots of books on a topic; they can share an article they read, how it extended their understanding of a sub-topic of their chosen discipline, which encouraged them to research the topic further, where they learnt something else, which they found compelling because it perhaps adds a contrasting perspective to the previous resource, which is insightful because … (you get the point). 

At UniRise, we’ve taken all of the insights from admissions officers and built a free course for students to explain the ins and outs of how to write an outstanding personal statement. They also have access to an interactive statement bank which encourages them to reflect on what they’ve read with linking phrases like the template below shows:

Over 70,000 students from 87 countries have taken our free Perfect Statement course

We also partner with schools, with whom we’ve doubled the number of students getting into Russell Group universities and tripled Oxbridge acceptances. 

If you’re interested to learn more, have us run a workshop with your students or teachers, or have our team review your students’ personal statement, shoot me an email at ollie@unirise.co.uk 

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