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Writing the Personal Statement
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This handout provides information about writing personal statements for academic and other positions.
The personal statement, your opportunity to sell yourself in the application process, generally falls into one of two categories:
1. The general, comprehensive personal statement:
This allows you maximum freedom in terms of what you write and is the type of statement often prepared for standard medical or law school application forms.
2. The response to very specific questions:
Often, business and graduate school applications ask specific questions, and your statement should respond specifically to the question being asked. Some business school applications favor multiple essays, typically asking for responses to three or more questions.
Questions to ask yourself before you write:
- What's special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?
- What details of your life (personal or family problems, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
- When did you become interested in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
- How have you learned about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
- If you have worked a lot during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that work contributed to your growth?
- What are your career goals?
- Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
- Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?
- What personal characteristics (for example, integrity, compassion, and/or persistence) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
- What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
- Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school—and more successful and effective in the profession or field than other applicants?
- What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?
Answer the questions that are asked
- If you are applying to several schools, you may find questions in each application that are somewhat similar.
- Don't be tempted to use the same statement for all applications. It is important to answer each question being asked, and if slightly different answers are needed, you should write separate statements. In every case, be sure your answer fits the question being asked.
Tell a story
- Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. One of the worst things you can do is to bore the admissions committee. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you'll be putting yourself ahead of the pack. If you distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.
- Don't, for example, state that you would make an excellent doctor unless you can back it up with specific reasons. Your desire to become a lawyer, engineer, or whatever should be logical, the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.
Find an angle
- If you're like most people, your life story lacks drama, so figuring out a way to make it interesting becomes the big challenge. Finding an angle or a "hook" is vital.
Concentrate on your opening paragraph
- The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It is here that you grab the reader's attention or lose it. This paragraph becomes the framework for the rest of the statement.
Tell what you know
- The middle section of your essay might detail your interest and experience in your particular field, as well as some of your knowledge of the field. Too many people graduate with little or no knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the profession or field they hope to enter. Be as specific as you can in relating what you know about the field and use the language professionals use in conveying this information. Refer to experiences (work, research, etc.), classes, conversations with people in the field, books you've read, seminars you've attended, or any other source of specific information about the career you want and why you're suited to it. Since you will have to select what you include in your statement, the choices you make are often an indication of your judgment.
Don't include some subjects
- There are certain things best left out of personal statements. For example, references to experiences or accomplishments in high school or earlier are generally not a good idea. Don't mention potentially controversial subjects (for example, controversial religious or political issues).
Do some research, if needed
- If a school wants to know why you're applying to it rather than another school, do some research to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.
Write well and correctly
- Be meticulous. Type and proofread your essay very carefully. Many admissions officers say that good written skills and command of correct use of language are important to them as they read these statements. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Adhere to stated word limits.
- A medical school applicant who writes that he is good at science and wants to help other people is not exactly expressing an original thought. Stay away from often-repeated or tired statements.
For more information on writing a personal statement, see the personal statement vidcast .
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How to Write a Personal Statement
A personal statement can be a key part of your college application, and you can really make yours shine by following a few tips.
When you're applying to college—either to an undergraduate or graduate program—you may be asked to submit a personal statement. It's an essay that gives you the chance to share more about who you are and why you'd like to attend the university you're applying to.
The information you provide in your personal statement can help build on your other application materials, like your transcripts and letters of recommendation, and build a more cohesive picture to help the admissions committee understand your goals.
In this article, we'll go over more about personal statements, including why they're important, what to include in one, and tips for strengthening yours.
What is a personal statement?
A personal statement—sometimes known as a college essay —is a brief written essay you submit along with other materials when you're applying to college or university. Personal statements tend to be most common for undergraduate applications, and they're a great opportunity for an admissions committee to hear your voice directly.
Many colleges and universities in the US, especially those using Common App , provide prompts for you to use. For example, "Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea" or "Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time" [ 1 ]. If the school you're interested in attending doesn't require prompts, you will likely want to craft a response that touches on your story, your values, and your goals if possible.
In grad school, personal statements are sometimes known as letters of intent , and go into more detail about your academic and professional background, while expressing interest in attending the particular program you're applying to.
Why is a personal statement important?
Personal statements are important for a number of reasons. Whereas other materials you submit in an application can address your academic abilities (like your transcripts) or how you perform as a student (like your letters of recommendation), a personal statement is a chance to do exactly that: get more personal.
Personal statements typically:
Permit you to share things that don't fit on your resume, such as personal stories, motivations, and values
Offer schools a chance to see why you're interested in a particular field of study and what you hope to accomplish after you graduate
Provide an opportunity for you to talk about past employment, volunteer experiences, or skills you have that complement your studies
Allow colleges to evaluate your writing skills
Bring life to a college application package otherwise filled with facts and figures
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How to write a personal statement
As we mentioned earlier, you may have to respond to a prompt when drafting your personal statement—or a college or university may invite you to respond however you'd like. In either case, use the steps below to begin building your response.
Create a solid hook .
To capture the attention of an admissions committee member, start your personal statement with a hook that relates to the topic of your essay. A hook tends to be a colorful sentence or two at the very beginning that compels the reader to continue reading.
To create a captivating hook, try one of these methods:
Pose a rhetorical question.
Provide an interesting statistic.
Insert a quote from a well-known person.
Challenge the reader with a common misconception.
Use an anecdote, which is a short story that can be true or imaginary.
Credibility is crucial when writing a personal statement as part of your college application process. If you choose a statistic, quote, or misconception for your hook, make sure it comes from a reliable source.
Follow a narrative.
The best personal statements typically read like a story: they have a common theme, as well as a beginning, middle, and end. This type of format also helps keep your thoughts organized and improves the flow of your essay.
Common themes to consider for your personal statement include:
Special role models from your past
Life-altering events you've experienced
Unusual challenges you've faced
Accomplishments you're especially proud of
Service to others and why you enjoy it
What you've learned from traveling to a particular place
Unique ways you stand out from other candidates
Admissions committees read thousands of personal statements every year, which is why being specific on yours is important. Back up your statements with examples or anecdotes.
For instance, avoid vague assertions like, "I'm interested in your school counseling program because I care about children." Instead, point out experiences you've had with children that emphasize how much you care. For instance, you might mention your summer job as a day camp counselor or your volunteer experience mentoring younger children.
Don't forget to include detail and vibrancy to keep your statement interesting. The use of detail shows how your unique voice and experiences can add value to the college or university you're applying to.
Stay on topic.
It's natural to want to impress the members of the admissions committee that will read your personal statement. The best way to do this is to lead your readers through a cohesive, informative, and descriptive essay.
If you feel you might be going astray, check to make sure each paragraph in the body of your essay supports your introduction. Here are a few more strategies that can help keep you on track:
Know what you want to say and do research if needed.
Create an outline listing the key points you want to share.
Read your outline aloud to confirm it makes logical sense before proceeding.
Read your essay aloud while you're writing to confirm you're staying on topic.
Ask a trusted friend or family member to read your essay and make suggestions.
Be true to your own voice
Because of the importance of your personal statement, you could be tempted to be very formal with structure and language. However, it's better to use a more relaxed tone than you would for a classroom writing assignment.
Remember: admissions committees really want to hear from you . Writing in your own voice will help accomplish this. To ensure your tone isn't too relaxed, write your statement as if you were speaking to an older relative or trusted teacher. This way, you'll come across as respectful, confident, and honest.
Tips for drafting an effective personal statement
Now that you've learned a little about personal statements and how to craft them, here are a few more tips you can follow to strengthen your essay:
1. Customize your statement.
You don't have to completely rewrite your personal statement every time you apply to a new college, but you do want to make sure that you tailor it as much as possible. For instance, if you talk about wanting to take a certain class or study a certain subject, make sure you adjust any specifics for each application.
2. Avoid cliches.
Admissions committees are ultimately looking for students who will fit the school, and who the school can help guide toward their larger goals. In that case, cliches can get in the way of a reviewer understanding what it is you want from a college education. Watch out for cliches like "making a difference," "broadening my horizons," or "the best thing that ever happened to me."
3. Stay focused.
Try to avoid getting off-track or including tangents in your personal statement. Stay focused by writing a first draft and then re-reading what you've written. Does every paragraph flow from one point to the next? Are the ideas you're presenting cohesive?
4. Stick to topics that aren't controversial
It's best not to talk about political beliefs or inappropriate topics in your personal essay. These can be controversial, and ideally you want to share something goals-driven or values-driven with an admissions committee.
Polish your writing skills on Coursera
A stellar personal statement starts with stellar writing skills. Enhance your writing ability with a writing course from a top university, like Good with Words: Writing and Editing from the University of Michigan or Writing a Personal Essay from Wesleyan University. Get started for free to level up your writing.
1. Common App. " 2022-2023 Common App Essay Prompts , https://www.commonapp.org/blog/2022-2023-common-app-essay-prompts." Accessed June 9, 2023.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.
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- How to Write Your Personal Statement | Strategies & Examples
How to Write Your Personal Statement | Strategies & Examples
Published on February 12, 2019 by Shona McCombes . Revised on July 3, 2023.
A personal statement is a short essay of around 500–1,000 words, in which you tell a compelling story about who you are, what drives you, and why you’re applying.
To write a successful personal statement for a graduate school application , don’t just summarize your experience; instead, craft a focused narrative in your own voice. Aim to demonstrate three things:
- Your personality: what are your interests, values, and motivations?
- Your talents: what can you bring to the program?
- Your goals: what do you hope the program will do for you?
This article guides you through some winning strategies to build a strong, well-structured personal statement for a master’s or PhD application. You can download the full examples below.
Urban Planning Psychology History
Table of contents
Getting started with your personal statement, the introduction: start with an attention-grabbing opening, the main body: craft your narrative, the conclusion: look ahead, revising, editing, and proofreading your personal statement, frequently asked questions, other interesting articles.
