15 Mistakes That Will Ruin your UCAS Application

Image shows graduating students being showered in yellow and purple confetti.

One of the most nerve-wracking elements of composing your university application is the dreaded personal statement.

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With only a relatively small space in which to sell yourself, the pressure is on to find the right things to say to get yourself noticed by the admissions tutors. While much is said about what sort of things you should write in your personal statement in order to stand out and impress, what about the things that are better left unsaid and the things you should definitely avoid doing? Given the huge volume of applications they receive, admissions tutors are often looking for easy reasons to weed some out. Make sure your application doesn’t get noticed for all the wrong reasons by taking heed of these important tips.

1. Untruths

Image shows Pinocchio from the 1940 Disney movie.
Admissions tutors will be able to spot any fictions in your application.

Firstly, and most crucially: never, ever lie in your personal statement. If you do, it will almost certainly come back to haunt you. Don’t make up qualifications or pretend you’ve read books when you haven’t (even if you’ve read little bits of them). If you’re interviewed for a university place, you’ll very probably end up being quizzed about your favourite parts of the course you supposedly went on, or asked to explain what you thought of the book you’ve said you enjoyed reading, and you’ll look incredibly foolish if you try to make up an answer. Your interviewer will spot what’s going on straightaway, and your chances of a place will diminish as rapidly as your face turns red. Only include books that you’ve definitely read or experiences that you’ve definitely been through; think about them in depth and be prepared to discuss them face-to-face.

2. Names of universities

Don’t forget that your application is going to a maximum of six universities, and they’ll all see the same personal statement; you can’t tailor your statement to each university. Mentioning the strength of your desire to study at Cambridge is unlikely to go down too well with the other universities on your application form, so if you don’t make it into Cambridge, you’ll have no choice but to resort to Clearing or take a year out and reapply. Don’t scupper your chances – no university names should make it into your personal statement whatsoever.

3. Copying someone else’s personal statement

Image shows two identical-looking birds.
Plagiarism detectors are also used on personal statements.

However tempting it may seem to ‘borrow’ the personal statement of a successful applicant to your dream university, it’s really not a good idea. The clue is in the name – personal statement. It has to come from you. Your hopes and dreams, personality, motivations, interests and just about everything else are unique to you, and pretending to be someone else won’t do you any favours. And just imagine if it was the same admissions tutor reading ‘your’ personal statement who read the real writer’s application…
Don’t forget, also, that the admissions process is a two-way thing – it’s not just about whether you’re suitable for the university, but whether the university is suitable for you. If you use someone else’s personal statement, it probably doesn’t reflect who you really are. In the unlikely event that you get a place on the strength of that borrowed personal statement, you might find you end up hating your time at that university because the admissions tutors gave you a place on the strength of statements that didn’t represent you; they wouldn’t know that the real you wasn’t a good fit for their institution.

4. Quotes from other people

You may think that including quotes from other people (authors, philosophers, you get the idea) makes you sound intelligent and well-educated, but it’s a cliché that the university admissions tutors will have seen countless times before. It smacks of pretentiousness, and it’s therefore something you should avoid. Admissions tutors want to hear what you have to say – not what other people say! You have a limited number of words to get your own personality and interests across, so use them wisely and stick to using your own words.

5. Inspired by a Hollywood movie

Image shows the actress Reese Witherspoon.
If Legally Blonde was the inspiration for your law application, keep it to yourself.

It can be difficult to explain in a personal statement what it was that led you to your interest in the subject you’re applying for. Explaining that you’re interested because “you just are” doesn’t cut it, but it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint where your interest actually originated (and “developing a passion for it at school” sounds a little dull). A word to the wise on one alternative source of inspiration, though: admissions tutors are unlikely to be impressed by the revelation that you want to study a subject because you’ve been inspired by a Hollywood movie. That’s because movies are rarely an accurate depiction of what subjects are like in real life. Look at my subject, classical archaeology, for example. Being inspired to study archaeology by Time Team isn’t really a bad thing. But given the historical inaccuracy of films such as Alexander, stating that this has inspired you is unlikely to go down well. What’s more, the Indiana Jones trilogy bears very little resemblance to what archaeology is really like. In my experience, academics like going to see films related to their subject – and then tearing them apart afterwards. So, don’t add fuel to the fire; you never know, you might irritate the admissions tutor without even realising it.

6. Apprentice-style bigging yourself up

It is, of course, possible to go too far the other way. You’ve probably watched BBC1’s The Apprentice and shared the nation’s dismay at the huge egos and self-aggrandisement on the part of the candidates. So don’t let your personal statement make you come across as being similarly egotistical! Avoid sweeping, unsubstantiated claims of your own brilliance; obviously you need to sell yourself, but modesty is a lot more winning and will get you much further. It’s a question of finding a happy medium somewhere between egomania and self-deprecation.

7. Clichés and rhetorical questions

Image shows a controlled forest fire burning fiercely.
Fire imagery – “ignited a passion,” “sparked your interest” – is also considered cliché and best kept to a minimum.

