Most of my work is tutoring secondary school maths, including plenty of support with math-adjacent activities. And, right now, it’s University applications season! Read on, for my 10 tips on how to write an excellent Personal Statement or application essay…
I work with students on applications for undergraduate degrees in math and math-related subjects (also Computer Science, Finance, Economics, Data Science, Psychology, Medicine). And, students hoping to continue their university studies with a post-graduate Masters or PhD application. I have students applying across the globe, to universities including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, LSE, Stanford, Harvard, Amsterdam, Bocconi, etc. Every application will ask for some kind of written essay or “Personal Statement”. You gotta write about yourself, hoping for an offer of a place on the course.
I personally love working on Personal Statements – It’s super-interesting to see what students say about themselves! I like to hear what they want to say at first, when they’re not so confident and feel shy writing about themselves. And then I also love what they submit in the end, when they read it back and feel that buzz of pride in themselves.
How should you write your Personal Statement? I’m always amazed to see what advice is given to students. Well-meaning adults often give bad advice, maybe because they don’t think about what an admissions person will be looking for. I have heard bizarre suggestions that don’t work well in practice – sometimes from schoolteachers, and even from the universities themselves!
When we start the journey of writing an application essay, I like to imagine it will end with an admissions tutor who is quite bored of all the personal statements they have to read. They might only properly read the first paragraph and last sentence of what you write (or even less!), without even glancing at the rest of your documents. Even the best admissions processes are run by real people who are not always perfect.
If I am that bored admissions tutor, I just want to read convincing evidence that you are a good student. I want to choose an undergraduate student who won’t have any problem understanding the core modules of the course, and who will get through the three years and will pass the course – ideally, one who I can imagine might just end up with a first class degree.
So, some tips:
- Write your key academic achievements first and last
The first and last few sentences are most important for your key message. And the key message you want to communicate is “I am a good student for this course”. So, say that:
In the first paragraph, talk about your recent best successes in academic terms, talk about your A-Levels and predicted grades, say that you’re really keen to study more, ideally with the exact name of the course.
- Write for one course
Normally, you should tailor your application to exactly the course you are applying for – the same as a job application. That means: a new application for each course, using the name of the institution and the name of the course in your writing, and adapting your writing to emphasise the details of that course.
For UCAS applications, you can’t exactly do that. You may need to “hedge” and write for multiple courses at once. But, try to do it for one course anyway: pick out the course that’s your ideal goal, and imagine you are writing for that course specifically. As long as you don’t use specific names, your other courses should be similar enough that your application works there too – your writing will automatically have the right vibe.
- Use key words from the First Year of the course
You want to communicate that you know exactly what course you are applying for and what you’ll be doing when you arrive, and using key topic words from the course is a great way to do this.
Go to the course website, then go to the first year (or “Core”) modules, look at the syllabus for each module, find as much detail as you can, and make a note of the topics that you already know confidently about at the right level. Drop the topics in, as key words, when you talk about your relevant experiences.
- Don’t write poetry
“I first became passionate about Finance when I was seven-years-old!” – it might be tempting to do some creative writing, but nobody wants to read through another application from a math student trying their best to write bad poetry. Writing with good grammar is already enough. Skip the poetry, and put your key point about being a good A-Level student up front instead.
Are you an exception to this rule? Probably not. Unless you’re applying for English Literature, or get paid for your writing, any attempt at poetic language will get a huge dose of side-eye.
- Do repeat yourself
You want to make your key points of excellence over and over again (that is – you’re a good student for this course), so that someone reading any section of your application will totally get it.
This means repeating your key points – probably your most recent academic results and successes, even if you’ve said that elsewhere in your application. Not your GCSE grades, though, we just don’t care that much.
Do repeat yourself – even if the university asks you not to.
Do repeat yourself. Say again (in another way) how you’re a great student for this course.
- Write about one relevant book (post-graduates get one research paper)
You want to pick one relevant book, ideally from a course reading list, and read it!