Before you start writing, the first step is to understand exactly what’s expected of you. If the application gives you a question or prompt for your personal statement, the most important thing is to respond to it directly.
For example, you might be asked to focus on the development of your personal identity; challenges you have faced in your life; or your career motivations. This will shape your focus and emphasis—but you still need to find your own unique approach to answering it.
There’s no universal template for a personal statement; it’s your chance to be creative and let your own voice shine through. But there are strategies you can use to build a compelling, well-structured story.
The first paragraph of your personal statement should set the tone and lead smoothly into the story you want to tell.
Strategy 1: Open with a concrete scene
An effective way to catch the reader’s attention is to set up a scene that illustrates something about your character and interests. If you’re stuck, try thinking about:
- A personal experience that changed your perspective
- A story from your family’s history
- A memorable teacher or learning experience
- An unusual or unexpected encounter
To write an effective scene, try to go beyond straightforward description; start with an intriguing sentence that pulls the reader in, and give concrete details to create a convincing atmosphere.
Strategy 2: Open with your motivations
To emphasize your enthusiasm and commitment, you can start by explaining your interest in the subject you want to study or the career path you want to follow.
Just stating that it interests you isn’t enough: first, you need to figure out why you’re interested in this field:
- Is it a longstanding passion or a recent discovery?
- Does it come naturally or have you had to work hard at it?
- How does it fit into the rest of your life?
- What do you think it contributes to society?
Tips for the introduction
- Don’t start on a cliche: avoid phrases like “Ever since I was a child…” or “For as long as I can remember…”
- Do save the introduction for last. If you’re struggling to come up with a strong opening, leave it aside, and note down any interesting ideas that occur to you as you write the rest of the personal statement.
Once you’ve set up the main themes of your personal statement, you’ll delve into more detail about your experiences and motivations.
To structure the body of your personal statement, there are various strategies you can use.
Strategy 1: Describe your development over time
One of the simplest strategies is to give a chronological overview of key experiences that have led you to apply for graduate school.
- What first sparked your interest in the field?
- Which classes, assignments, classmates, internships, or other activities helped you develop your knowledge and skills?
- Where do you want to go next? How does this program fit into your future plans?
Don’t try to include absolutely everything you’ve done—pick out highlights that are relevant to your application. Aim to craft a compelling narrative that shows how you’ve changed and actively developed yourself.
My interest in psychology was first sparked early in my high school career. Though somewhat scientifically inclined, I found that what interested me most was not the equations we learned about in physics and chemistry, but the motivations and perceptions of my fellow students, and the subtle social dynamics that I observed inside and outside the classroom. I wanted to learn how our identities, beliefs, and behaviours are shaped through our interactions with others, so I decided to major in Social Psychology. My undergraduate studies deepened my understanding of, and fascination with, the interplay between an individual mind and its social context.During my studies, I acquired a solid foundation of knowledge about concepts like social influence and group dynamics, but I also took classes on various topics not strictly related to my major. I was particularly interested in how other fields intersect with psychology—the classes I took on media studies, biology, and literature all enhanced my understanding of psychological concepts by providing different lenses through which to look at the issues involved.
Strategy 2: Own your challenges and obstacles
If your path to graduate school hasn’t been easy or straightforward, you can turn this into a strength, and structure your personal statement as a story of overcoming obstacles.
- Is your social, cultural or economic background underrepresented in the field? Show how your experiences will contribute a unique perspective.
- Do you have gaps in your resume or lower-than-ideal grades? Explain the challenges you faced and how you dealt with them.
Don’t focus too heavily on negatives, but use them to highlight your positive qualities. Resilience, resourcefulness and perseverance make you a promising graduate school candidate.
Growing up working class, urban decay becomes depressingly familiar. The sight of a row of abandoned houses does not surprise me, but it continues to bother me. Since high school, I have been determined to pursue a career in urban planning. While people of my background experience the consequences of urban planning decisions first-hand, we are underrepresented in the field itself. Ironically, given my motivation, my economic background has made my studies challenging. I was fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship for my undergraduate studies, but after graduation I took jobs in unrelated fields to help support my parents. In the three years since, I have not lost my ambition. Now I am keen to resume my studies, and I believe I can bring an invaluable perspective to the table: that of the people most impacted by the decisions of urban planners.
Strategy 3: Demonstrate your knowledge of the field
Especially if you’re applying for a PhD or another research-focused program, it’s a good idea to show your familiarity with the subject and the department. Your personal statement can focus on the area you want to specialize in and reflect on why it matters to you.
- Reflect on the topics or themes that you’ve focused on in your studies. What draws you to them?
- Discuss any academic achievements, influential teachers, or other highlights of your education.
- Talk about the questions you’d like to explore in your research and why you think they’re important.
The personal statement isn’t a research proposal , so don’t go overboard on detail—but it’s a great opportunity to show your enthusiasm for the field and your capacity for original thinking.
In applying for this research program, my intention is to build on the multidisciplinary approach I have taken in my studies so far, combining knowledge from disparate fields of study to better understand psychological concepts and issues. The Media Psychology program stands out to me as the perfect environment for this kind of research, given its researchers’ openness to collaboration across diverse fields. I am impressed by the department’s innovative interdisciplinary projects that focus on the shifting landscape of media and technology, and I hope that my own work can follow a similarly trailblazing approach. More specifically, I want to develop my understanding of the intersection of psychology and media studies, and explore how media psychology theories and methods might be applied to neurodivergent minds. I am interested not only in media psychology but also in psychological disorders, and how the two interact. This is something I touched on during my undergraduate studies and that I’m excited to delve into further.
Strategy 4: Discuss your professional ambitions
Especially if you’re applying for a more professionally-oriented program (such as an MBA), it’s a good idea to focus on concrete goals and how the program will help you achieve them.
- If your career is just getting started, show how your character is suited to the field, and explain how graduate school will help you develop your talents.
- If you have already worked in the profession, show what you’ve achieved so far, and explain how the program will allow you to take the next step.
- If you are planning a career change, explain what has driven this decision and how your existing experience will help you succeed.
Don’t just state the position you want to achieve. You should demonstrate that you’ve put plenty of thought into your career plans and show why you’re well-suited to this profession.
One thing that fascinated me about the field during my undergraduate studies was the sheer number of different elements whose interactions constitute a person’s experience of an urban environment. Any number of factors could transform the scene I described at the beginning: What if there were no bus route? Better community outreach in the neighborhood? Worse law enforcement? More or fewer jobs available in the area? Some of these factors are out of the hands of an urban planner, but without taking them all into consideration, the planner has an incomplete picture of their task. Through further study I hope to develop my understanding of how these disparate elements combine and interact to create the urban environment. I am interested in the social, psychological and political effects our surroundings have on our lives. My studies will allow me to work on projects directly affecting the kinds of working-class urban communities I know well. I believe I can bring my own experiences, as well as my education, to bear upon the problem of improving infrastructure and quality of life in these communities.
Tips for the main body
- Don’t rehash your resume by trying to summarize everything you’ve done so far; the personal statement isn’t about listing your academic or professional experience, but about reflecting, evaluating, and relating it to broader themes.
- Do make your statements into stories: Instead of saying you’re hard-working and self-motivated, write about your internship where you took the initiative to start a new project. Instead of saying you’ve always loved reading, reflect on a novel or poem that changed your perspective.
Your conclusion should bring the focus back to the program and what you hope to get out of it, whether that’s developing practical skills, exploring intellectual questions, or both.
Emphasize the fit with your specific interests, showing why this program would be the best way to achieve your aims.
Strategy 1: What do you want to know?
If you’re applying for a more academic or research-focused program, end on a note of curiosity: what do you hope to learn, and why do you think this is the best place to learn it?
If there are specific classes or faculty members that you’re excited to learn from, this is the place to express your enthusiasm.
Strategy 2: What do you want to do?
If you’re applying for a program that focuses more on professional training, your conclusion can look to your career aspirations: what role do you want to play in society, and why is this program the best choice to help you get there?
Tips for the conclusion
- Don’t summarize what you’ve already said. You have limited space in a personal statement, so use it wisely!
- Do think bigger than yourself: try to express how your individual aspirations relate to your local community, your academic field, or society more broadly. It’s not just about what you’ll get out of graduate school, but about what you’ll be able to give back.
You’ll be expected to do a lot of writing in graduate school, so make a good first impression: leave yourself plenty of time to revise and polish the text.
Your style doesn’t have to be as formal as other kinds of academic writing, but it should be clear, direct and coherent. Make sure that each paragraph flows smoothly from the last, using topic sentences and transitions to create clear connections between each part.
Don’t be afraid to rewrite and restructure as much as necessary. Since you have a lot of freedom in the structure of a personal statement, you can experiment and move information around to see what works best.
Finally, it’s essential to carefully proofread your personal statement and fix any language errors. Before you submit your application, consider investing in professional personal statement editing . For $150, you have the peace of mind that your personal statement is grammatically correct, strong in term of your arguments, and free of awkward mistakes.
A statement of purpose is usually more formal, focusing on your academic or professional goals. It shouldn’t include anything that isn’t directly relevant to the application.
A personal statement can often be more creative. It might tell a story that isn’t directly related to the application, but that shows something about your personality, values, and motivations.
However, both types of document have the same overall goal: to demonstrate your potential as a graduate student and s how why you’re a great match for the program.
The typical length of a personal statement for graduate school applications is between 500 and 1,000 words.
Different programs have different requirements, so always check if there’s a minimum or maximum length and stick to the guidelines. If there is no recommended word count, aim for no more than 1-2 pages.
If you’re applying to multiple graduate school programs, you should tailor your personal statement to each application.
Some applications provide a prompt or question. In this case, you might have to write a new personal statement from scratch: the most important task is to respond to what you have been asked.
