4 Common UCAS Personal Statement Issues and How to Resolve Them

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It’s little wonder that it’s the part of the UCAS form that every student dreads: the personal statement is your chance to explain – in a precious few hundred words – why a university should make you an offer.

The pressure is on, and it’s not helped by the fact that there are a few common problems making things more difficult for some students. We’ve previously given you some tips on how to write an effective personal statement, but in this article, we tackle some of the common issues head-on and show you how to make sure your personal statement still shines.

1. Writing a personal statement for a joint honours course

Image shows the Italian flag flying.
Economics and Italian sounds like a great course, but the connection is not obvious.

It’s notoriously tricky to write a personal statement for a joint honours course – that is, a course on which you study two different subjects. Those two subjects may be fairly similar – such as history and archaeology – in which case it should be fairly straightforward to talk about the two subjects and how they work effectively together. However, if the two subjects are very different – such as Birmingham’s Economics with Italian, or Oxford’s Computer Science and Philosophy – you face the challenge of trying to talk equally about your interests in both. It can be hard to know how to structure a personal statement that needs to cover two very different subjects, and it can also be difficult to explain your equal enthusiasm for both and how it came about. Many students writing joint honours personal statements end up talking too much about one and not enough about the other, or talking more naturally and enthusiastically about one than the other. The key points you need to get across when applying for a joint honours course are:

  • Your interest in both
  • Your aptitude for both, and what you’ve done to develop your interest in them
  • Why you want to study them together, and how the two might complement each other
  • How you see these two subjects fitting in with your longer-term aims

Rather than trying to talk about both at the same time, you might find it more straightforward to begin by talking about one subject, then the other, and then perhaps adding a line or two about why you think it would be beneficial to study them alongside each other. A slightly different way of doing it would be to talk about the first subject (what motivates you to study it, what aspects particularly interest you, and so on), and then discuss the second in relation to the first, immediately discussing why you think it complements the first and why you think a joint honours course is for you.

Image shows a laptop that someone is coding on.
With developments such as self-driving cars bringing the trolley problem to life, the overlap between computer science and philosophy is greater than it might seem.

To write an effective personal statement, you’ll need to make sure that you’re applying for the same combination of subjects at all your university choices. Your personal statement might sound great if you’re applying for Computer Science and Philosophy at University A, but it will make no sense to University B if you’re applying only for Philosophy. Alternatively, some students choose to write about just one of their joint honours subjects. This leaves them the flexibility to apply for different combinations of subjects, with one in common (such as English and French or English and Spanish). Approaching it this way has the advantage of allowing you to talk in more depth about the main subject; if you’re trying to talk about two subjects in a very limited amount of space, you may not be able to say everything you want to say. On the other hand, if you can show how keen you are on both subjects, and even talk about why you think it makes sense to study both, then your personal statement may come across stronger than that of a student who only talks about one subject, with no explanation as to why they have applied for the joint honours course rather than that one subject on its own.

2. Writing a personal statement for several subtly (or very) different courses

Image shows a scene from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript.
Don’t enthuse about Old English if not all of your choices offer it.

Unless you’re applying for a joint honours course, you’re not going to be able to choose two wildly different subjects, because your personal statement simply won’t work if you try to appeal to admissions tutors from different courses or departments. However, you can choose closely related subjects, and of course some courses are called different things at different universities and cover some different topics.
The key here is to look for overlaps in the course content and talk about those. You’ll need to scrutinise the course content closely for each university and draw up a list of the topics that are covered by all of them. Don’t fall into the trap of stating your enthusiasm for studying a particular module if it’s not provided at all your university choices, because it will look odd to the universities who don’t cover it (and may be enough to lose you a potential offer). Avoid specifically naming any course in particular, as this is another dead giveaway to admissions tutors that another university may be your first choice. If you’re writing with your first choice university in mind, be careful that you don’t let slip any information that may reveal this; for example, if you know that the English course at your first-choice university places great emphasis on early English, but your other choices have less of a focus on this aspect, they may be able to tell that your heart lies elsewhere!

3. Explaining a bad grade (or many)

Whether it’s a below-par GCSE grade, or many, or a less-than-brilliant predicted A-level grade, or many, the ease with which you’ll be able to explain this shortfall on your personal statement depends very much on the circumstances surrounding it. Nevertheless, easy or not, it’s definitely worth acknowledging it in your personal statement, because the admissions tutor will have noticed – so it’s no use pretending it’s not the case and hoping they won’t notice. Let’s look at some of the possible reasons for low grades and consider each in turn.

Illness or family problems

Image shows a student asleep in a pile of cushions and duvets.
Having managed some study during your illness shows the university that you’re determined.

