An admissions tutor reading your personal statement wants to know about your academic abilities, achievements and interests.  Your personal statement is the only section in your UCAS application that you write in your own words—it’s your voice.

Here is how you can write a personal statement that will impress admissions tutors.

Section #1: Introduce yourself with a strong opening paragraph or line.

personal statement tips for international students

In your personal statement, your first challenge is to come up with an opening paragraph or an opening line that will grab the attention of the admissions tutor.  A good opening should invite your audience to read on and to find out more about you.  There are six different methods for doing this.

Method 1:  Tell them why you are interested in the subject.

“I am applying for——— because———.”

I start with this one because it’s the easiest method.  You already know why you’re applying to study the subject:  All you need to do is articulate it clearly.  Admissions tutors are generally extremely enthusiastic about their subject area, so this is a sure-fire way to get their attention.

Example

“I am applying for European Studies because of my interest in the history, institutions and current issues facing the EU.  What is the remit of institutions like the European Commission and the European Parliament, and why do so many European citizens feel they are too remote, or impact their lives only negatively?  Why, when politicians in my country argue for less integration, some of our neighbour states want more of it?  And how come we say EU foreign policy is weak, but we now talk of an ‘EU army’? My interest in these and other questions goes beyond following events in the news. I want to develop a deeper understanding and expertise through an academic degree, with the aim of pursuing a career in diplomacy upon my graduation.”

Tip

Look at the course descriptions for your UCAS choices for inspiration.  Importantly, look within you for the reasons that have made you chose the subject.  Don’t think you can’t express your personal views, opinions, thoughts or future plans in your opening paragraph. It’s precisely this that will help you stand out with your first sentences.

However, avoid wishy-washy and vague sentences like this—admissions tutors see them too often and are tired of them.

“Ever since I was a child I wanted to———”

It has always been my dream to———”

“———is a fascinating and challenging subject.”

Method 2:  Tell them a little story.

“My interest in studying———developed when———.”

Use a brief story to pinpoint when you first developed, or became aware of, your interest in the subject.  This will not only help you engage the reader, but will also allow your abilities, qualities and voice to shine through.  However, for your story to work, you will have to talk of a transformation:  How have you changed or what you have learned as a result of your experience?

Example

“My interest in studying history developed two years ago when my country celebrated 50 years of the end of the civil war that had last eight devastating years. It was only then that I realised how little my generation knows about the war: why it started, how it ended, how it affects the country today. Reading books such as———, I found that some historians argue the war has resolved nothing. Whereas authors like———insist we owe the very stability of our current political system to the Peace Agreement.  I have learned through this that different versions of history can exist and that we need to look beyond the words and opinions to get to the facts. This is why I have decided to take a degree in history.”

Get 4 more methods with examples. Request a free copy of 7 UCAS Mistakes digital book.

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Section 2: Give specific examples of activities that you do outside school that are linked to your subject.

personal statement tips for international students

To back up that you are really interested in the subject, show how you spend your time learning about and engaging with it—when no one forces you to.  For example, talk about books you have read, events you have attended, activities you have taken part in. Limit yourself to a maximum of three strong examples to prove your enthusiasm and commitment. Your examples should always make clear what you have learned from them, and (if relevant) what skills, abilities and qualities you have developed.

Example 1

You are a (founding) member of a club or society.

“Given my interest in diplomacy, I persuaded nine of my classmates to hold our version of a Model United Nations. In committees of three delegates and one president, we hold our conference monthly, agreeing in advance the topic and the countries to represent. Seeing our commitment, the school now provides a venue and the teachers referee us.  Learning about different political causes has been extremely stimulating, as has been the opportunity to improve my debating skills. For example, during our conference on ‘Climate Change’ my committee represented Bangladesh, and I convincingly argued that, as a country, it contributed little to but bore the brunt of climate change. I have also learned that teamwork is crucial for completing our tasks and preparing our position, and that I can lead and persuade others as I have done founding the MUN.”