On the subject of clichés, there are plenty more over-used phrases to be avoided in your personal statement. Think “thirst for knowledge”, “from an early age”, “when I was little” – that sort of thing. You might think these phrases sound good, and establish you as someone with a life-long interest in your subject, but really they don’t say anything and just waste words. What’s more, rhetorical questions such as “So why should you pick me?” should be avoided; they’re a way of stating the obvious, and eat into your valuable word count. A good rule of thumb is to think about how you talk in real life; if you read your personal statement and it just doesn’t sound like how you would actually talk, you probably need to address the tone and find a more natural style (while still retaining the formality required in this context, of course – don’t go too far into a conversational tone or use slang!).

8. Humour

We all want our personal statements to stand out, but make sure yours doesn’t stand out in the wrong way by avoiding any attempts to be humorous. Humour in such a context can come across as arrogance, or even a lack of respect or deference to the senior academics you’re addressing, and it comes under the category of ‘seen it all before’ as far as the admissions tutors are concerned. By all means adopt a confident tone, but keep it formal and don’t try telling jokes; it isn’t the time or the place.

9. Controversy

Image shows melting polar ice at sunset.
Applying to study Geography and saying you don’t believe in climate change is unlikely to impress admissions tutors with your daring.

Don’t be overly controversial in your personal statement, particularly if you can’t back up why you have that opinion. Excessive controversy can look contrived, as though you are deliberately being controversial in order to stand out. What’s more, you don’t know who’s reading your personal statement or what their beliefs and opinions are; you may unintentionally aggravate or alienate them by expressing a controversial view. That said, it’s fine to talk about an unusual theory you may have on a topic relevant to your subject – provided you can explain a little about what has led you to this idea and what you’re doing to try to prove it. If you’re invited for an interview, expect to be grilled on this topic.

10. Slang

As we’ve already touched on, slang should be avoided. Your personal statement is not the place for the informal language you use when you’re with your friends, and it’s perfectly possible to come across as friendly without resorting to the use of the vernacular.

11. Flattery (will get you nowhere)

Image shows a supplicant addressing a medieval king.
When applying for a PhD, showing knowledge and appreciation of your prospective supervisor’s work is desirable; not so at undergraduate level.

Don’t try to ingratiate yourself with admissions tutors by talking about what a privilege it would be to study with them, or how honoured you’d be if you were given a place. Admissions tutors can see straight through these sorts of tactics, and you’re far better off concentrating on yourself, what you have to offer them and why you’d be a good candidate for the course for which you are applying.

12. Irrelevant details and lists

Don’t feel obliged to include every single thing you’ve ever done in or out of the classroom if it’s not relevant. You can include two or three interests and hobbies at the end of your personal statement to give the admissions tutors a flavour of who you are outside academia, but they don’t need to know all the details. What’s more, lists are to be avoided. If you’ve included in a single sentence more than two or three examples of books you’ve read or awards you’ve won, you’ve included too many. It’s far better to include one or two examples and give an insightful comment on what you thought of each of them, why you appreciated them or how you achieved something, than to bore admissions tutors with dry lists of things that on their own don’t mean much. Look at your personal statement objectively and ask yourself: would I be interested in reading this? If not, why should an admissions tutor be interested in it?

13. Self-deprecation and other negativity

Image shows a mountaineer climbing a mountain.
“I went up a small hill the other day…”

Don’t be too self-deprecating in your personal statement: it’s there to show admissions tutors that you’re intelligent and talented, and that you’d be an asset to their institution. So even if you’re naturally over-modest, or shy when talking about your own achievements (as we Brits often are), put that to one side and make sure you highlight all the great reasons why admissions tutors should want to teach you. Avoid all negativity; don’t highlight things you don’t know or subjects you’ve not done so well in, for example. Keep your personal statement focused on the positives.

14. Repeating yourself

You’re very limited in the number of words you have on your personal statement, so make the most of them. Don’t repeat yourself, and don’t repeat your academic qualifications or give a list of which subjects you’re studying: these are already outlined elsewhere on your application. By all means mention specific topics you’re learning about within the subjects relevant to the course you want to study, and talk about why you find them interesting and what you’re getting out of them, but there’s no need to say things like, “I’m studying A-level English, Maths, Physics and Music, along with an AS level in General Studies and a GCSE in Spanish” – this information is already available if the admissions tutor wants to know it.

15. Typos and spelling errors

Image shows an advert for a university offering a 'postrgraduate degree'.
Watch out for spelling errors!

Few things will impress admissions tutors less than poor spelling and grammar, so get someone else to proofread your personal statement before sending it off (you’ve been looking at it in so much detail already that you may have become blind to errors that will appear obvious to someone who’s reading your statement for the first time). Relying on the spelling and grammar check on your text-editing programme isn’t enough; it needs a human eye to spot every typo and grammar error. “Form”, for example, is still a proper word, but it wouldn’t register in a spell check as a typo of “from”.
If all these things you shouldn’t include on your university application have left you confused and wondering whether there’s anything you can actually talk about, watch out for another post coming soon about how to write the perfect personal statement!

Image credits: banner; Pinocchio; birds; Witherspoon; fire; ice melting; king; mountain; error