This may be a sensitive issue and it’s probably best not to dwell too much on in your personal statement; you don’t want to look as though you are angling for the ‘sympathy vote’. However, genuinely extenuating circumstances that explain a bad grade should be mentioned in passing, along with an explanation of what you’re doing to make up for it and, ideally, evidence to back up your claim that you’re trying to do better. For example, you might say something like: “Although my GCSE English grade was lower than I’d been aiming for due to my falling ill for several weeks during the term before exams, I’ve worked hard to make up for this at A-level, as you can see from my strong AS and predicted grades in this subject.” If you do have extenuating circumstances, your teachers will almost certainly mention them in your references, so you’ll have those to back up what you say. If you’re concerned about how your grades may look, talk to your teachers about it and remind them of the circumstances – this should jog their memory so that they remember to mention it in their references.

You didn’t work hard enough

This is clearly something you can’t admit to in your personal statement, as it will give a very poor impression to admissions tutors. It’s difficult to explain, though, and you may be at a disadvantage even if you’ve since got your act together and improved your grades; there will be many other candidates whose grades are just as good as yours – and better than yours. You certainly can’t feign illness or personal problems as an excuse, because your personal statement then wouldn’t corroborate what your teachers say in your references, and that would arouse suspicion. Your best bet is to try to show what you’re doing to improve, rather than focusing on the reasons.

Image shows two students studying in the library together.
What extra study will you do to improve your grades?

Acknowledge – briefly – that your grade(s) aren’t as good as you’d like, but tell them what you’re going to improve your forthcoming grades, and prove to them with your intelligent remarks in your personal statement that you are academically gifted. Explain that you’re taking on extra classes to bring your grades up to scratch, or that you’re reading around the subject even more in an effort to improve. Evidence of original thinking in your personal statement – for example, in your comments about what you’ve been reading – may be enough to counter the detrimental effect of a poor grade or grades. If you can provide some evidence that you’ve improved, even better; for instance, if your GCSE grade in Physics wasn’t as good as you were hoping for, but you’re predicted an A in A-level Physics, this is evidence that you are capable of doing better. Without this kind of evidence, you may find that it’s more difficult to win them over; but if the rest of your application is strong, you may just be able to do it.

You’re not academically up to it

This is the hardest reason to account for poor grades, because there isn’t really much you can do about it. If your grades are generally lower than the typical offers of universities you’re applying to, you should be questioning whether or not these universities are actually right for you. There’s nothing wrong with aiming high, within reason; but if you’re going to struggle academically, you’re probably not going to have a particularly enjoyable university experience. This is an issue that you should talk to your teachers about; you need a frank and objective opinion from someone who knows your academic standard. It’s a hard thing to face up to, but you’ll thank yourself in the long run.

4. Not enough extra-curricular activities

Image shows a man on a parachute.
There are some hobbies you can’t do before a certain age – why not take up one of those?

Many students worry that they don’t have enough extra-curricular activities to talk about on their personal statements. This needn’t necessarily be a hindrance to you, as personal statements are there primarily to assess your academic interest in and suitability for the subject for which you are applying. In fact, students often make the mistake of devoting too much of their personal statement to talking about extra-curricular activities, which is worse than not having enough to talk about. Hobbies are useful for showing that you’re a well-rounded person, and they’re especially helpful if they have some relevance to your course (for instance, you play in an orchestra and you’re applying to read Music), but for universities in the UK, they’re not the be all and end all that you may have heard they are (American universities may place more importance on them, however). You certainly don’t need a huge long list of them.
Here are some of the things you could do about this if you really feel it’s an issue:

  • Devote more of your personal statement to talking about aspects of your A-level courses you’ve enjoyed.
  • Discuss books you’ve read on the subject, and perhaps towards the end mention what kind of books you enjoy reading in your spare time (they don’t have to be relevant to the course in the context of general comments about your hobbies).
  • Spend more time highlighting aspects of the subject that you’re most looking forward to learning more about, and why.
  • Talk about the extra-curricular things you’re planning for the summer: you don’t necessarily have to be doing them now. For example, “I’m planning to spend the summer developing my French skills whilst touring France”.
  • Take up a new extra-curricular activity right now! They don’t need to know that you’ve only just started it. If you are going to do this, you could score extra brownie points by making it something that not only demonstrates key attributes such as teamwork, but that also has some relevance to the course you’re applying for. It could even be a blog dedicated to something related to your subject.

These are four of the most common issues students encounter when writing personal statements, but as we’ve seen, there is almost always a way around them. If you’re in need of extra advice, don’t be afraid to seek the help of a teacher who knows you and your work. Personal circumstances have a big part to play in university applications (that’s why they’re called ‘personal’ statements!); although it may not seem like it, universities aren’t looking for a generic ‘cookie cutter’ student, and your personal statement probably isn’t as bad as you fear.

Image credits: banner; flag; coding; Anglo-Saxon; asleep; studying; parachute