How to Write Brilliant Personal Statements and Covering Letters: 8 Tips to Get Offers Rolling In
Without a doubt one of the most daunting aspects of writing a university or job application is the personal statement or covering letter.
It’s always difficult to write about oneself in a way that doesn’t sound too much like bragging, and it’s equally hard to differentiate oneself from the vast number of other applicants who all have similar qualifications. So how exactly do you write a personal statement or covering letter that will get you into your first-choice university or land you that dream job? While there’s no set formula for success, the tips we’ll share in this article should help you tackle this tricky task so that you end up with something you’re happy with. The primary focus of this article is on the personal statement you’ll complete on your UCAS form. However, a covering letter, which you include when you send your CV off to an employer when applying for a job, serves a very similar purpose. We’ll therefore be looking at both, as the chances are you’ll need to send off covering letters for part-time jobs soon as well.
1. What you need to demonstrate
Let’s begin by thinking a bit about what the personal statement (or covering letter) is for. Only when you have a clear understanding of this can you write something that really fits the bill. The personal statement is your chance to introduce yourself to the admissions tutors or recruitment personnel and make a great first impression. Above all, it needs to be a true representation of you. The personal statement is there to help the university or employer decide whether you’re someone they want on their course, at their university or in their business. They can see your qualifications elsewhere on your UCAS form or CV, but your subjects and grades on their own don’t mean much. You need to be able to demonstrate:
– Your genuine interest in and enthusiasm for the subject or job, and what you do to pursue and develop that interest.
– Your suitability for the course or job, and your commitment to studying it for three years or sticking around in the job; universities don’t want students who’ll drop out, and businesses don’t want to go to the trouble and expense of recruiting and training someone only for them to leave the job not long after they start.
– Your motivations for studying the course or applying for the job, and how it fits in with your future plans.
– Your capacity for independent thinking and coping under pressure.
– Your hard-working, conscientious attitude and good communication skills.
– What you can bring to the university community or company. This is your chance to sell yourself and convince them that they want to offer you a university place or a job.
You’ll need to know exactly what you want to study before you start writing your personal statement; you won’t get very far with it if you don’t know this, as the whole thing should be geared towards why you want to study that particular course. We don’t recommend trying to apply for two or more very different courses in the same application; only choose different courses if they are very similar, because otherwise you risk your personal statement looking indecisive and disorganised (unless you’re applying for a Joint Honours degree, of course; more on that later). Before you begin writing your personal statement, there are a few rules to bear in mind:
– Word count – you have 4,000 characters or 47 lines of text to work with.
– No copying – UCAS has detectors that can tell if you’ve copied a personal statement from somewhere else, and the consequences of getting caught doing this are likely to be severe.
– No names – don’t mention any specific universities or courses, as the same personal statement will be sent off to all five of your choices.
If you’re reading this article because you’re in the process of writing a covering letter, slightly different ‘rules’ apply (though these are more guidelines):
– Tailor your covering letter to the role you’re applying for. Sending the same generic letter for multiple jobs won’t cut it.
– Keep the job advert beside you while you write your covering letter, and touch on how all the points in the ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ traits they’re looking for apply to you.
– Keep it concise – don’t ramble on for page after page, as recruiters won’t have time to read it all. One or at most two pages is more than enough.
3. Content and structure
As with writing an essay, it helps to make a plan of what you’re going to include in your personal statement or covering letter, and how you’re going to order that information. There’s a lot of ground to cover, so you’ll need to start with a clear idea of how you’re going to fit it all in. Here’s one way of structuring a personal statement (this structure could equally apply to a covering letter).
- Broad outline of why you want to study this subject, how you became interested in it and what you want to do with it long-term.
- What makes you suitable for this course, and aspects of the course you find particularly appealing.
- What you’ve done to pursue your interest in this subject.
- How your A-level subjects have supported this interest, including modules of particular interest.
- What else you do that’s interesting and helps develop you as a person, e.g. hobbies and other interests.
- One- or two-sentence closing summary.
Ultimately, of course, it’s up to you how you structure your personal statement or covering letter, but however you do it, make sure that it flows logically and that it’s easy to read. Admissions tutors and recruiters will be having to read through hundreds of these, so make their life easy by coming up with a sensible structure that allows them to get a quick understanding of why they should choose you, without them having to reread passages to make sense of them.