Tip

If you think this example is a little over-ambitious, don’t be put off by it.  If you want to pursue an interest, but your school or local area doesn’t offer relevant activities, emulate this approach: Get a few friends together, form a club or society and meet once or twice a month with a specific agenda or aim.  Still not convinced? Here is a very different activity you could do:  For a week, stand on a busy shopping street and do a survey of passers-by on an issue related to your subject.  These are just a couple of examples that will look impressive in your personal statement—the opportunities are endless.

Example 2

You attend events and conferences.

“At least twice a month, I attend presentations and live debates at my local university and the public library. Often these are on political issues and current affairs. In a recent presentation, the speaker who is a renowned journalist defended the right of a country to launch pre-emptive war. I found myself disagreeing with his position and asked him what he thought of the situation that followed in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The speaker commended me on my intervention and clarified that ‘any military action must be accompanied by proper planning for and long-term commitment to the post-war situation’.  To me this proved why pre-emptive war is flawed, as it seems to suggest that it is legitimate for one country to occupy another sovereign state.

Although I was slightly apprehensive about speaking in front of so many people, a great benefit of attending these talks has been that I have gradually overcome my shyness to ask questions and to express my opinion. I have also learned to be respectful of other people’s opinions, even if I do not always agree with them.”

Example 3

You read the news and keep up-to-date with related events.

“My favourite part of the day is the hour I reserve for catching up on The Economist’s ‘Business & Finance’ coverage and for listening to my favourite business podcasts, including the ‘BBC Business Daily’ and ‘TedTalks Business’.  I find the variety of the topics, as well as the analysis and insights, thought-provoking and have learned much about economic and financial issues from around the world. 

In a recent podcast episode, the interviewees held different views on whether microfinance helps the poor. This stimulated my interest, so I followed up with some research.  In an article titled ‘Rehabilitation and attack’, I found that The Economist had highlighted how lending to females specifically increased the number of women in work and of children in school. This has made me realise yet again that economic and financial policy is more complicated than we often assume—or are told.”

Section 3:  Tell them about your academic and non-academic experience with the subject, and how this prepares you for your degree.

UCAS personal statement tips

Use 2–3 specific examples that will help you demonstrate your experience in the subject, either from your studies at school or from outside.  Your aim is to prove that you have a good understanding of what the subject is about—and that you will be successful pursuing a degree in it.  Highlight any special achievements and, as always, say what you have learned from the examples you are using.

However, don’t repeat any information that the admissions tutor can easily find in other parts of your UCAS application (for example, your grades or the names of your modules) unless this helps you make an important point.

Example 1

You have studied the subject at school.

“Writing essays and other coursework on topics such as scarcity, unemployment, inflation and recession has made me appreciate how the study of economics helps us explain the world around us.  In a recent class, we were discussing what is best for economic recovery: stimulus or austerity policies. Most of my classmates voted for the one or the other, but I asked why some states opt for printing money, while others choose to cut public spending and increase taxes—all when an IMF report this year argued that austerity ‘does more harm than good’. Is it that, following the 2008 crisis, we are only now discovering what works and what doesn’t for reviving an economy? Or are there sometimes no other viable policies? It is questions like these that fuel my interest in studying economics.”

Example 2

You have studied the subject before, but independently.

“Although my school does not offer business studies, the reason I elected my statistics and psychology modules is because of their relevance to business.   After learning about the ‘psychology of persuasion’, I wondered…” [If you have signed up, you will receive full example to your inbox.]

Tip

Follow this approach if you are interested in specialising in an area but are applying for general degrees in the subject to keep your options open.  However, here “online courses” is vague, and this example could have been improved by mentioning if the courses were MOOCs and who was the provider (“… completed five MOOCs with———”).

Example 3

You have work or volunteering experience.

 “To gain practical business experience, I work as an office assistant with an export company two afternoons a week.  Tasks like photocopying, filing and typing letters may not sound exciting to most people, but working in a small team has taught me a great deal. For example, that I need to take responsibility for and to prioritise my tasks to meet deadlines—so my colleagues can meet their deadlines, too.  I have also learned that employers value good communication and attention to detail, as my manager and colleagues regularly praise me for these abilities.  Last month my manager asked me to mentor our new intern. I enjoyed taking on more responsibility, showing him the ropes and supporting him as he settled in.  At university, I will look for similar opportunities in mentoring.”