If there’s no prompt or guidelines, you can re-use the same idea for your personal statement – but change the details wherever relevant, making sure to emphasize why you’re applying to this specific program.
If the application also includes other essays, such as a statement of purpose , you might have to revise your personal statement to avoid repeating the same information.
If you want to know more about college essays , academic writing , and AI tools , make sure to check out some of our other language articles with explanations, examples, and quizzes.
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A-Z of Personal Statements
Learn from previous student personal statements here. We have collated over 700 personal statement examples to help you on your university journey and to help you with how to write a personal statement.
These personal statement examples will show you the kind of thing that universities are looking for from their applicants. See how to structure your personal statement, what kind of format your personal statement should be in, what to write in a personal statement and the key areas to touch on in your statement.
A personal statement is a chance to tell your university all about you - a good personal statement is one that showcases your passion for the subject, what inspired you to apply for the course you’re applying for and why you think you would be an asset to the university.
Our collection includes personal statement examples in Mathematics, Anthropology, Accounting, Computer Science, Zoology and more.
Writing a personal statement has never been easier with our vast collection of personal statement examples.
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Personal Statement Help
What is a personal statement.
A personal statement is an essay written by a student applying to either a college or university. A personal statement is written and then uploaded to UCAS and is then attached to any university applications that the student may then make.
If you need more information check out our personal statement advice articles .
How to write a personal statement
There isn't a clearly defined personal statement template for you to use as each person's statement is different.
When it comes to writing a personal statement for universities, your personal statement should touch on your passions, your interest in the course, why you're applying for the course and why you would be an asset to the university you're applying to.
Talk about the clubs and societies that you belong to, any work experience you may have and any awards you might have won.
If you're still looking for information check out our article on how to write a personal statement .
How to start a personal statement
When it comes to starting your personal statement, the best thing to do is to be succinct and to have enough tantalising information to keep the reader informed and eager for more.
Your introduction should touch on your personal qualities and why you are applying for the subject you're applying for. Keeping things short and sweet means that it also allows you to break your personal statement up, which makes it easier for the reader.
We have plenty of advice for students that are wondering about what to include in a personal statement .
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Writing Your Personal Statements
Your personal statement must demonstrate to the admissions committee that you have considered graduate school and their specific program seriously. It’s your opportunity to summarize your academic and research experiences. You must also communicate how your experiences are relevant to preparing you for the graduate degree that you will be pursuing and explain why a given program is the right one for you.
The personal statement is where you highlight your strengths. Make your strengths absolutely clear to the reviewers, because they will often be reading many other statements. Your self-assessments and honest conversations with peers and advisors should have also revealed your strengths. But you must also address (not blame others for) weaknesses or unusual aspects of your application or academic background.
Your personal statement should focus on two main aspects: your competence and commitment.
1. Identify your strengths in terms of competence that indicate that you will succeed in the grad program and provide examples to support your claims. Start your statement by describing your strengths immediately. Because faculty will be reading many statements, it’s important to start off with your strengths and not “bury your lede.” Consider traits of successful graduate students from your informational interviews, and identify which of these traits you have. These traits could involve research skills and experiences, expertise in working with techniques or instruments, familiarity with professional networks and resources in your field, etc.
- Check your responses from the exercises in the self-assessment section. You may wish to consult notes from your informational interviews and your Seven Stories . Write concise summaries and stories that demonstrate your strengths, e.g. how your strengths helped you to achieve certain goals or overcome obstacles.
- Summarize your research experience(s). What were the main project goals and the “big picture” questions? What was your role in this project? What did you accomplish? What did you learn, and how did you grow as a result of the experience(s)?
My research examines the interplay between U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy during the Cold War. As a native New Yorker, I saw firsthand how dramatically my city changed after 9/11, which prompted my early interest in U.S. policy at home and abroad. As an undergraduate at the City College of New York, I planned to study international relations with a focus on U.S. foreign affairs. I also quickly became involved in student activist groups that focused on raising awareness about a wide range of human rights issues, from the Syrian refugee crisis to asylum seekers from Central America.
The more I learned about the crises in the present, the more I realized that I needed a deeper understanding of the past to fully grasp them. I decided to pursue a PhD in history in order to gain a clearer understanding of human rights issues in the present and to empower young student-activists like myself.
— Vannessa Velez, PhD candidate in History
Addressing weaknesses or unusual aspects
- Identify weaknesses or unusual aspects in your application—e.g., a significant drop in your GPA during a term; weak GRE scores; changes in your academic trajectory, etc. Don’t ignore them, because ignoring them might be interpreted as blind spots for you. If you’re unsure if a particular issue is significant enough to address, seek advice from faculty mentors.
- Explain how you’ll improve and strengthen those areas or work around your weakness. Determine how you will address them in a positive light, e.g., by discussing how you overcame obstacles through persistence, what you learned from challenges, and how you grew from failures. Focusing on a growth mindset or grit and this blog on weaknesses might also help.
- Deal with any significant unusual aspects later in the statement to allow a positive impression to develop first.
- Explain, rather than provide excuses—i.e., address the issue directly and don’t blame others (even if you believe someone else is responsible). Draft it and get feedback from others to see if the explanation is working as you want it to.
- Provide supporting empirical evidence if possible. For example, “Adjusting to college was a major step for me, coming from a small high school and as a first-generation college student. My freshman GPA was not up to par with my typical achievements, as demonstrated by my improved GPA of 3.8 during my second and third years in college."
- Be concise (don’t dwell on the issues), but also be complete (don’t lead to other potentially unanswered questions). For example, if a drop in grades during a term was due to a health issue, explain whether the health issue is recurring, managed now with medication, resolved, etc.
2. Explain your commitment to research and their graduate program, including your motivation for why you are applying to this graduate program at this university. Be as specific as possible. Identify several faculty members with whom you are interested in working, and explain why their research interests you.
- Descriptions of your commitment should explain why you’re passionate about this particular academic field and provide demonstrations of your commitment with stories (e.g., working long hours to solve a problem, overcoming challenges in research, resilience in pursuing problems). Don’t merely assert your commitment.
- Explain why you are applying to graduate school, as opposed to seeking a professional degree or a job. Discuss your interest and motivation for grad school, along with your future career aspirations.
I am definitely not your traditional graduate student. As a biracial (Native American and white), first-generation PhD student from a military family, I had very limited guidance on how best to pursue my education, especially when I decided that graduate school was a good idea. I ended up coming to this PhD in a very circuitous manner, stopping first to get a JD and, later, an MFA in Young Adult Literature. With each degree, I took time to work and apply what I’d learned, as a lawyer and as an educator. Each time, I realized that I was circling around questions that I couldn’t let go of—not just because I found them to be fascinating, but because I did (and still do!) feel that my research could help to bridge a gap that desperately needs bridging. Because my work is quite interdisciplinary, I strongly feel that I wouldn’t have been able to pursue this line of research without the degrees and life experience I gained before coming to this program.
— Jamie Fine, PhD candidate in Modern Thought and Literature
Statement of Purpose: subtle aspects
- Think in terms of engaging faculty in a conversation rather than pleading with them that you should be admitted. Ask reviewers to read drafts with this concern in mind.
- With later drafts, try developing an overall narrative theme. See if one emerges as you work.
- Write at least 10 drafts and expect your thinking and the essay to change quite a bit over time.
- Read drafts out loud to help you catch errors.
- Expect the "you' that emerges in your essay to be incomplete. . . that’s OK.
- You’re sharing a professional/scholarly slice of "you."
- Avoid humor (do you really know what senior academics find funny?) and flashy openings and closings. Think of pitching the essay to an educated person in the field, but not necessarily in your specialty. Avoid emotionally laden words (such as "love" or "passion"). Remember, your audience is a group of professors! Overly emotional appeals might make them uncomfortable. They are looking for scholarly colleagues.
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How to write a personal statement? It's difficult to know where to begin. Get hints and tips on structure, content and what not to write from a university expert.
- An insider's view
- What admissions tutors look for
Structuring and preparing your personal statement
What to write in a personal statement, examples to avoid, an insider’s view .
Personal statements may seem formulaic, but they can be critical to the decision-making process, and admissions tutors do read them.
If you’re applying for a high-demand course, your personal statement could be the deciding factor on whether or not you get an interview.
The Director of Marketing and Student Recruitment at the University of Gloucestershire , James Seymour, shares some top tips on how to write a personal statement.
What makes a good personal statement?
This is your chance to demonstrate your enthusiasm and commitment and show us what value you can add to a university. In the vast majority of cases, universities are finding ways to make you an offer, not reject you – the personal statement is your chance to make this decision easier for them!
First, you need to explain why you want a place on a course. Take a look at James’ tips on what you should include:
- Explain the reason for your choice and how it fits in with your aspirations for the future
- Give examples of any related academic or work experience
- Show you know what the course will involve and mention any special subjects you’re interested in
- Demonstrate who you are by listing any positions you’ve held, memberships of teams or societies, and interests and hobbies
- Show consistency in your five UCAS choices. It may be difficult for an admissions tutor to take you seriously if your other choices, and references to them, are totally different. If your choices are different, you should explain this in your statement. The UCAS form is blind. Admissions tutors don’t know the other universities you’ve applied to, or your priorities, but you should still be consistent
- Keep it clear and concise – UCAS admissions are increasingly paperless – so most admissions tutors/officers will read your statement onscreen
Explain what you can bring to a course and try not to just list experiences, but describe how they have given you skills that will help you at university.
Don’t just say: I am a member of the college chess club. I also play the clarinet in the orchestra.
When you could say: I have developed my problem-solving skills through playing chess for the college; this requires concentration and analytical thought. I am used to working as part of a team as I play clarinet in the college orchestra and cooperate with others to achieve a finished production.
