4 Things That University Admissions Tutors Don’t Care About (And What They Focus On Instead)

Image shows Moscow State University.It’s perhaps because writing the personal statement presents such a challenge for university applicants that there are so many myths surrounding what you should and shouldn’t write on it.

It’s the aspect of the application process that most worries students (with the possible exception of interviews), but even a little knowledge of what exactly it is that admissions tutors are looking for will go a long way towards helping you craft an effective personal statement. In this article, we start by busting some myths about what admissions tutors are interested in, and then move onto what they actually want to hear about in your application. By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll have a clear idea of what makes a solid personal statement and how to impress the people who read it.

The things they don’t care about…

First things first: here are the things to banish from your personal statement before you press “send”.

1. Un-noteworthy achievements from years ago

Image shows a small child being led around an art gallery.
That your parents took you round an art gallery years and years ago is not of interest to anybody.

To fill up space on their UCAS form, and because they’ve heard that admissions tutors like to read about extra-curricular activities, many applicants feel the need to list every single achievement from their entire educational history, no matter how far in the dim and distant past that achievement took place. Thus their personal statements quickly get filled up with irrelevant achievements that contribute nothing to demonstrating enthusiasm for the subject or convincing admissions tutors that they should be given a place. The people who read your personal statement aren’t going to care that you got your Grade 3 violin aged nine, that you won a prize at primary school for your art project, or that you visited London’s Natural History Museum a decade ago. Frankly, why would anybody care, let alone admissions tutors? Focus instead on more recent achievements that reflect your abilities in your subject (we’ll look at these in more detail later).

2. Your interests aged three

Similarly, lots of university applicants mention on their personal statements that they developed their interest in their subject at a very early age: “I’ve been interested in geology ever since I wandered along a beach with my parents aged three and found a fossil.” The idea is to create an impression of longevity, but in reality it’s a cliché that admissions tutors have seen many times before. What’s more, such claims inevitably sound contrived; how many of us can remember clearly what we were interested in at that age? And just because you happened to display an interest in the subject at an early age doesn’t mean that you’re going to have the commitment to study it with the rigour required for an undergraduate degree. Your personal statement needs to be focused on the here and now, with some consideration of your future aims; as they say, “don’t look back: you’re not going there.” Again, we’ll discuss what you should talk about instead in more detail later.
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3. That a relative went to this university or studied this subject

Image shows two grandparents.
The admissions tutor wants to know about you, not your grandparents.

It should be obvious that you should never mention a university by name in your personal statement, but we’re mentioning this in case you feel tempted to answer an interview question such as “why do you want to study at this university” by saying “because my dad/mum/grandad/grandma/uncle/fifth-cousin-twice-removed went here”. The fact that a relative went to the university is not sufficient reason to choose a particular institution; admissions tutors want to see evidence that you’ve put real thought into where you’ve applied. They want to know that you have the right motives, that you’ve done your research, and that if they offer you a place, there’s a good chance that you’ll accept it. If you’re asked in the interview why you chose this particular university, you should therefore concentrate on highlighting its strengths for your course, as this shows that the course is your number one priority – a fact that’s sure to go down well.

4. What other people think

You may think that quoting writers and scholars in your personal statement makes you appear erudite, but admissions tutors aren’t reading your statement because they want to know what other people think – they want to know what you think! Including highbrow quotations in your personal statement doesn’t just come across as pretentious; it could also be working against you, because hiding behind the words of others only makes you appear less confident in what your own opinions are. So, stick to writing in your own voice.

…And what admissions tutors really focus on

Now that you’ve got rid of the things above, replace them with the following and you’ll have a superb personal statement.

Your genuine interest in the subject you’re applying for

Image shows a girl looking at a model of a molecule.
You need to demonstrate your genuine passion for your subject.

Above all, what admissions tutors actually want to know is that you have a genuine enthusiasm for the subject you’re applying for – in other words, that you’re applying for the right reasons. This is because people who have a real interest in the subject will be more motivated to study it, are more likely to succeed in it, and are going to stick it out to the end of the course. Essentially, you’re going to be a better student if you’re really interested in what you’re studying. Personal statements and interviews serve the purpose of weeding out those who can’t demonstrate this, so your primary aim when writing your personal statement is to show them that you are someone with a real interest in the subject.
To this end, tell them what you’ve done to pursue your interest in the subject, such as what books you’ve read (more on this later), what activities you’ve undertaken to develop your knowledge, what qualifications you’ve taken to further equip yourself for studying the subject, and so on. You could include things like the places you’ve visited that teach you more about the subject, work experience you’ve done, subject-related clubs and societies you’re a member of, and so on. Each time you mention something, provide a little commentary on what you’ve learned from it, so that you don’t come across as doing things just for the sake of mentioning them on your UCAS form, but because you’re genuinely interested and want to learn.
Your attitude towards what you’re studying right now is important, too. Explain why you chose the A-levels you’re studying, and what you’re finding most interesting in your A-level study at the moment; why have these subjects captured your interest, and how do they help prepare you for studying your chosen subject at university? If you can show that you’ve specifically chosen each A-level subject for the skills it will teach you, and then relate those back to how these skills will be employed at university, even better.