 

“To gain practical business experience, I work as an office assistant with an export company two afternoons a week.  Tasks like photocopying, filing and typing letters may not sound exciting to most people, but working in a small team has taught me a great deal. For example, that I need to take responsibility for and to prioritise my tasks to meet deadlines—so my colleagues can meet their deadlines, too.  I have also learned that employers value good communication and attention to detail, as my manager and colleagues regularly praise me for these abilities.  Last month my manager asked me to mentor our new intern. I enjoyed taking on more responsibility, showing him the ropes and supporting him as he settled in.  At university, I will look for similar opportunities in mentoring.”

Section 4: Mention a hobby to show your positive qualities and attitudes.

personal statement tips for international students

It’s a good idea to mention a hobby that is not academic-related to give the admissions tutor more insights into your personality and attitude.  Some admissions tutors may also want to see that you will easily integrate into campus life (especially as an international student, possibly living in the UK for the first time).  As always, don’t just list your hobbies, use them is a way that is relevant.

Example 1

Incorrect: “I like sports and go running three days a week. I also like going to the cinema.”

Correct:  “To me, the best start to my day is a 5km run.  I find it energises me and helps me focus. On cold and rainy days, I may not feel like going outdoors, but I stay motivated by setting myself training and performance goals. I find a healthy dose of competition helps, so now I regularly run races. I have improved my timing in each of the three half-marathons.

Example 2

Incorrect:  “I am a member of the school’s debating society and have won many awards.”

Correct: “My friends say I am a keen debater, so no one seemed surprised when I joined the school’s debating society last year. Certainly, I like the challenge of having to think quickly and to get my point across clearly. However, being a member of the society, I have won much more than a few debates: I have made precious friendships. My favourite part of ‘Debate Night’ is when we all get together over dinner afterwards.  I also feel I have greatly improved my ability to reflect, and to listen to and respect the opinions of others.”

Example 3

Incorrect: “I like socialising and treating my friends to home-cooked meals.”

Correct:  “I love cooking and trying out food from different parts of the world.  I’m a member of a ‘First Time Cooking’ club where once a week we take turns hosting each other for dinner.  The challenge is: cook a foreign recipe for the first time. In preparation for moving to the UK, I have treated my guests to Shepherd’s Pie and Bubble and Squeak—easy one-pan dishes that have proved a real hit with everyone.”

Section 5: Finish off with a strong closing line.

personal statement tips for international students

It is as important to keep the admissions tutor’s attention at the end of your personal statement as it is to get it at the beginning.  Here’s what won’t help you: phrases that could make you sound wishful, passive or arrogant.

“Studying with a prestigious university like yours would be a dream come true.”

“I really hope you will offer me a place.”

“Choose me and I will prove I am the best applicant you have.”

What you will want to do instead is go back to the subject that you are applying for and remind the admissions tutors of your enthusiasm and motivation for it.

Example 1

“What I enjoy the most about economics is that it makes me understand how global events and local issues are connected.  What I have learned about and from economics so far has only increased my interest in pursuing a degree in the subject.” 

Example 2

“Through my studies and part-time job, I have learned that success depends on different parts of a business working in harmony.  I have also seen first-hand how external events can directly affect a business.  I look forward to gaining further insights through the theories and case studies as part of my university degree.” 

Example 3

I know that living in a new country and studying in a new language may bring some challenges.  But to me, a challenge is an opportunity to learn and to grow. Besides, to me a degree in politics is more than a degree: It’s a fundamental step towards my future goals.  I look forward to hearing from you.”

Final thoughts

Some people will tell you that “The personal statement is the most important section in your UCAS application.”  

This is because, if the selection process for your course doesn’t include any other element—for example, an admissions test,  an interviews or written work—the university will make its decision based on your UCAS application alone.  But even if there is an interview or other selection event, you will usually only be given the opportunity to attend if your application meets certain criteria.

However…

Remember that your personal statement is only one of a number of factors the university will consider when making a decision on your application.  It’s never the only factor.

Don’t forget to request your free copy of the 7 UCAS Mistakes digital book.

REQUEST YOUR FREE AMAZON BOOK

Learn from the 7 UCAS Mistakes.

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