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Interview: A Deep Dive Into the UK Personal Statement with a Crimson Strategist and Oxford Graduate

22 MAR 2021

The UK personal statement is unlike any piece of writing you’ll come across in high school. In just 4,000 characters (roughly 600 words), you have the opportunity to set yourself apart from a crowd of tens of thousands. So how can you nail your UK personal statement to ensure your application is as strong as possible?

University admissions officers read several thousand applications each year — meaning they only spend a few minutes on each one. This is why it’s vital to make your application stand out, and one of the best ways to do so is by writing a compelling personal statement that makes them want to take a second read.

In the UK, the UCAS personal statement provides an opportunity to explore your academic area of interest and show the research you’ve done in that area. Compared with the US, the UK application process is more focused on the student’s formal qualifications for study, so students can clearly demonstrate a rigorous grasp on their declared major. Quality personal statements cite existing research and show nuanced understanding of the underlying theory, proving the student’s readiness for college work. But how do you ensure your essay ticks all the boxes?

To read examples of personal statements that helped Crimson students gain admission to their top-choice universities in the US and UK, visit Crimson’s blog where we share real student-written essays each week. Click here for the latest post in the series!

Additionally, in a recent episode from the College Tips series on the Top of the Class podcast, Crimson Strategist, Oxford English Language and Literature graduate and LSE masters graduate, Abbi Colwyn, shares how students can make the most of their unique story in the UK personal statement.

Below is an abbreviated transcript of the Top of the Class interview between Abbi and podcast co-host, Alex Cork. Some quotes are edited for clarity. Click the following links to download the full episode or stream it on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.


Let's get into what you want to chat about today, which is personal statements. Why did you choose personal statements as your topic of choice?


I love working with students on their personal statements. I find it such an interesting process, because it's one of those parts of the application that you can really make individual. It's a chance for me to have meetings with students and actually get a sense of what their interests are, and have great debates in our sessions as well.

Working with students across different subjects, I'm learning as well! I'm learning about all these different areas of physics, or maths or humanities that students really, really care about. And so I find it a really rewarding experience — to get students from just initially describing and being a bit shy to then seeing a finished product, something tangible at the end, where they’re being insightful and really engaging. It's just a really nice thing to see and to work on. So definitely something that I'm passionate about in the application process.


Are you able to put a rough weighting on the personal statement or does it really depend on the university that you're applying to?


Ignoring Medicine, Vet Med and Dentistry, which are a completely separate ballgame, I would say you're looking at 75% on academics and then 25% for the personal statement with all the extracurriculars in there. So it's not the biggest factor in your application, but it's certainly something that can push your candidacy and help them make that decision.


Is there a typical formula that most students should try and follow or emulate if they're writing a personal statement for the UK?


We do see what a typical successful statement looks like. Pretty much all of them have a very personal introduction — it's similar to the US in terms of having a really bold and impactful opening. But in the UK, that introduction just needs to really give us a sense of why you're applying for the course. The question that I ask students is, What does it stem from? So not just, ‘My parents are lawyers, I want to study law.’ Is there a debate that you've all discussed? And what was the debate? And what was the particular discussion point that you grappled with?

Moving on from the intro, there are the main body paragraphs. The word count is so small for the UK — it's 4000 characters, so pretty much 600 words — it's tiny, so you have to really make sure that those main body paragraphs still show depth, even if they're slightly shorter. We usually say make sure there's a key interest in there, make sure there's some evidence of how you're going to do on the curriculum, and then make sure you've got some analysis, some evaluation of that evidence. Ask yourself, What did you gain? What was your big takeaway from the internship you did, or from the book you read?

And then make sure that the conclusion ties everything together, but really gives a sense of what you hope to gain from the degree. Have you got a career path in mind? Or really, what do you bring to the degree? I push all my international students to lean into their background, because that's what sets them apart from domestic students. Having lived in maybe two different countries, or knowing five languages — what does that add to this degree? Why does that set you apart?

In terms of the tone of the statement, the formula that works is really just being authentic, being genuine. Having sentences that aren't just plausible, but really well conceived so we can see that you've put a lot of time and effort into coming up with the insights, and making that analysis. And at Crimson Education, we have these five key pillars, which are: insight, engagement and curiosity, good structure, quality of prose, and authenticity. For me, those five things really do work for students.


That's an awesome summary. I always like looking at the common mistakes that students might make. So in the personal statement’s case, what might they be?


Clichés are a big one, I see that so many times. Things like, ‘I've always wanted to be a doctor, I really want to save lives.’ That's lovely — you know, we want everyone to save lives. But it needs to be a bit more unique than that. Has there been a particular patient you engaged with that stood out to you, and why?

We want to avoid the sense that you're being pushed into a direction but instead, actually, you've chosen this direction; it's something that has been an educated choice. So definitely avoid those clichés.

And with that, a lot of students tend to quote people. Students think they need to, in reading academic material, use a quotation — but actually, you really don’t. You want to be using your own voice as much as possible, rather than using anybody else's. If you are set on using a quote, make sure that you don't just put it in there. Make sure that you actually engage with it.

The other thing we see a lot is listing. We see a lot of, ‘I need to tell you all my achievements, because they're really impressive and I'm really happy about them.’ And that's great — but we don't want it to just be a long list. A tutor has to read hundreds and hundreds of these, so you want it to be engaging, you want us to get a sense of why these different extracurriculars are relevant to your course and how they build on one another. Did you gain different perspectives from different books? Did you gain a more practical application of doing something? And so the big thing we say is to really discuss, don't list. We say show, don't tell. Don't tell me you're creative, or you're critical, or you're independent — show me that through what you've done.

Abbi is just one of many admissions experts on Crimson’s global team who have helped scores of students gain admission to their dream universities. Curious how you can build a stand-out university application with the support of experienced strategists like Abbi? To learn more about how Crimson can help set you on the path to success, click the link below to schedule a free one hour consultation with an Academic Advisor.

Alex is the co-host of the Top of the Class Podcast

Written by

Alex C.

Alex Cork manages the Top of the Class podcast and has worked in the education sector for 10 years. He has interviewed more than 300 students and has a genuine curiosity in student achievement whether this be in sport, music, extracurriculars, academics, business or activism.