Your long-term commitment to the subject

Image shows a man lifting a huge set of dumbbells.
You need to be committed to achieve impressive results.

Admissions tutors want to know that you’re in this for the long-haul, but that doesn’t mean that they want to know that you’ve been interested in the subject since before you could walk. They want evidence of longevity stretching into the future, not the past, because they don’t want students who will drop out after a year because they have not chosen their subject wisely, or they’re applying based on a passing whim, because this happens to be what they’re interested in right at this very moment.
They will therefore ideally want to see some evidence that you’ve been thinking about how the subject fits in with longer-term goals, such as your career aims. If you’ve done some work experience in a related field, this should definitely be mentioned, as it’s evidence that you’re serious about understanding whether the subject is suitable for you and your desired career path. You may not have a defined career path yet – and it may change – but showing that you’ve thought about it – and that you’ve determined that this degree is the best preparation for it – is important.

What you’ve been reading

As we said earlier, admissions tutors care very much about what you’ve been reading to develop your interest in and knowledge of your subject. You should therefore devote a reasonable amount of space on your personal statement to a discussion of what you’ve read beyond the A-level syllabus (i.e. what you’ve read purely for the interest and enjoyment of it, rather than because you’ve been told to by your teachers). Include a range of literature, from seminal works to more obscure scholarship, though don’t just name-drop: explain a little about your responses to what you’ve read, including what’s particularly interested you about what you’ve read. If you’re applying for English, you might give an indication of which periods of literature and authors particularly interest you, for example.

Your suitability for the course

Image shows students working away in a library.
Are you going to be prepared to spend hours in the library on this subject?

Another thing admissions tutors will want to understand from your personal statement is your suitability for the course. You can’t take it for granted that they will assume you’re suitable based on what A-levels you’re studying; experience from A-levels shouldn’t be left unspoken, so spell out exactly how A-levels have taught you the skills needed to study this degree.
Having relevant qualifications – such as the right A-levels – are part of determining your suitability for the course, but they’re not the only consideration. If you can demonstrate an understanding of what the course involves, and your ability to meet the particular challenges it presents, this will strengthen your personal statement dramatically (as will an understanding of the challenges faced by the subject as a whole, or the industry or sector for which it prepares you, as is the case with Medicine). For example, you could mention that what you’ve learned from work experience in a lab will make you more able to cope with the challenges of the practical elements of a science degree.

Subject-related achievements and transferable skills

We said earlier that admissions tutors don’t want to hear about minor achievements such as getting your Grade Three violin when you were nine. However, what they do want to know about is more recent achievements, particularly those related to the subject, or alternatively achievements that demonstrate specific, named attributes that will make you more suitable for this course. For example, you might have won a maths competition, which is evidence of your mathematical ability, which will be invaluable for a physics degree; or you might have achieved Grade 8 on the piano, evidence of your determination to succeed to the highest level and proof of your self-motivation and discipline – all qualities that you’ll need for achieving the top degree classification (which is, of course, what you’re aiming for…). You don’t need to list every single one; a handful that demonstrate different qualities will be sufficient.

Image shows an archaeological dig.
You could visit an archaeological dig to show your interest in History or Archaeology and Anthropology.

It’s not a complete myth that admissions tutors want to hear all about your extra-curricular activities, but many students undoubtedly go about discussing them in the wrong way. Admissions tutors are interested in them insofar as they demonstrate transferable skills; the fact that they show that you’re an interesting person with a variety of interests outside your course is a secondary advantage. Extra-curricular activities aren’t usually that impressive when you simply list them; tutors want to know what you’ve learned from them, and how this helps your suitability for the course. For instance, your involvement in the school hockey team isn’t, at first glance, that relevant to your application to study chemistry at university, but it is when you talk about how your experience of the strong teamwork required to succeed in hockey means you’re able to adapt yourself easily to group work in a university context.
To sum up, as a basic rule of thumb, your subject is your most important consideration throughout your personal statement (and interviews), and everything you mention should be related back to how this makes you suitable for the course. Demonstrate your interest in, commitment to and suitability for the subject and course, and the rest will follow.


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Image credits: banner; art gallery; grandparents; interested; weightlifter; library; dig.