- Applying to university and UCAS deadlines
- Applying and studying in the UK
- University interviews
What will admissions tutors look for in your personal statement?
To decide if you’re the right fit, universities and colleges are interested in how you express your academic record and potential. This should be backed up by your reference.
Those working in admissions look for evidence of:
- Motivation and commitment
- Leadership, teamwork and communication
- Research into your chosen subject
- Any relevant key skills
Admissions tutors aren't seeking Nobel laureates. They’re looking for enthusiasm for the course being applied for, and self-reflection into why you’d be suitable to study it. What value could you add to the course? Where would you like to go once you graduate?
Ben, the Admissions Manager for Law at the University of Birmingham , shared with us what he expects applicants to tell him in their personal statement:
The personal statement is not only an excellent opportunity to showcase applicants individual skills, knowledge, and achievements, but it also provides us with an insight into the type of student they aspire to be and how they could fit into the academic community. Ben Atkins, Law Admissions Manager at University of Birmingham
Real-life example: the good
Real-life example: the not-so-good
- How to make your personal statement stand out
You could have excellent experiences, but if they’re arranged in a poorly-written statement then the impact will be reduced. So, it’s important to plan your statement well.
A well-written personal statement with a clearly planned and refined structure will not only make the information stand out, but it’ll demonstrate you have an aptitude for structuring written pieces of work – a crucial skill needed for many university courses.
You can use it for other things too, such as gap year applications, jobs, internships, apprenticeships and keep it on file for future applications.
There's no one ‘correct’ way to structure your personal statement. But it’s a good idea to include the following:
- A clear introduction, explaining why you want to study the course
- Around 75% can focus on your academic achievements, to prove how you’re qualified to study it
- Around 25% can be about any extracurricular activity, to show what else makes you suitable
- A clear conclusion
- How to start a personal statement
Your personal statement is your chance to really show why you deserve a place on your chosen course.
Remember to keep these in mind:
- Be clear and concise – the more concentrated the points and facts, the more powerful
- Use positive words such as achieved, developed, learned, discovered, enthusiasm, commitment, energy, fascination…
- Avoid contrived or grandiose language. Instead use short, simple sentences in plain English
- Insert a personal touch if possible, but be careful with humour and chatty approaches
- Use evidence of your learning and growth (wherever possible) to support claims and statements
- Plan the statement as you would an essay or letter of application for a job/scholarship
- Consider dividing the statement into five or six paragraphs, with headings if appropriate
- Spelling and grammar DO matter – draft and redraft as many times as you must and ask others to proofread and provide feedback
- For 2022 – 23 applications, refer to the challenges you've faced during the pandemic in a positive way
- Come across as pretentious
- Try to include your life history
- Start with: "I’ve always wanted to be a..."
- Use gimmicks or quotations, unless they're very relevant and you deal with them in a way that shows your qualities
- Be tempted to buy or copy a personal statement – plagiarism software is now very sophisticated and if you're caught out you won’t get a place
- Make excuses about not being able to undertake activities/gain experience – focus on what you were able to do positively, e.g. as a result of coronavirus
For further details, read our detailed guide on what to include in a personal statement and the best things to avoid.
Note that if you decide to reapply for university the following year, it's a good idea to consider making some changes to your personal statement. Mention why you took a year off and talk about what skills you've learnt. If you're applying for a completely different subject, you'll need to make more changes.
James gives us real-life examples of things to avoid:
I enjoy the theatre and used to go a couple of times a year. (Drama)
I am a keen reader and am committed to the study of human behaviour through TV soaps!
I have led a full life over the last 18 years and it is a tradition I intend to continue.
I describe myself in the following two words: 'TO ODIN!' the ancient Viking war cry. (Law)
My favourite hobby is bee-keeping and I want to be an engineer.
My interest in Medicine stems from my enjoyment of Casualty and other related TV series.
I have always had a passion to study Medicine, failing that, Pharmacy. (A student putting Pharmacy as her fifth choice after four medical school choices – Pharmacy can be just as popular and high status as Medicine.)
Some final advice
Above all, remember that a personal statement is your opportunity to convince a university why it should offer you a place. So, make it compelling and there’s a much higher chance they will.
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How to write a great personal statement
Student Admissions & Access
Your personal statement is your opportunity to tell us more about yourself and why you are interested in studying your chosen subject. In this article, we offer you some tips and advice on how to start building your personal statement and make the best impression with your application.
Where to start
Don’t let the blank page put you off. Just start writing and try not to overthink it - you can always change and refine your statement later.
You might want to begin by thinking about the following questions to help you make a list of what to include:
- What do I know about the course and its modules?
- Why do I want to study the subject?
- What do I like about the subject?
- What do I already know?
- What have I read, watched or attended that is relevant to the subject?
- What excites me about the subject?
- What are my academic strengths?
- What makes me a good fit for studying this course?
Start turning your list into sentences. Think about how each thing in your list relates to your subject, and start to form concise sentences. Aim to organise the sentences into paragraphs and form a logical structure to make a case for your suitability for the course.
Aim for one idea per sentence, and one major theme per paragraph. If you can, try to tie it all together with common themes and ideas. For example, you may have learned a topic during your A Levels, then read a book about it and independently researched more about the theory, which sparked some ideas and questions of your own. You may have read a number of books on a similar theme - think about any parallels or contrasts between them.
Draft, draft, draft
Get everything down on paper first. Then go back to draft and start to rework it. Don’t let your personal statement become a long list of ideas – that was your starting point. Think about the most important points you’ve made, and work on developing those. Remember that sometimes, less is more. At this point, you may have to delete whole sections, so don’t become too attached to what you have written.
When working on your draft, try to be clear and concise – remember, you only have limited space.
The beginning at the end
Often it’s easier to write the main body of your statement first, and come back to the opening later. The first sentence should really show your enthusiasm for the course, so talk about something that excites you.
Don’t forget your conclusion. Try to tie everything together at the end, and finish on a positive note that leaves the admissions tutor with a positive impression. If you approach your personal statement as a short academic essay about yourself and your motivations, we should be left with a clear sense of where your passion lies and your suitability for the course.
Check before you submit
Before you submit your application, it’s a good idea to carefully proof your personal statement and to share it with someone else – that could be a family member, friend or teacher. You don’t always have to follow their advice, it’s personal after all, but you may find that they have some good ideas and they might spot mistakes you’ve missed.
- Show your passion, don’t just tell us.
- Be yourself and sound like yourself – you don’t have to use the thesaurus for every word!
- Make sure you can talk about everything in your personal statement in detail, as you’ll be asked about it at your interview.
- Link any extra-curricular activities to your study – maybe your part time job taught you time management or communication skills.
- Make sure it relates to the course you have applied for.
- Check your spelling and grammar, and use clear, plain English.
- Avoid sweeping, general statements, make every word count.
Watch this video from UCAS for some more great tips to get you started:
If you choose to apply to cambridge, we can’t wait to find out all about you.
The information in this article is correct at the time of publishing. Last reviewed July 2023. For more information about applying to the University of Cambridge, visit our website .
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Department of Allied Health Sciences
Helpful tips for crafting your personal statement, what is a personal statement.
Your personal statement should be a clear and concise essay that articulates your educational and professional goals. It should include your background and past experiences that relate to the program and help the Admissions Committee see evidence of your commitment, motivation and compatibility with the goals of the program. Unless otherwise instructed, your personal statement should always be typed and 500 words or less. Be sure to follow any specific directions provided by the program including the use of any specific forms or formats.
Why are personal statements important?
An Admissions Committee may make an admission decision without ever meeting you. The personal statement add a dimension that cannot be obtained from transcripts or letters of recommendation. Well-written personal statements can help to fill in gaps that are not explained by information requested on the application forms and can have a strong impact on your application.
A Sample Outline
The following is a suggested outline for your personal statement. Endeavor to include all the pertinent information but be as brief and concise as possible—remember there is a 500-word limit. Reflect carefully on what you want to say before you begin. It is important that your statement indicates to the Admissions Committee compatibility with the goals of the program.
- Introduction - Introduce yourself, giving the Admissions Committee a sense of you as an individual and the talents you possess. Include in this section the basic reasons for your application to the program.
- Address your previous course work in general and how you think it relates to the program
- Discuss experiences in related fields and the impact they have had on you
- Include any specific experiences that demonstrate motivation for pursuing a career in the field and the relevant experiences such as jobs or community service
- Discuss your background only as it relates to the program
- Highlight your abilities to develop ideas, your initiative and your capacity to work through complex ideas
- Closing Paragraph - Leave the Admissions Committee with a strong impression that you are qualified and will be successful. It is important in this paragraph to provide summary comments related to what you have previously mentioned in the personal statement.
Note: You're not required to follow the above outline, but your statement should include the kinds of information that will help the Admissions Committee reach a decision.
How carefully your personal statement is written will determine how effective it will be. Admissions Committee members will not be impressed by an unorganized presentation in which background material and ideas appear random. Carefully proofread the personal statement for grammatical errors, typographic errors and misspelled words. Though you may use similar material, you should craft a separate personal statement for each program to which you plan to apply. Admissions Committee members will not be impressed with a personal statement that eloquently describes your desire to be admitted to another program!
Although you are trying to make a good impression in your personal statement, try to avoid creating an image of a person that does not exist. The Admissions Committee is impressed by such characteristics as enthusiasm, intelligence, talent, leadership, maturity, creativity and perseverance. Do not try too hard to impress; no one expects perfection.
Admissions Committee members are interested in you as a person and the potential you present for the program. They'll be looking for evidence that you can evaluate ideas and interests clearly and with confidence. Make your personal statement your own; do not just write what you perceive the committee wants to read. This is your opportunity to demonstrate your creativity, thoughtfulness and to distinguish your individuality!
References to Aid You in Preparing Your Personal Statement
- The Chicago Manual of Style. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 13th ed., (1982). Powell, E. & Angione, H. (1990).
