A lot of students worry about their opening sentence(s). This is because you’ve probably been told that the first few lines of your personal statement need to grab the attention of the admissions tutor.
It’s good to think of a memorable way to kick things off but don’t overthink it or spend too much time on your opening; it’s not the be all and end all. Admissions tutors are less concerned with your ability to write a fancy or wacky introduction and more interested in your passion and enthusiasm for the course.
Begin your personal statement with a personal touch
Your opening doesn’t need to go over the top to impress admissions tutors. Jonathan Hardwick is a former head of sixth form and now a professional development manager at Inspiring Futures, a provider of careers information, advice and guidance to young people. He explains: ‘A straightforward sentence that goes on to demonstrate your enthusiasm is much better than trying to get their attention with an outrageous statement or a quote from an obscure historian about overcoming great difficulties.’
The most effective opening sentence will keep it nice and simple, and be personal to you. Think about what made you pick the subject and what you enjoy the most about it. Then try and summarise this in one or two sentences.
You could start your statement with something along the lines of ‘What I like most about studying French is getting to grips with a new culture. I enjoy the challenge of trying to read French literature, listen to French songs and watch French movies and plays in their original forms. I want to study French at university to improve my understanding of the language.’ To make sure it’s personal to you, draw on your own experiences and knowledge. Have you been to see a French opera performance or read the work of a French poet, for example?
‘Try to be as clear and concise as possible,’ advises Helen Relf, undergraduate admissions co-ordinator for English, drama & publishing at Loughborough University. ‘We are looking for bright, lively and articulate students who can tell us exactly why they are different or an individual.’ Cut the academic talk and long-winded sentences. Why say something in 20 words that you could say in ten words?
How not to begin your personal statement
To make sure your opening sentence is original, here are four ways you shouldn't begin your personal statement.
1. Avoid overused opening sentences
‘An admissions tutor might read over 3,000 personal statements a year so it can be hard to stand out,’ says Jonathan. Admissions tutors will appreciate it’s difficult to think of an opening that nobody will have ever used before. However, try to avoid using common openings that lots of students will use.
To give you an idea of the most overused openings, UCAS published a list of the ten most frequently used opening lines in personal statements in the 2015 application cycle. The most common opening was ‘From a young age I have always been interested in/fascinated by…’ (used by 1,179 students), while other openings on the list include ‘For as long as I can remember I have…’ (1,451 students), ‘I am applying for this course because…’ (1,370 students) and ‘I have always been interested in…’ (927 students).
2. Steer clear of clichéd openings and childhood anecdotes
‘Avoid anything too whimsical,’ advises Emma-Marie Fry, an area director at Inspiring Futures. Emma manages the career guidance team in London and the south-east and goes into schools to deliver support to students.
She says: ‘Admissions tutors want to know about your brain's potential and your education and development, not your childhood dreams. If getting your first telescope when you were five sparked your interest in astronomy or you’ve wanted to be a doctor ever since you broke your leg when you were six, that’s great, but it’s not what the admissions tutors need to know. What have you done more recently?’
Similarly, avoid talking about what your family members do for a living. ‘Don’t say “My parent is a teacher so I want to be a teacher.” It needs to be personal to you,’ says Jonathan. Instead, explain what you’ve done that’s made you want to become a teacher. Did you shadow a teacher at your local primary school for a week? Or do you spend your Sundays coaching the local children’s football team?
3. Be wary of opening your personal statement with a joke
You might have thought of the perfect joke to start your statement with, but does it set the right tone? And will the admissions tutor share your sense of humour?
‘Admissions tutors like to see originality but they don’t like too much jokiness,’ warns Emma. ‘They want to get a sense of you as a person but this means your academic strength and passion for the subject, not your sense of humour.’
4. Begin your personal statement with your own voice, not a quote from a famous person
Epigraphs – aka quotes – aren’t nearly as interesting to admissions tutors as what you’ve got to say yourself. ‘It might be tempting to start your personal statement with an epigraph but, often, beginning with your own words is best and more likely to be original,’ says Dr Helen Moggridge, a lecturer in geography at the University of Sheffield. If you do want to include a quote, make sure it’s relevant to the course you’re applying for and always explain how this quote links back to you and the subject you want to study.
You might think that a famous quote will help you stand out but you won’t be the only person who thinks it would be a great idea to include a well-known quote from the likes of Mahatma Ghandi, William Shakespeare, Karl Lagerfeld and so on. If you’re applying to study psychology, for example, it would be better to ditch the quote from Sigmund Freud in favour of a quote from a less well-known psychologist that you encountered through your wider reading.
You should also think about whether the person you are quoting is appropriate or not. ‘Avoid inspirational quotes from Drake or Kanye West, for example,’ says Emma. Similarly, it might not be wise to quote a reality TV star from The Only Way is Essex or Made in Chelsea.
Finally, steer clear of generic inspirational quotes about chasing your dreams, overcoming obstacles and the power of education. This can sound wishy washy or even a little bit pretentious and it doesn’t tell the admissions tutor anything about you or why you’re interested in the course.
Not sure how to begin your personal statement? Consider writing your opening sentence last
Just because your opening sentence is the first thing the admissions tutors will read, that doesn’t mean it needs to be the first section of your personal statement that you write. It can be tricky to decide how you want to begin your statement so, if you’re stuck on what to write, consider taking a break from it and focusing on other sections of your personal statement.
It might seem unusual but you might even find it easier to make your opening sentence the last thing you write. This will help you think about what the rest of your statement goes on to say and, therefore, how you can best introduce it.
Remember that the opening sentence is only a small part of the 4,000 characters that make up your personal statement. What you go on to write next is far more important to admissions tutors so don’t focus too much time and effort on just the opening sentence.
