The personal statement shows different things depending on where you are applying. In the UK, the UCAS personal statement is an opportunity to explore the student’s academic area of interest and show the research they’ve done in that area.
The UK application process is more direct and 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.
In the US, the personal statement is similarly a reflection of broader
application priorities. Top US colleges and universities seek well-rounded students that will thrive in liberal arts academic environments emphasizing plurality of thought and inquisitive dialogue through Socratic-style teaching methods.
The US personal statement is thus about helping colleges understand who the student is – their formative experiences, their goals, and how they think about the world around them. More than any other part of the process, it is a window into their mind and thoughtfulness, empathy, and reflection are prized highly.
What kind of personal statement stands out to admissions officers?
This likewise varies a lot! A good UK personal statement will likely make for a poor centerpiece to a US application, and vice versa. Quality UK statements are direct and precise. They are nuanced and
academic, and applicants recite existing accomplishments and research to directly evidence their role qualifications.
Remember that the goal is showing that the student will be well prepared to study in their chosen area of discipline: their writing ability and personality isn’t being evaluated!
A good US personal statement, by contrast, has very little to do with the rest of the student’s application. It should not reiterate other parts of the Common App. Unless there is a ton of additional context needed on an existing activity, students should shy away from touching on topics covered elsewhere and focus instead on explaining other parts of who they are.
Statements should be authentic and reflective: what happened to the student is often less important than how they processed and understood it. Students can write about any topic they want – personal stories from their youth, how they think about important social issues, or their dreams and ambitions.
The essays below reflect this, what unifies them is neither topic nor style but how honest they are and the picture the reader gets into the writer’s mind and personality.
Common mistakes in personal statement essays
In the UK, a common mistake is to be too flowery with the writing – to put down something closer to poetry on the page. The UCAS personal statement is intended to capture academic goals and lay out the student’s vision for their time in college: it is not a measure of how good of a writer the student is.
In the US, one common mistake is to assume that because the readers want to learn about the student as a person, the best topic to write about are difficult personal topics. While some of the essays below are compelling personal narratives about hardship, not all good personal statements take that form. If you are writing about hardship because you feel that’s what they want to hear, and not because that is an authentic turning point in your life on which you have genuine reflection, it’s likely not the right topic.
Final words of advice
Writing personal statements is difficult! The UK essay is a bit more straightforward, but in both cases, it is the opportunity for the student to concisely explain the thesis of their application: why the college should take them. To tackle this well, you need to start early and take your time. Two techniques that help are:
- Taking time to write by hand. Too many students write on their computer, where distractions abound and it’s easy to get sidetracked. Put the computer away and write on paper. It will go slower, and that’s ok! Slowing down gives you time to think and choose words carefully: the prizes are only for having the best essay, not finishing quickly.
- Take time to walk outside. Walking has been shown to activate and calm the brain – when you hit stumbling block, leave the page behind and take some time to think as you exercise. Often, by the time you get back you may have figured out the right words!
So are you ready to explore exactly what sorts of essays result in acceptance to the best schools in the world? Keep reading and good luck!