- The Associated Press Stylebook. New York: Dell. Ross-Larson, Bruce. (1982).
- Edit Yourself: A Manual For Everyone Who Works With Words. New York: Norton.
- Strunk, William & White, E.B. (1979). The Elements of Style. New York: Macmillan, 3rd ed.
- Zinsser, William. (1990). On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Harper and Row, 4th ed.
13 Steps to Writing a Winning Personal Statement – and What to Avoid
Your personal statement is like the cover letter when applying for a job. It is the only part of the university application you have direct control of , and it is essential to showcase your skills, experiences, and passion to the admissions committee. Here’s what to do – and what not to do – when writing a winning personal statement.
- Understand the Guidelines:
- Carefully read and understand the university’s prompt or guidelines for the personal statement. Make sure you address all the key points required.
- Brainstorm and Outline:
- Jot down your achievements, experiences, skills, interests, and goals. Think about how these relate to the course you’re applying to, and what you want to convey to the admissions committee . Show that you’ve done research to demonstrate your passion, curiosity, and drive to pursue your chosen subject. Create an outline to organize your thoughts logically.
- Begin with a captivating opening that grabs the reader’s attention. You could use an anecdote, a quote, or a personal experience relating to your chosen field of study. Clearly state why you’re interested in the subject and why you want to pursue it.
- Showcase Your Motivation:
- Explain why you’re passionate about your chosen field of study. Highlight any experiences, events, or people that have influenced your decision to pursue this field. Connect your past experiences to your future goals.
- Highlight Your Relevant Experiences:
- Discuss your academic achievements, extracurricular activities, internships, research projects, or relevant job s. Focus on experiences demonstrating your skills, dedication, and suitability for the course.
- It’s not so much about what you’ve done , but how these activities/experiences have informed your decision.
- Demonstrate Key Skills:
- Mention principal skills essential to your chosen field. This could include critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, communication, research, and leadership. Give examples of how you’ve developed or utilized these skills.
- Reflect on Challenges:
- Discuss any challenges or setbacks you’ve faced and how you’ve overcome them. Admissions committees value resilience and the ability to learn from adversity.
- Connect with the University:
- Explain why you’re interested in that particular university and how their program aligns with your goals. Mention specific faculty members, courses, research opportunities, or facilities that attracted you.
- Be Genuine and Unique:
- Your personal statement should reflect your authentic voice. Avoid clichés and generic statements. Share your unique perspective and experiences that make you stand out from the crowd . What makes you different is what the admissions officer needs to know about you.
- Be Concise and Clear:
- Keep your writing clear, concise, and organized. Adhere to any word or character limits provided.
- Proofread and Edit:
- Revise your personal statement for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. Ask teachers, mentors, or friends to review it and provide you with feedback. Multiple rounds of editing are crucial.
- Positive Conclusion:
- Wrap up your personal statement by reiterating your enthusiasm for the program and expressing your eagerness to contribute to the university community.
- Start Early:
- Give yourself enough time to write, revise, and edit your personal statement. Rushing through this process can lead to overlooked mistakes and ultimately, an ineffective statement.
What to Avoid
To ensure that your statement remains focused, professional, and effective, here’s a list of things you should generally avoid:
- Irrelevant Information: Stay on topic and focus on your academic and personal achievements, experiences, and aspirations relevant to the program you’re applying for.
- Personal Problems or Drama: Avoid discussing personal problems, family issues, or negative experiences that could make the admissions committee uncomfortable. The personal statement should focus on your strengths and accomplishments.
- Controversial or Sensitive Topics: Refrain from discussing controversial or sensitive topics that might offend or alienate the readers. This includes religious or political views unless directly relevant to your chosen field of study. Keep your tone respectful and inclusive.
Unrelated Hobbies or Interests: While it’s okay to mention hobbies or interests, make sure they are somehow connected to your chosen field of study or demonstrate relevant skills.
- Overused Quotes or Clichés: This includes statements like “I’ve always wanted to study X” without explaining why or providing context. Admissions committees want to hear your unique perspective, not rehashed phrases.
- Negative Views on Other Fields or Institutions: Avoid criticizing other fields of study, universities, or programs. Instead, focus on the positive aspects of the program you’re applying for.
- Exaggerations or False Information: Be honest and accurate in your portrayal of yourself and your experiences. Exaggerating or providing false information can harm your credibility.
- Jokes or Humor: Humor can be subjective and may not translate well in a formal context. What might be funny to you could be misunderstood by the admissions committee.
- Repeating Your Resumé: Your personal statement should complement your resumé or CV, not repeat it verbatim. Use this opportunity to delve deeper into your experiences and motivations.
- Long Personal Histories: While a brief personal anecdote can be an effective attention grabber, avoid lengthy personal histories that don’t directly tie into your academic goals.
- Negativity or Self-Doubt: Present yourself confidently and positively. Avoid self-deprecating or negative language that undermines your accomplishments or goals.
- Quotations as Substitutes: While quotes can be inspiring, don’t rely on them as a substitute for your own words. Your personal statement should reflect your thoughts and experiences.
- Name-Dropping Unnecessarily: Mentioning famous people or renowned scholars without any substantial connection to your story may come across as insincere.
- Technical Jargon: Avoid using excessive technical jargon that might be unfamiliar to those outside your field. Remember that the admissions committee might have diverse backgrounds.
- Rambling or Excessive Length: Sticking to the word or character limits – usually 4000 characters or 47 lines – is important to show your ability to communicate effectively. On the other hand, if you’re struggling to find anything to say, have you applied for the right course?
A personal statement is a chance to present yourself beyond your grades and test scores. It’s an opportunity to showcase your personality, aspirations, and commitment to your chosen field professionally and engagingly.
Every piece of information you include should contribute to this overall objective. Make the most of it to leave a lasting impression on the admissions committee.
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How to Write a UCAS Personal Statement [With Examples]
James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools
What are the big challenges students should be aware of before writing their UCAS Personal Statement?
- The essential ingredients for writing a great Personal Statement
- How to write the UCAS Personal Statement [with examples]
Final hints & tips to help your students
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The UCAS Personal Statement can sometimes be a student’s only chance to impress a UK university. Read our in-depth guide to helping your students plan & write a winning application.
There are hundreds of articles out there on how to write a UCAS Personal Statement that will grab the attention of a UK university admissions officer.
But if you’re working with students to help them perfect their Personal Statement in time for the relevant UCAS deadlines , we can sum up the secret to success in three words.
Planning, structure and story.
The UCAS Personal Statement is a student’s chance to talk about why they want to study for a particular degree, course or subject discipline at a UK university.
As they set about writing a personal statement, students need to demonstrate the drive, ambition, relevant skills and notable achievements that make them a suitable candidate for the universities they have chosen to apply to .
But the UCAS Personal Statement requires students to write a lot about themselves in a relatively short space of time. That’s why lots of planning, a tight structure and a compelling story are essential if a student’s Personal Statement is to truly excel.
As important deadlines for UK university applications grow closer, we at BridgeU have put together a guide, outlining some of the strategies and techniques to help your students to write a personal statement which is both engaging and truly individual.
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As they begin to plan their Personal Statement, students may feel intimidated. It’s not easy to summarise your academic interests and personal ambitions, especially when you’re competing for a place on a course which is popular or has demanding entry requirements. In particular, students will likely come up against the following challenges.
Unfortunately, the Personal Statement (and other aspects of university preparation) comes during the busiest year of the student’s academic life so far.
Students, and indeed teachers and counsellors, must undertake the planning and writing of the personal statement whilst juggling other commitments, classes and deadlines, not to mention revision and open day visits!
Because there is already a lot of academic pressure on students in their final year of secondary school, finding the time and headspace for the personal statement can be hard, and can mean it gets pushed to the last minute. The risks of leaving it to the last minute are fairly obvious – the application will seem rushed and the necessary thought and planning won’t go into making the personal statement the best it can be .
Sticking closely to the Personal Statement format
The character limit which UCAS sets for the personal statement is very strict – up to 4,000 characters of text. This means that students have to express themselves in a clear and concise way; it’s also important that they don’t feel the need to fill the available space needlessly. Planning and redrafting of a personal statement is essential .
Making it stand out
This is arguably the greatest challenge facing students – making sure that their statement sets them apart from everyone else who is competing for a place on any given course; in 2022 alone, UCAS received applications from 683,650 applicants (+1.6k on 2021) students. In addition, UCAS uses its own dedicated team and purpose built software to check every application for plagiarism, so it’s crucial that students craft a truly original personal statement which is entirely their own work .
The essential ingredients for writing a great UCAS Personal Statement
We’ve already mentioned our three watch words for writing a high quality Personal Statement.
Planning. Structure. Story.
Let’s dig deeper into these three essential components in more detail.
Watch: How to Write a UCAS Personal Statement with University of Essex
Planning a ucas personal statement.
It might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s vital that students plan their Personal Statement before they start writing it. Specifically, the planning phase could include:
- Students thoroughly researching the UK university courses they plan on applying to.
- Deciding on what relevant material to include in their Personal Statement (we’ll cover this in more detail later on).
- Writing an unedited first draft where they just get their thoughts and ideas down on paper.
Structuring a UCAS Personal Statement
As we’ve discussed, the UCAS Personal Statement requires students to be extremely disciplined – they will be required to condense a lot of information into a relatively short written statement. This means that, after they’ve written a rough first draft, they need to think carefully about how they structure the final statement.
A stand out Personal Statement will need a tight structure, with an introduction and a conclusion that make an impact and really help to tell a story about who your student is, and why they are drawn to studying this particular degree.
This brings us nicely to our third and final ingredient…
Telling a story with a Personal Statement
The UCAS Personal Statement is a student’s opportunity to show a university who they are and how their life experiences have shaped their academic interests and goals.
