Thursday, 23 June 2016

Uni Life: The Personal Statement, or "Bane of my Existence."

A friend contacted me recently about writing a UCAS personal statement. She's beginning her final year of secondary school this September, and lives in Ireland where applications through UCAS aren't exactly the norm: she's therefore turned to me and no doubt her older sister who studies in Northampton for some advice on how to go about applying.

I was really excited to hear from her and learn the plans she's making for her future - she's going to learn a million things (probably not much related to her course) in that first year, and make friends and memories she'll keep for a long time. It prompted me to begin writing a series of posts about the thing many of us probably googled feverishly in the year leading up to this huge change: what university is "really like." Of course the answer is different for everyone, but when I decided (about three or four years before the event) that I was dramatically going to "get out of this hell-hole" and study in a different country, the more opinions I could find on this the better.

I'm hoping to create an interesting log of my experiences as well as finding out about what going to Uni - whether at home or abroad - has done for those around me too, in an effort to add to the resources upcoming nervous Freshers will be feverishly studying, probably harder than their A level notes.

But I realise I'm getting way ahead of myself. If my younger friend is to experience any of this, first she will need to get in. And that means writing a personal statement.

When you live in Ireland, and go to a school where maybe just yourself, or one or two other people, will be applying to study in the UK, this is no mean feat. Most of the careers advice (and one uses the term loosely) is centred around applying through the CAO system of points, in which references and statements, and usually interviews too, are completely irrelevant. In my experience, I was given limited help from a few teachers happy to look at my statement, but my predicted grades were actually left largely up to me - tracking and predicting final grades being a bit less of a familiar concept   - whether or not this was technically "allowed." Nevertheless, I actually predicted them lower than was the outcome, wrote a personal statement that got me an early offer from my ideal university, and managed to worm a glowing reference out of my careers teacher.

So, on to the personal statement. It may sound obvious, but the main thing you should centre your statement around is a genuine desire to study your chosen subject(s). Mine actually began with what I now deem to be a pretty awful cliché: I wanted to study Literature and History, so I started by talking about a series of historical fiction books I'd read as a child (teenager) (young adult) and how it had made me see the way the two subjects could intertwine. Looking back, it was actually quite cingeworthy but it was my way of showing that I hadn't just suddenly decided on two subjects - this was a path I'd been following for years.

It's also a good idea to show how other aspects of your life have highlighted and developed the interest - I talked about how my Irish course (that is, learning the Irish language which is compulsory for most Irish schoolchildren) helped me link the two subjects as we had studied language and literature as well as the history behind it all, which I had obviously taken a particular interest in.I even worked in an Irish proverb, but that's probably something a limited number of you will be able to do.

This is then your chance to show off about your achievements, first and foremost the ones that highlight your interest in your chosen field. I mentioned a prize won for historical fiction work, and blogging I had done to develop writing skills - this was backed up by examples to show it wasn't just the one private site I'd worked on. This method, I found, made for a seamless development within the statement from my interests to my skills and experiences.

Another good piece of advice is one various teachers have given me for job interviews: "Not if I were, I would, but when I was, I did..." Basically, you can talk about what you'd like to at university and why you're looking forward to the experience - but only do this after you talk about what you have already done, or else why would anyone believe you? We've all used Point-Evidence-Explanation in our coursework and exams - it's important here, too.

Also important to remember is that you have a limited number of words and are expected to use them to highlight the absolute best aspects of you as a person. For some reason, both the British and the Irish have such an aversion to boasting that we timidly mention our achievements, and even then apologise for their insignificance. Do not do this in your personal statement. Whoever ends up reading it will have read hundreds of others with just as many if not more achievements and qualities - so don't be shy about stating yours in all their glory. Exaggerate  even (but don't lie), as this will show your ability to reflect upon what you've done and how you've benefited.... and to write an, ahem, creative essay.

Generally, avoid repetition of "I, I, I" and follow other rules your English teachers have given you - this is, after all, an essay. Especially in the arts but by an lagrge for any subject, you should make sure your personal statement is first and foremost a quality piece of writing. It more than likely will sound pretentious - as my housemates and I have discovered by looking back at ours over the past few minutes - so don't worry too much, but at the same time don't "try too hard." Simply put, content-wise you can try as hard as you like, but writing-wise, if you wouldn't use a word in conversation or normal writing, don't use it in your statement as you'll likely sound like a complete idiot even if you don't realise it at the time.

Though mine began with the usual cliché as mentioned, perhaps this is best avoided. Try not to begin it the same was as the previous twelve will have started, though I did get 3/5 offers so really the decision is yours.

In the event you may be interviewed by one of the universities you apply to, remember that the personal statement - along with your reference - will be all that person has to talk to you about. Know your statement inside out and do not include anything you wouldn't be happy to elaborate upon and discuss in an interview with a total stranger. The skill exaggerating without outright lying is to be reiterated here.

Mentioning why you are interested in a particular university is not easy to do, as you will be sending the same statement to up to five different institutions. It's not, however, impossible.. I mentioned an interest in dystopian fiction as well as historical, which meant I could name-drop UEA alum Kazou Ishiguro, for example. For the admissions department of UEA, my first choice, this eant I had researched the University, without telling the likes of Exeter and Edinburgh that I had such a preference.

Finally, a list of your achievements should not constitute a list. A personal statement is an evaluation and personal reflection on what you've done in your life u to this point, and what it means to you. If you can't back up something you've achieved with how it has impacted upon you as a person and made you how you are today, it's probably not worth mentioning.