Your child's application to university depends not only on their A-level grades, but also on their personal statement and possibly an interview. Between September and October, thousands of teenagers wrestle with their personal statements to secure them an offer of a place on their university degree course. How can they do this in 4000 characters - or 47 lines - the limit UCAS has for personal statements?
Some schools offer substantial help with these, whereas many pupils have to manage as best they can with the school giving the statement a cursory once-over. Parents often step-in to help and it's vital to know what's required.
First, look at the UCAS website which has downloads of the timeline for applications as well as masses of tips.
What to include
James Durant of UCAS says. "Some course tutors believe that personal statements are crucial when making decisions on applicants, so it's vitally important that you are able to make yours stand out.
"Universities like to have an indication of the range of skills that will help you on the course as well as in general at university."
Setting out skills is not as easy as writing a list. Andrew Fleck, Headmaster of Sedburgh School Cumbria, advises: "Set aside enough time. Don't rush it. Start by writing down two columns – one is all the things that you do and have done, and the other is how they might link to your degree course."
William Stadlen of educational consultants Holland Park advises: "Look carefully at the course content because your personal statement has to be relevant to five universities. These will have the same course code and title. Don't make the mistake of thinking that a management course is going to be the same as a slightly different management course – different course codes have different course content."
Fleck emphasises "It's not enough to describe your achievements and say you have experience of teamwork. Thousands of applicants will be able to demonstrate that playing sports or being on a charity committee helped build their teamwork skills. Go one step further – what did you have to do to be a good team player? Did you develop negotiation skills, empathy, self-discipline or mentor someone in the team? Link your achievements to the entry requirements but don't tell the whole story, drop some hooks so that the admissions tutors will want to meet you."
The admissions selectors from the University of Essex have some tips: "Blowing your own trumpet might not be something you're used to doing, but we want to know why to choose you. We're after people who aren't afraid to push boundaries, so don't be shy."
They also remind applicants: "Ensure everything you write in your statement relates to the main point: why you want to study that subject and why we should want you. If you know what you want to do after university, include that as it shows you have thought about the steps in achieving your ambition."
Stadlen agrees that students have to try to find something original to include: "Nowadays, saying you did the Duke of Edinburgh award is not going to have a huge impact because so many people do it- though a Gold is always a worthwhile achievement."
It's also possible to find out through university websites what the specialisms and interests are of admission tutors. If these happen to coincide with your child's, they should ensure that information is in their application.
How to write it
Conveying all of this information within the word limit is no easy task. It's vital though, says Flack that, "Parents do not write their child's statement because admissions staff can spot this a mile off."
Drafting and re-drafting is the key. Stadlen says: "It's not unusual to write five or six drafts before being happy with the final one." All drafts can be saved online on the UCAS website.
Fleck suggests: "Read your application through as if you are the admissions tutor. The best applications come from students who know what they want to study and can match their activities and interests to the course. But don't make it one-dimensional – you need some variety and breadth of interests. And keep it simple. Avoid being pompous and using over-complicated language."
What not to include
The University of Essex suggests these are not included:
'What you may find as an example of your razor-sharp wit may not appeal to the admissions tutors.'
'Passionate' and 'team player' are overused. We want to see examples of your 'passion' and your 'teamwork'.
'Longer is not better and will waste some of your 4000 characters'.
'Copying a friend's writing or something from the internet may not go unnoticed.'
'These show carelessness. Check and triple check.'
If your child can have a killer opening sentence and a powerful closing line, say the admissions selectors, so much the better. But all personal statements have to be just that – personal. Not contrived and not a copy of someone else's. By all means read your child's application before they press the 'send' button and make suggestions and allow them time between each draft to reconsider and ensure that they are completely satisfied before they submit it.
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