For help on what to write next, read our article on what to include in your UCAS personal statement. You can also use our course search to find the courses you want to apply to.
by Amber Rolfe
Applying for university can be a stressful time…
Not only do you have to decide on a subject you want to spend three years of your life doing, you also have to be one of the chosen few to make it onto your number one choice of course and university.
To make sure you’re selling yourself effectively, here’s everything you need to know about writing your personal statement for university, and a personal statement example to help you get started:
What is a personal statement for university?
A personal statement for university is a key part of the UCAS application process.
It involves writing about your skills, experience, and ambitions – in order to persuade your chosen university that you’re a suitable applicant for their course.
Essentially, it shows how your academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and other relevant experience has made you interested in taking the course.
How long should a personal statement for university be?
Although it’s similar to a personal statement for your CV, personal statements for university are slightly longer and more detailed.
According to UCAS, a personal statement should be no more than 4000 characters.
How should I structure my personal statement for university?
Unlike a CV, it’s important to structure your personal statement in clear paragraphs (usually around three or four) – rather than one block of text.
Although you won’t need to follow a set structure, here’s a rough guideline of how you could order your personal statement for university:
- Reasons for wanting to study
- Why you’re suitable
- How your current study is relevant
- Your related hobbies and interests
- Your skills and achievements
When do I need to submit my personal statement for university?
Your personal statement should be submitted along with the rest of your application by the deadline given by UCAS.
This will vary depending on your course and university choice, but most are expected to be sent off by the 15th January on the year you’re looking to start – with some art and design courses extending a later deadline (24th March).
However, courses at Oxford or Cambridge (along with courses in medicine, dentistry, veterinary or science) will require students to submit their applications earlier – by the 15th of October (the year before your course starts).
Any applications submitted after the 30th of June will go into clearing.
UCAS clearing: How does it work?
How to write a personal statement for university
Writing a good personal statement is vital if you want to be accepted into your chosen course.
And although there aren’t any set rules on how to write one, there are a few things you should always cover. Not only will this ensure you’re selling yourself effectively, it’ll also demonstrate your passion and enthusiasm about the course you’re applying for.
Here’s a guideline of what you should include:
- Reasons for wanting to study. First things first, you need to explain why you’re interested in the course. This involves being specific, whilst demonstrating enthusiasm. Talk about what you like about the subject, how your interest developed, and how it would help you towards achieving your long-term career goals.
- Why you’re suitable. Not only do you have to want to do the course, you also have to fit the criteria. This means that explaining why your skills and experience are relevant is vital. To really impress, always ensure you’ve done your research and are aware of what the course involves. That way, you can be more specific about how you match up.
- How your current study is relevant. Even if the subjects you’ve studied in the past aren’t exactly the same as your chosen university course, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t taught you the skills needed to progress into a different field. Make the most of these in your personal statement.
- Your related hobbies and interests. Hobbies are a great way to show that you’re a well-rounded person. Possible examples could be anything from clubs and societies, to summer schools, online courses, or even just museum/gallery/theatre visits. Any wider reading and/or research around your chosen subject could also be mentioned here.
- Your skills and achievements. Admissions tutors aren’t only interested in you telling them your most impressive (and relevant) skills and achievements, they also want to how you got them. This means that providing examples is essential – whether it’s referring to how you developed your communication skills in group projects, or how you worked in a team.
- Your work experience. Whether its full or part-time work, temporary placements, or internships – work experience teaches you a range of practical skills. Discuss the roles that are most relevant to your course and explain how studying at university would help you get the career you want.
How can I make my personal statement stand out?
With university places in high competition, your personal statement gives you the perfect opportunity to key to stand out.
So how can you do it right? Here are a few tips:
Make it relevant – remember: there’s a character limit. Don’t waste space on details that have no relevance to your chosen course and career path.
Show how you’re unique – through your own examples, independent research, and personality.
Present a good balance of academic and extra-curricular credentials – but don’t feel like you have to include hobbies if you don’t have any.
Make it engaging (whilst avoiding clichés) – lines like ‘I was born to be a dancer’ are definitely not unique, and generic clichés like this might risk mildly irritating the admissions tutor.
Think outside the box – let’s face it, no one wants to read through thousands of English students talk about how Shakespeare opened their eyes to poetry. Avoid the obvious, and think laterally.
Personal statement for university example
I’m applying to do a degree in English language because the modules involved will help me to expand on what I’ve learnt in school and college, and eventually start a career in writing. As an active blogger with an interest in entering a career in the media, I was particularly attracted to the module, language in the media – as well as language, society and power.
I’ve always been interested in reading, writing, and analysing language. Whether it’s listening to different dialects and colloquialisms, understanding the ways adverts use words to sell a product, or even just reading a book – language has many uses.
As a hardworking student with an ability to meet deadlines and produce work to a high standard, I think I would be able to put my skills to good use in this course. As I have a proficiency in language and a keen interest in learning more, this course would be a perfect fit.
Having studied English Language at A level and GCSE, I have built a strong knowledge base around it. As demonstrated in my most recent assignments covering language development and language change over time, I’ve gained an active interest in understanding words and meaning on a new level.
I’m an active fashion blogger and have my own website, where I post articles weekly – whether it’s reviewing new products or just talking about my life. I also helped out in writing a monthly newsletter at school, where I used my writing skills to keep students up-to-date with news and events.
My ability to work well in a team has been demonstrated in a number of group projects. Not only did I develop my communication and skills, I also learnt how to negotiate and juggle tasks. I’m also particularly proud of my creative writing ability, which has been shown and expanded on throughout a number of essays and assignments (as well as my own blog). I’m also extremely organised, with a high attention to detail.
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