Personal Statements: how to write them for English
There is plenty of general advice about writing the personal statement for your UCAS form – not surprisingly the UCAS website has plenty. We have tried here to select the most useful advice for applicants to English Literature and Language, and emphasise some key points for mature students who may not have the support of a school or college. We have drawn heavily on the advice offered on a few departments’ websites:
Of course you should check the websites of the departments you are applying to in order to see if they offer specific advice tailored to their different values and approaches.
What is the Personal Statement?
The Personal Statement is your opportunity to tell the university or college you are applying to about your suitability for the course, and to demonstrate your enthusiasm and commitment. Unlike other areas of the UCAS form (for example predicted or previous exam grades or the reference) it is an area where you are in control. Universities put different degrees of emphasis on the personal statement: some will only refer to the personal statement if they are unsure about other aspects of your application; others will use it as a key decision-maker. If you are a mature student or have non-standard qualifications, the personal statement is especially important in explaining your motivation and telling the selector things about yourself that may not be apparent from the other parts of the application.
Before you Begin
A selector reading your personal statement will be looking for evidence of commitment and motivation. If you yourself have doubts about these, it’s best to stop and think a bit further before attempting to write a personal statement.
If you are applying for a mainly literary degree, ask yourself:
- Do I really enjoy reading?
- If you’re currently studying, do you read outside the syllabus?
- Do you read widely and regularly for pleasure?
- Do you read poetry as well as prose?
- Do you read authors from different periods or parts of the world?
- Do you read the ‘review’ sections of the newspaper?
- If you were asked to write an essay on something you’d read recently, would you tackle it?
If you are applying for English Language, ask yourself what it is that interests you about the subject……
- Are you fascinated by words and their histories?
- Interested in why people talk in different dialects?
- Do you ever puzzle over the difference between formal and informal styles, or why the same person talks differently in different places?
Don’t forget about your wider cultural experiences, which may be substantial if you are a mature student. Do you go to the theatre/cinema or art galleries? Do you participate in reading groups, debating or dramatic societies? Reviewing your reading and cultural activities in this way will help you give specific evidence of your interests in your statement, and in an interview if you are called for one. Be honest and realistic in your statement: listing lots of books you aren’t really interested in is not a good strategy!
Check Things Out
English degrees vary a lot in terms of content and teaching methods. Check that the courses you are applying for are the right ones for you. There is no point in writing a persuasive personal statement if it is not appropriate to the course you are applying to. For example, if you want to do a fair amount of creative writing as part of an English degree, check that this is available on the courses you are applying to. Some other factors to consider:
- Does the course meet your needs in terms of the balance of Literature, Language and Creative Writing?
- Is the course what you want in terms of coverage – there’s no point saying you’re keen on medieval literature or film studies if this isn’t on offer
- Check the application deadline – some popular courses won’t accept applications after the official UCAS mid-January deadline
- Don’t waste an application by applying to a course where you don’t have the right subjects or are unlikely to achieve the required grades. If you have non-standard qualifications, it may be advisable to contact the Admissions Tutor before applying.
According to UCAS:
You can enter up to 4,000 characters (this includes spaces) or 47 lines of text (this includes blank lines), whichever comes first. You do not have to use all the space provided. When you save text, the system will tell you how many characters are still available or if you have used too many characters. You can preview your statement after you have saved it.
We recommend that you prepare your personal statement offline using a word-processing package and copy and paste it into the Apply system. …..If you want to send more information, contact your chosen universities and colleges to check that they are happy to accept further details. If they are, send it direct to them after we have sent you your welcome letter and Personal ID.
If you are at school always ask a teacher or other experienced person to check your statement before you submit it. If you’ve recently left school, a former teacher may still be willing to do this. If you’re not currently in education, ask another person who knows you and whose writing you respect to check it, but you may need to point out to them that this is not a job application. Remember to keep a copy of your statement so that you can remind yourself about it if you are called for interview.
What to include….
Focus on your commitment to English and be specific. Concentrate on your intellectual and cultural interests and don’t spend more than 20% of the statement on the sort of general skills and activities that might be more appropriate in a job application. You might:
- Say what excited and interested you about something you have read recently
- Say what areas of language interest you, and describe any projects you have been involved in
- Detail the types of literature you particularly enjoy and why
- Name particular authors and texts – this will make your statement more vivid and give the selector a clearer impression of what sort of student you might be.
- Say why you want to study language or literature at university level
- Explain any deficiencies or blemishes elsewhere in your application. For example, if you gave up a previous course explain why.
- Say what you hope to get out of the degree in the longer term. This can relate to a career or less tangible benefits. But see ‘What to Resist’ below….
If you’re applying for a joint or combined course, your statement should cover both subjects. You should justify your choice of subjects and be able to evidence interest in and understanding of both, even if you haven’t studied them at A Level. It’s worthwhile thinking about how you see the two subjects relating to each other.
And what to resist…….
- Writing your statement like an all – purpose job application. It’s fine to mention your extra-academic interests and vocational skills, but this shouldn’t crowd out the key information about your reasons for choosing the course and your literary interests. For mature students, it may be difficult to resist the temptation to detail all your work experience and skills, but try to do so!
- Writing in an unusual style, be it in note form, verse, humorous or colloquial. A well but conventionally written statement is more useful to the selector and less likely to back-fire.
- Discussing your career plans at great length. It’s okay to mention your longer-term ambitions, but English is not a vocational degree and so undue emphasis on your future career might suggest that you would be better off doing a degree in journalism, media studies or whatever is relevant.
- Writing to formula. Be yourself, not the ‘ideal’ applicant. An admissions tutor would much rather read a statement where the student’s own voice comes through than one that is the product of over-instruction and full of phrases borrowed from other people.
- Being dishonest. Don’t misrepresent yourself or over-inflate your skills or enthusiasm. Don’t borrow from the ‘model’ personal statements on the web. UCAS uses plagiarism software and admissions tutors are adept at tracking down suspicious material. It’s not worth the risk.
- Flannel: selectors see thousands of claims about ‘my love of literature’, which may mean little more than ‘I quite enjoyed reading two or three books’. What is particular about your love of literature, language or creative writing?
- Poor grammar, spelling and punctuation. This really matters. Selectors are looking for people who can communicate well in writing, have a feeling for style and care about detail in language. A badly written personal statement suggests that, at least at the minute, you are not one of them.