So a good Personal Statement needs to offer a compelling narrative, and that means making sure that a student’s writing is well-structured, and that every sentence and paragraph is serving the statement’s ultimate purpose – to convince a university that your student deserves a place on their subject of choice.
How to help your students start their UCAS Personal Statement
In order to ensure that a personal statement is delivered on time and to an appropriate standard, it’s essential to plan thoroughly before writing it. Here are some questions you can ask your students before they start writing:
How can you demonstrate a formative interest in your subject?
It may sound obvious but, in order for any UCAS personal statement to have the necessary structure and clarity, students need to think hard about why they want to study their chosen subject. Ask them to think about their responses to the following questions:
What inspired you to study your chosen subject?
Example answer: My desire to understand the nature of reality has inspired me to apply for Physics and Philosophy
Was there a formative moment when your perspective on this subject changed, or when you decided you wanted to study this subject in more detail?
Example answer: My interest in philosophy was awakened when I questioned my childhood religious beliefs; reading Blackburn’s “Think”, convinced me to scrutinise my assumptions about the world, and to ensure I could justify my beliefs.
Can you point to any role models, leading thinkers, or notable literature which has in turn affected your thinking and/or inspired you?
Example answer : The search for a theory of everything currently being conducted by physicists is of particular interest to me and in “The Grand Design” Hawking proposes a collection of string theories, dubbed M-theory, as the explanation of why the universe is the way it is.
Asking your students to think about the “why” behind their chosen subject discipline is a useful first step in helping them to organise their overall statement. Next, they need to be able to demonstrate evidence of their suitability for a course or degree.
How have you demonstrated the skills and aptitudes necessary for your chosen course?
Encourage students to think about times where they have demonstrated the necessary skills to really stand out. It’s helpful to think about times when they have utilised these skills both inside and outside the classroom. Ask students to consider their responses to the following questions.
Can you demonstrate critical and independent thinking around your chosen subject discipline?
Example answer : Currently I am studying Maths and Economics in addition to Geography. Economics has been a valuable tool, providing the nuts and bolts to economic processes, and my geography has provided a spatial and temporal element.
Are you able to demonstrate skills and competencies which will be necessary for university study?
These include qualities such as teamwork, time management and the ability to organise workload responsibly.
Example answer: This year I was selected to be captain of the 1st XV rugby team and Captain of Swimming which will allow me to further develop my leadership, teamwork and organisational skills.
How have your extracurricular activities helped prepare you for university?
Students may believe that their interests outside the classroom aren’t relevant to their university application. So encourage them to think about how their other interests can demonstrate the subject-related skills that universities are looking for in an application. Ask students to think about any of the following activities, and how they might be related back to the subject they are applying for.
- Clubs/societies, or volunteering work which they can use to illustrate attributes such as teamwork, an interest in community service and the ability to manage their time proactively.
- Have they been elected/nominated as a team captain, or the head of a particular club or society, which highlights leadership skills and an ability to project manage?
- Can they point to any awards or prizes they may have won, whether it’s taking up a musical instrument, playing a sport, or participating in theatre/performing arts?
- Have they achieved grades or qualifications as part of their extracurricular activities? These can only help to demonstrate aptitude and hard work.
How to write the UCAS Personal Statement [with examples]
If sufficient planning has gone into the personal statement, then your students should be ready to go!
In this next section, we’ll break down the individual components of the UCAS Personal Statement and share some useful examples.
These examples come from a Personal Statement in support of an application to study Environmental Science at a UK university.
Watch: King’s College London explain what they’re looking for in a UCAS Personal Statement
This is the chance for an applying student to really grab an admission tutor’s attention. Students need to demonstrate both a personal passion for their subject, and explain why they have an aptitude for it . This section is where students should begin to discuss any major influences or inspirations that have led them to this subject choice.
Example : My passion for the environment has perhaps come from the fact that I have lived in five different countries: France, England, Spain, Sweden and Costa Rica. Moving at the age of 15 from Sweden, a calm and organized country, to Costa Rica, a more diverse and slightly chaotic country, was a shock for me at first and took me out of my comfort zone […] Also, living in Costa Rica, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, definitely helped me realize how vulnerable the world is and how we need to take care of it in a sustainable manner.
This opening paragraph immediately grabs the reader’s attention by giving the reader an insight into this student’s background and links their academic interests with something specific from the student’s personal backstory.
Discussing Academic Achievements
The next paragraph in this Personal Statement discusses the student’s academic achievements. Because this student has had an international education, they frame their academic achievements in the context of their personal background. They also cite useful examples of other curricula they have studied and the grades they have achieved.
Throughout my academic life I have shown myself to be a responsible student as well as a hard working one, despite the fact that I have had to move around a lot. I have achieved several other accomplishments such as a high A (286/300) in AS Spanish at age 15, and also completed a Spanish course of secondary studies for ‘MEP’(Ministerio de Educacion Publica), which is a system from Costa Rica.
You’ll notice that this student doesn’t just list their achievements – their strong academic performance is always linked back to a wider discussion of their personal experiences.
Showcasing Extracurricular Activities
As well as discussing academic achievements, a good Personal Statement should also discuss the student’s extracurricular activities, and how they relate back to the student’s overall university aspirations.
By the third/fourth paragraph of the Personal Statement, students should think about incorporating their extracurricular experiences,
Another valuable experience was when my class spent a week at a beach called ‘Pacuare’ in order to help prevent the eggs of the endangered leatherback turtle from being stolen by poachers who go on to sell them like chicken eggs. We all gained teamwork experience, which was needed in order to hide the eggs silently without scaring the mother turtles, as well as making it more difficult for the poachers to find them.
When the poachers set fire to one of the sustainable huts where we were staying, not only did I gain self-awareness about the critical situation of the world and its ecosystems, I also matured and became even more motivated to study environmental sciences at university.
This is a particularly striking example of using extracurricular activities to showcase a student’s wider passion for the degree subject they want to study.
Not only does this Personal Statement have a story about volunteering to save an endangered species, it also illustrates this applicants’ wider worldview, and helps to explain their motivation for wanting to study Environmental Science.
Concluding the UCAS Personal Statement
The conclusion to a UCAS Personal Statement will have to be concise, and will need to tie all of a student’s academic and extracurricular achievements. After all, a compelling story will need a great ending.
Remember that students need to be mindful of the character limit of a Personal Statement, so a conclusion need only be the length of a small paragraph, or even a couple of sentences.
“ After having many varied experiences, I truly think I can contribute to university in a positive way, and would love to study in England where I believe I would gain more skills and education doing a first degree than in any other country. “
A good Personal Statement conclusion will end with an affirmation of how the student thinks they can contribute to university life, and why they believe the institution in question should accept them. Because the student in this example has a such a rich and varied international background, they also discuss the appeal of studying at university in England.
It’s worth taking a quick look at a few other examples of how other students have chosen to conclude their Personal Statement.
Medicine (Imperial College, London)
Interest in Medicine aside, other enthusiasms of mine include languages, philosophy, and mythology. It is curiously fitting that in ancient Greek lore, healing was but one of the many arts Apollo presided over, alongside archery and music. I firmly believe that a doctor should explore the world outside the field of Medicine, and it is with such experiences that I hope to better empathise and connect with the patients I will care for in my medical career.
You’ll notice that this example very specifically ties the students’ academic and extracurricular activities together, and ties the Personal Statement back to their values and beliefs.
Economic History with Economics (London School of Economics)
The highlight of my extra-curricular activities has been my visit to Shanghai with the Lord Mayor’s trade delegation in September 2012. I was selected to give a speech at this world trade conference due to my interest in economic and social history. […] I particularly enjoyed the seminar format, and look forward to experiencing more of this at university. My keen interest and desire to further my knowledge of history and economics, I believe, would make the course ideal for me.
By contrast, this conclusion ties a memorable experience back to the specifics of how the student will be taught at the London School of Economics – specifically, the appeal of learning in seminar format!
There’s no magic formula for concluding a Personal Statement. But you’ll see that what all of these examples have in common is that they tie a student’s personal and academic experiences together – and tell a university something about their aspirations for the future.
Watch: Bournemouth University explain how to structure a UCAS Personal Statement
Know the audience
It can be easy for students to forget that the person reading a personal statement is invariably an expert in their field. This is why an ability to convey passion and think critically about their chosen subject is essential for a personal statement to stand out. Admissions tutors will also look for students who can structure their writing (more on this below).
Students should be themselves
Remember that many students are competing for places on a university degree against fierce competition. And don’t forget that UCAS has the means to spot plagiarism. So students need to create a truly honest and individual account of who they are, what they have achieved and, perhaps most importantly, why they are driven to study this particular subject.
Proof-read (then proof-read again!)
Time pressures mean that students can easily make mistakes with their Personal Statements. As the deadline grows closer, it’s vital that they are constantly checking and rechecking their writing and to ensure that shows them in the best possible light.
Meanwhile, when it comes to giving feedback to students writing their Personal Statements, make sure you’re as honest and positive as possible in the days and weeks leading up to submission day.
And make sure they remember the three key ingredients of writing a successful Personal Statement.
Planning, structure and story!
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The importance of the personal statement for all applicants
From Kevin Janes and Dan Abebayehu, Graduate Admissions Committee Member, Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia
If you visit our Ph.D. application site , you will find that we have an incredibly detailed set of prompts for the personal statement:
(Required) Provide a 1–2 page personal statement or statement of purpose. Ideally, your statement will address one or more of the below prompts. We suggest addressing only one or a few of these prompts in detail rather than trying to address them all superficially.
- Was there a singular experience that solidified your motivation and commitment to pursuing a graduate degree? If so, please tell us about it. If not, explain how you arrived at your decision to pursue graduate school.