Use one paragraph of your statement to give a little depth about this one book, talk about what you learned and what you found surprising. This works best if it’s genuine, so do pick one that you’ve read, or pick one from a list and get reading. You might be curious to read the whole list if you’re really interested in the course, just saying.
Don’t write this about a second book! You gotta show that you read, but the rest of the space is needed to tell us more about you – so don’t turn your personal statement into a literature review.
- Use extra-curriculars to show teamwork and leadership
Sports and activity clubs are great to talk about, towards the end of your Personal Statement. Take about one paragraph for this.
Working together in a team or a club shows teamwork.
Starting a club or being involved in a new project or new direction shows leadership.
These make great evidence for any kind of application, even if they’re not directly connected to your course.
You might also get lucky and hit a personal connection with the person reading about you. Definitely worth it.
- Use the word “I”
It’s often understood that scientists and mathematicians and other academics should do their work with no ego: that is, no sense of self. Scientists recognise that they work as a team, building on what others have done before them. Academic literature expects “we” and not “I”. There’s an ideal that we work for the good of humanity, not for our own recognition. It’s beautiful, really.
And, it’s bad here. I want to hear about you personally – you’re supposed to be telling me why *you* are a good student for this course.
Therefore, you must use the word “I”. Lots of “I”. “I did this”, “I did that”.
I promise you should use the word “I”.
- Follow George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing
Some more tips to build confidence in your own writing – these rules will improve your readability. The more readable, the better.
Simplified, George Orwell’s Six Rules demand that you cut! Cut every single word that doesn’t add any meaning or value to your writing.
In your first drafts, just write as much as you like in your own style – in fact, write way too many words, if you want. Get all your ideas down onto the page.
In later drafts, use Orwell’s rules to help you juice down what you’ve written into the most valuable and meaningful information.
Even if you’re already under the word count, cutting more words will make your text more readable, and a hypothetically-bored admissions tutor will be grateful.
- “And, additionally, I studied Economics A-Level…” – you can cut the word “additionally” without changing the meaning – so cut it. Then, “And” gets cut as well.
- “I first developed a passion for medicine when my best friend broke his arm in the primary school playground…” – doesn’t tell us anything about you as a student or your ability to do this course, so it doesn’t add value: cut the whole thing.
- “My teacher, who I respect, told me to read the book ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell, and I was so fascinated by this experience that it completely changed my view-point regarding Sociology as a subject. I learned that…” – cut! cut! cut! Instead, be concise and direct:
“‘Animal Farm‘ by Orwell taught me that…” – (probably) keep!
- Show, don’t tell (mostly)
“Show, don’t tell” is a principle of writing that you should show what you mean rather than say it directly – by always giving evidence. Gather together as many different types of evidence as you can.
Anyone can say they are a “keen and motivated maths student who studies outside of class”, but saying instead that you got “Gold in the UKMT Maths Challenge” is much more convincing – the evidence speaks for itself.
If you give evidence, the reader will draw their own conclusions. Maybe they will even make stronger conclusions than the ones you thought of.
In a Personal Statement, it’s appropriate to “tell” sometimes – by claiming things directly – but try to focus as much as possible on “show”: give your evidence.
- BONUS TIP – Ask many people to read your final draft; pay attention to anything said by two people
Everybody will have an opinion about your writing. But, not everybody has a good or useful opinion. If you ask two people to give you advice on something you’ve written, they might even give you exactly opposite advice. Confusing.
So, if two or more people (independently) tell you the same piece of advice, take that as a strong signal to take action.
If only one person tells you, and you’re not sure? You can safely ignore them.
- ANOTHER BONUS TIP – Write your key academic achievements first and last
Remember that a lazy reader might only read the first line, or the last line, so you once again need to say directly that you are a great student. I like to see a short-and-cheesy last paragraph, to remind the reader that you’re first-and-foremost a keen-and-good student.
You’re allowed to use one cliché in the essay, at the very end: “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to study Fractal Galaxies at Sunnydale University”.
Do you want some personal help with your university applications? I do that as part of my tutoring work!
Write to me at email@example.com and we can arrange a pack of sessions.