4. Show that you’ve thought about what you’ve studied
As we’ve already hinted at, your personal statement or covering letter isn’t just a list of things you’ve accomplished; it’s a place for you to demonstrate your intelligence and show admissions tutors or recruiters your approach to your chosen subject or desired job. On your personal statement, rather than just listing things you’ve studied, or books you’ve read, talk about what you found particularly interesting about them and why. If you’ve read an unusual opinion on a topic you’re interested in, for instance, say whether or not you agreed with it and why. If something you’ve read has sparked an interest in a particular topic, show how you’ve followed up that interest with additional reading or seeking out other ways of developing that knowledge. Link this with your desire to learn more about the subject by studying this course.
5. Support what you say with evidence
Whenever you make a statement or claim, make sure you back it up with evidence. For example, when you say you’re a hard-working and reliable person, use an anecdote or experience to prove it: “I’m exceptionally hard-working, as evidenced by the fact that I fit a part-time job as a private tutor around my own studies.” Don’t just say you’re interested in something – prove it by detailing the experiences that demonstrate your enthusiasm. For example:
– Won a short story competition (English)
– Did a work placement with GlaxoSmithKline (Chemistry)
– Visited Auschwitz (History)
– Set up a blog on climate change (Geography)
– Built a website (Computer Science)
– Went on an archaeological dig (Archaeology)
– Spent a fortnight in France living with a French family (French)
– Edited the school newsletter (English)
– Have a part-time job in a mental health centre (Psychology)
– Won a Mathematics prize at school (Mathematics)
– Traced family tree back to 1750 (History)
You get the idea. Any kind of achievements or experience that you have that relate to your chosen course in some way should be mentioned as evidence of your genuine interest in the subject. Important experiences or hobbies can be mentioned even if they don’t relate directly to your chosen subject, if you feel that they demonstrate other qualities, such as your ability to cope under pressure, or your strong leadership skills (such as being captain of your school hockey team). A quote on the UCAS website from the Assistant Registrar for Undergraduate Admissions at Warwick University is revealing: “The strongest applicants are those who can link their extra-curricular activities to their proposed course of study.”
6. The Gap Year
If you’re planning on taking a gap year, you don’t have to mention it in your personal statement (they will see from your planned year of entry whether or not you plan to take one), but it can be another opportunity to show the admissions tutors how you plan to prepare for embarking on your chosen course. If you’re doing things directly relevant to your course then so much the better – for instance, you might be spending your gap year in France and Italy in preparation for studying French and Italian, or doing conservation work in Ecuador prior to studying Environmental Sciences. If so, you’ll be showing your enthusiasm for the subject and indicating your suitability for the course. If you’re taking a year out to earn some money or go travelling, these are still worth mentioning even if not subject-relevant, because these will both develop your maturity and your ability to cope under pressure, organise your time and so on – all attributes of a successful university student.
7. Personal statements for Joint Honours students
If you’re applying for a Joint Honours degree, writing your personal statement may be a little trickier. Some students choose to talk about just one of their proposed subjects, allowing them to be more focused and also to apply for different joint honours courses with one subject in common (for instance, English and French or English and Italian). The alternative is to cover both subjects, and try to talk about your interest and experience in both and why you’d like to study them in combination.
8. A few final tips for creating a great personal statement
Finally, here are some extra tips to help you write a successful personal statement or covering letter.
– Don’t leave it until the last minute – allow several weeks to write and tweak it.
– Think about the reader as you write – what does the admissions tutor or recruiter want to read? Think carefully about what they’re looking for and write with them in mind.
– Look at the course pages for the universities you’re applying for and find out what they’re looking for in a successful applicant. Make sure you touch on these qualities in your personal statement.
– Don’t make any of these mistakes – from self-aggrandisement, to trying to be funny, to getting your grammar in a muddle, these common mistakes could mean the difference between securing a place at your first choice university or having to resort to clearing.
– You’ll probably go through several drafts of your personal statement before you reach something you’re happy with – don’t worry, as this is normal.
– Don’t write it directly into the UCAS form – copy and paste when you’re ready to go. Save the document regularly and back it up so that you don’t lose anything.
– Thoroughly proofread it before you submit it – or better still, get someone else to. A fresh pair of eyes will spot mistakes you’ve become blind to, or even errors you didn’t know were errors.
There’s no set way of writing a personal statement or covering letter, nor is there a defined magic formula that works. Above all, the advice ‘Be yourself’ may be a cliché but it’s also true: let your own personality shine through and let the reader get a sense of who you are as a person, what drives you and where your passions lie. Your enthusiasm will come across, and enthusiasm is infectious. Tutors like enthusiastic students because they’re easier to teach; employers like enthusiastic employees because they’re more productive and better with customers. Let your enthusiasm for your subject rule the day, and you can’t go far wrong.
Last reviewed: September 2015
Next review: September 2016