- Two of the Core Values at the UVA School of Engineering are “Educating Engineering Leaders” and “Excellence Through Diversity”. If you have leadership experience promoting diversity in STEM or have the potential to add a unique perspective to our program, please share.
- What accomplishment are you most proud of? What challenges did you have to overcome to achieve success in reaching that accomplishment?
- Is there something that you believe provides the strongest evidence for your readiness to pursue graduate studies? If yes, please expand. Speculate on how you think your readiness might align with a specific advising or mentorship style: hands-on vs. hands-off, individual vs. team-based, etc.
- Describe the themes that summarize your general research interests and how they relate to our program. If these themes align with prior research experience, explain why you want to continue on with them. If the themes are different, explain your rationale for the change.
- In what ways do you hope or expect to grow during your time as a graduate student? Comment on what a successful graduate outcome looks like to you if you have such an idea operationally in mind. To what extent do you have a sense of how graduate school fits into your longer-term career plans?
- If there is anything additional you feel that we should know about you in evaluating your application, please include it in this statement.
All applicants are strongly encouraged to explain their rationale for applying specifically to the Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. program at the University of Virginia.
We want to hear your story. A richly informative personal statement, which adds context to the other components and demonstrates resilience, can distinguish and elevate an application within the BME Admissions Committee. In an age of variable grade inflation, no GREs, and ChatGPT, the personal statement remains the one place where you words have the power to tell us what distinguishes you as an applicant. Our belief is that everyone has facets of their academic, scientific, family, or life experiences that distinguishes them—we want to hear about those facets. Likewise, each applicant has their own individualized reasons for applying to the University of Virginia and the Department of Biomedical Engineering specifically—we want to hear about those reasons, too. Personal statements that are generic or overly cautious may be quick to write and quick to read, but they leave no impression about the applicant in the end.
One useful litmus test for a personal statement is to go through the document, remove the subject, and then ask, “Could these statements hold true for anyone BUT me?” If the answer is “yes”, you are writing generic platitudes that we have seen before and not a personal statement. It is also acceptable to take risks in a personal statement: we would rather read something that surprises us than be unable to reach any opinion because we feel as if we have read nothing at all. Our department is built on a culture of inclusion, support, transparency, and trust—there is no better way for applicants to cultivate a sense of belonging than by showing us these qualities in their personal statement.
Daniel Abebayehu, PhD, Assistant Professor of BME
Kevin Janes, PhD, Professor of BME
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If you are considering postgraduate study, you will need to think about writing an application that demonstrates why you are the right candidate for the course and their university. This is where your personal statement comes in.
You’ll already have written a personal statement for your undergraduate application, so the concept should be familiar. However, there are some things you should be aware of when it comes to writing specifically for postgraduate study.
In this guide, we’ll explain how to write a stand-out Masters personal statement and provide you with some valuable insights from Laura and Danielle, members of our Recruitment and Business Development teams here at Warwick Business School (WBS).
What is a Masters personal statement?
An MSc personal statement, also known as a ‘statement of purpose’, supports your application to study a postgraduate course at university. It should highlight your key skills and experience whilst demonstrating your understanding of the course and conveying your academic skills and interests.
From her experience in the Recruitment and Business Development team at WBS, Laura gives her take on a personal statement:
Your personal statement is your opportunity to sell yourself and differentiate yourself from any other applicant, share your passion for joining WBS and link your life experiences and skills to how you could contribute to a cohort.
How long should a Masters personal statement be?
A personal statement for postgraduate study should be around 500 words and within two pages of A4. Whilst you won’t be penalised if it is slightly longer, you should always make sure the content is relevant and doesn’t repeat information elsewhere in your application.
Masters personal statements are shorter and much more focused compared to the personal statement you would have provided for your undergraduate application.
What do you need to prepare before writing a Masters personal statement?
Before writing your personal statement for postgraduate study, there are a few things you should consider.
Research your options
Take the time to read through course pages and brochures. You’ll find in-depth information on what the course involves and how it might align with your career goals. Danielle explains how understanding what the course involves is key in demonstrating your suitability and passion for a course:
All of our course webpages feature extensive information on the course modules, so take the time to show you’ve done your research in your personal statement. Your personal statement is your chance to relate yourself to our core values and demonstrate what a strong candidate you will be for one of our programmes. Ensure you also use this as an opportunity to link our programme to your future career.
Course titles should not be taken at face value. Whilst some universities will have courses with the same titles, the content will differ. You need to demonstrate you understand what the course entails and why you want to apply for a particular course as. Danielle adds:
Take time to look at the content of the course you are applying for; although course titles may be the same at different universities the course content will be different. Do your research and demonstrate this in your personal statement, showing how invested you are in studying at WBS.
Consider what you want from your studies
The range of choice when it comes to postgraduate study is vast, and it can feel overwhelming when deciding which course is right for you.
Whilst opinions from your friends and family are important, they shouldn’t be the ultimate deciding factor when choosing a course. Ultimately you need to consider what you really want and whether it aligns with your career goals.
Begin to prepare your application
Once you have decided which course you would like to apply for and you’ve ensured you meet the entry requirements, you will need to begin preparing your application. This includes collecting the correct documentation such as a CV, transcript, personal statement, and reference.
What should you include in a Masters personal statement?
Recruitment and admissions teams receive thousands of applications each year so it is important that your personal statement is to the point and demonstrates what they are looking for in their students.
Danielle gives some insight into what our recruitment team looks for in a personal statement for a Masters degree:
Aim to keep your personal statement to the point by making sure you answer the following questions, addressing the key points our Selection Committee will be looking for:
- Why have you selected this course? What are your motivating factors?
- How do you see this course impacting your career plans?
- What experience will you contribute to your cohort?
- How do you align with the core values of the University?
- What is your proudest achievement?
As well as addressing these key questions, you should also include the following:
You need to demonstrate how your undergraduate study has prepared you for a postgraduate course. You can do this by highlighting specific achievements, projects and pieces of work as well as mentioning any particular topics that interest you.
If you completed any professional work experience alongside your studies, it is a good idea to mention them here. Highlight any duties, tasks and responsibilities you had to demonstrate what you gained from this work experience.
Relevant extracurricular activities
Including information about relevant extracurricular activities you are involved in can help to give a more rounded view of you as a person. This could include volunteering opportunities and any meaningful hobbies you have.
Your transferable skills should be highlighted throughout your personal statement. The types of things you could include are presentation skills, communication skills, analytical thinking and time management. Consider what you can bring to lectures and workshops. For example, if your course involves a lot of group work, use an example where you demonstrate your experience with this.
What should you avoid when writing a Masters personal statement?
Repetition of information.
When submitting both a CV and personal statement it can be easy to fall into the trap of just repeating the same information across both documents. Your personal statement is an opportunity for you to reflect and expand on what you have stated on your CV, rather than repeating the same information.
Not providing enough context
Simply listing your achievements without providing context will not prove to the recruitment teams that you are the right candidate for the course. Provide hard evidence to back up the statements you make and try to give two or three in-depth examples, rather than several weak answers.
Not tailoring your application to the specific university or course
Recruitment and admissions teams are keen to hear why you have chosen a specific course and why you want to attend their university. You need to provide clear examples of what excites you about their institution and how you can align with their particular values.
What do recruitment teams look for in a Masters personal statement?
University recruitment teams and selection committees review thousands of applications each year. To ensure your application stands out, you must show that you have taken the time to prepare and research your chosen university.
Recruitment teams want to see your passion for the subject and motivations for joining their institution. Detailing your experience and the skills you can bring will help to emphasise this. Laura also suggests not overlooking the obvious when it comes to writing a personal statement:
It may sound simple but the first answer to this question is that the Selection Committee wants to see a well written, clearly structured personal statement which demonstrates good preparation and research.
What else do I need to include with my Masters application?
The documents you need to include in your application may vary by institution and course. But generally, as well as your personal statement, you will also need to include:
- Academic and professional references
- Copies of your undergraduate degree certificate and academic transcripts
- A portfolio (this is common for creative courses)
- A research proposal (not all courses will require this)
If you are an international student, there are some additional things you will need to provide including:
- A copy of your passport
- Proof of your language proficiency through either a GCSE in English or a Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) certificate
When are the deadlines for Masters applications?
Deadlines for Masters programmes vary quite widely between courses and universities. Information on specific deadlines can be found on their respective course pages and postgraduate brochures . You should aim to make an application early in the cycle to ensure there are still places available on the course.
Deadlines for scholarships and external scholarships can also vary, so if you wish to apply for these, you will also have to factor in these deadlines.
Frequently asked questions
Is there an interview for masters programmes.
While not a requirement for all postgraduate programmes, some institutions may ask you to attend an interview.
At WBS, there are no interviews for MSc courses. Instead, all decisions are made based on the application you submit. Your undergraduate transcript will be reviewed in depth along with your CV and personal statement.
How many Masters can you apply for?
If you are applying to a UK university, you can apply for as many courses and universities as you like. However, you should not over-stretch yourself and you should only apply for courses that you are really passionate about.
Writing an appropriately tailored application can be time-consuming and attempting to write too many could jeopardise your chances of being successful.
Do you have to pay for your Masters application?
Some institutions do have application fees when applying for a Masters which helps to cover the administration costs. The amount will vary by institution but it is usually between £25 and £150.
How do I apply for a Masters degree?
Many Masters applications will be done directly through the university website, however, some will be done through UCAS Postgraduate.
Many of these systems allow you to create an account and save your progress so you do not need to complete your application in one go. However, ensure you always give yourself plenty of time to complete the application to the best of your ability.
Discover our range of MSc courses at Warwick Business School
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Our challenging and rewarding courses will provide you with everything you need to take your personal and professional skills to the next level.
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Is using AI cheating? | Personal statements & artificial intelligence
We are currently witnessing a new technology boom, with talk of artificial intelligence taking the world by storm..
If you're thinking of using AI to write your personal statement for your university application are you clear on whether you can use it or if it's cheating? Read on to find out more.
What is AI?
Can i write my personal statement using ai, what else is a grey area for ai, what can you use ai for, what if i need help with my personal statement.
AI is a machine’s way of mimicking or replicating tasks that typically take human input, such as calculating, writing, talking, and creating imagery. AI and machine learning have been around for a long time, with commonly used examples like Google, Siri, and Alexa becoming household names.
Generative AI (GenAI) has been in the spotlight recently as a type of AI that generates content after identifying patterns within existing sets of data, often in response to a prompt. The result is a human-like mimicry of conversational text, speech, or imagery.
In November 2022, GenAI chatbot ChatGPT exploded onto the scene. Within five days of its launch, a million people were using ChatGPT. Two months later, that had rocketed to 100 million and, by April 2023, the number of users topped 173 million.
The short answer is: no.
Using AI to write your personal statement may seem like a quick and easy solution to a difficult task, but the risks significantly outweigh any potential benefit.
According to UCAS , if you get an AI tool to generate all or large parts of your personal statement and then copy and paste to use as your final text, it could be considered cheating.
Because GenAI is trained on pre-existing material – sometimes unethically, without consent, and from questionable or copyrighted sources – the risk that your AI - generated personal statement could be too similar to someone else’s is significantly increased . UCAS already uses a similarity detection system to compare statements and combat fraud , and using AI gives you a higher chance of your personal statement being flagged as plagiaris m . The university you are applying to may be alerted, and this could affect your chances of receiving an offer to study at university.
Instead, the advice from UCAS is that your personal statement should be just that: personal and written by you. Writing a personal statement is a milestone in your journey to university, and an opportunity to showcase your skills, ambitions, and experiences in your own voice, which is what university admissions staff are interested in. Putting these experiences down in writing can also help you confirm whether you are applying for the correct course or not: for example, you may find yourself more suited to Film Studies rather than English Language, or Marine Engineering instead of Mechanical Engineering.
It can be tempting to save time by generating a personal statement using ChatGPT, but bear in mind GenAI is rapidly being viewed as a tool for cheating. Leading universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh have already released statements prohibiting the unauthorised use of GenAI by their current students, so chances are they'll take a dim view of an AI-generated personal statement submitted as part of an application to study with them.
If you haven't been told that ChatGPT is not a search engine , now you know.
Because of its sudden popularity, some people are turning to ChatGPT as an alternative to Google or Bing. However, to use this in an academic setting would be a huge mistake. Chatbots are known for getting simple facts wrong, or making up convincing alternatives in a process known as ‘hallucinating’, and ChatGPT’s creators have admitted the chatbot ‘sometimes writes plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers’. You would be more successful using real search engines to point you towards reliable sources than using an AI chatbot as a search engine.
Even professionals have fallen into the trap of incorrectly using ChatGPT as a search engine: in June 2023, a New York lawyer was reprimanded for inadvertently generating details of a non-existent court case hallucinated by ChatGPT to use as evidence in a real court case.
When used ethically, AI can still be a great tool to support the writing of your personal statement. Here are some ways to use AI without risking your legitimacy:
- plans – if you’re not sure how to plot out your personal statement, AI could give you advice on how to plan the structure of your statement
- ideas – if you’re stuck, AI can suggest ideas for you to use as a springboard for your own writing
- prompts – like a writing exercise, AI can generate a prompt or theme to help you kickstart your work
- writer’s block – using a chatbot may give you the inspiration you need to beat the freezing effects of writer’s block
If you do choose to use a GenAI tool to explore ideas for your personal statement, remember you must confirm your personal statement hasn’t been copied or provided from another source – including AI software – before you submit your application.
Help was always available before AI, and that hasn’t changed. If you need help with your personal statement, you could:
- talk to your teachers – they'll be more than happy to help you.
- collaborate with friends – as long as you aren’t copying each other’s work, bouncing ideas off like-minded people can be a great way to focus your statement.
- chat to a current university student
- access the UCAS website for a wealth of information about writing a personal statement, including examples and valuable tips and advice.
- research your chosen university's website and see what advice they have to offer. You can also download our guide on how to write your personal statement , which is packed with helpful tips.
Published By Newcastle University on 10/11/2023 | Last Updated 20/11/2023
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‘From the river to the sea’ – a Palestinian historian explores the meaning and intent of scrutinized slogan
Associate Professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, University of Arizona
Maha Nassar has previously received funding from the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
University of Arizona provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
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What does the call “ From the river to the sea , Palestine will be free” mean to Palestinians who say it? And why do they keep using the slogan despite the controversy that surrounds its use?
As both a scholar of Palestinian history and someone from the Palestinian diaspora, I have observed the decades-old phrase gain new life – and scrutiny – in the massive pro-Palestinian marches in the U.S. and around the world that have occurred during the Israeli bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
Pro-Israel groups, including the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League , have labeled the phrase “antisemitic .” It has even led to a rare censure of House Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American member of Congress, for using the phrase.
But to Tlaib, and countless others, the phrase isn’t antisemitic at all. Rather, it is, in Tlaib’s words , “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights and peaceful coexistence.”
I cannot speak to what is in the heart of every person who uses the phrase. But I can speak to what the phrase has meant to various groups of Palestinians throughout history, and the intent behind most people who use it today.
Simply put, the majority of Palestinians who use this phrase do so because they believe that, in 10 short words, it sums up their personal ties, their national rights and their vision for the land they call Palestine. And while attempts to police the slogan’s use may come from a place of genuine concern, there is a risk that tarring the slogan as antisemitic – and therefore beyond the pale – taps into a longer history of attempts to silence Palestinian voices .
An expression of personal ties
One reason for the phrase’s appeal is that it speaks to Palestinians’ deep personal ties to the land. They have long identified themselves – and one another – by the town or village in Palestine from which they came.
And those places stretched across the land, from Jericho and Safed near the Jordan River in the east, to Jaffa and Haifa on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the west.
These deeply personal ties were passed down over generations through clothing , cuisine and subtle differences in Arabic dialects that are specific to locations within Palestine.
And those ties continue today. Children and grandchildren of Palestinian refugees often feel a personal connection to the specific places their ancestors hailed from.
A demand for national rights
But the phrase is not simply a reference to geography. It’s political.
“From the river to the sea” also seeks to reaffirm Palestinians’ national rights over their homeland and a desire for a unified Palestine to form the basis of an independent state.
When Palestine was under British colonial rule from 1917 to 1948, its Arab inhabitants objected strongly to partition proposals advocated by British and Zionist interests. That’s because, buried deep in the proposals, were stipulations that would have forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs off their ancestral lands.
In 1946, the Delegation of Arab Governments proposed instead a “unitary state” with a “democratic constitution” that would guarantee “freedom of religious practice” for all and would recognize “the right of Jews to employ the Hebrew language as a second official language.”
The following year, the United Nations instead approved a partition plan for Palestine, which would have forced 500,000 Palestinian Arabs living in the proposed Jewish state to choose between living as a minority in their own country or leaving.
It’s in this context that the call for a unified, independent Palestine emerges, according to Arabic scholar Elliott Colla.
During the 1948 war that led to the formation of the state of Israel, around 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their villages and towns. By the end of the war, Palestine was split into three : 78% of the land became part of the Jewish state of Israel, while the remainder fell under Jordanian or Egyptian rule.
Palestinian refugees believed they had a right to return to their homes in the new state of Israel. Israeli leaders, seeking to maintain the state’s Jewish majority, sought to have the refugees resettled far away. Meanwhile, a narrative emerged in the West in the 1950s claiming that Palestinians’ political claims were invalid.
Palestinians had to find a way to both assert their national rights and lay out an alternative vision for peace. After Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the call for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea” started to gain traction among those who believed that all the land should be returned to the Palestinians.
But it soon also came to represent the vision of a secular democratic state with equality for all.
In 1969, the Palestinian National Council, the highest decision-making body of the Palestinians in exile, formally called for a “Palestinian democratic state” that would be “free of all forms of religious and social discrimination.”
This remained a popular vision among Palestinians, even as some of their leaders inched toward the idea of establishing a truncated Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Many Palestinians were skeptical of this two-state solution. For refugees exiled since 1948, a two-state solution would not allow them to return to their towns and villages in Israel. Some Palestinian citizens of Israel feared that a two-state solution would leave them even more isolated as an Arab minority in a Jewish state.
Even Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – those who stood the most to gain from a two-state solution – were lukewarm to the idea. A 1986 poll found that 78% of respondents “supported the establishment of a democratic-secular Palestinian state encompassing all of Palestine,” while only 17% supported two states.
That helps explains why the call for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea” became popular in the protest chants of the First Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, from 1987 to 1992.
Notably, Hamas, an Islamist party founded in 1987, did not initially use “from the river to the sea,” likely due to the phrase’s long-standing ties to Palestinian secular nationalism.
Two states or one?
The 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords led many to believe that a two-state solution was just around the corner.
But as hopes for a two-state solution dimmed, some Palestinians returned to the idea of a single, democratic state from the river to the sea.
Meanwhile, Hamas picked up the slogan, adding the phrase “from the river to the sea” to its 2017 revised charter . The language was part of Hamas’ broader efforts to gain legitimacy at the expense of its secular rival, Fatah, which was seen by many as having failed the Palestinian people.
Today, broad swaths of Palestinians still favor the idea of equality. A 2022 poll found strong support among Palestinians for the idea of a single state with equal rights for all.
Perhaps colored by Hamas’ use of the phrase, some have claimed it is a genocidal call – the implication being that the slogan’s end is calling for Palestine to be “free from Jews.” It’s understandable where such fears come from, given the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people , according to the Israeli foreign ministry.
But the Arabic original, “Filastin hurra,” means liberated Palestine. “Free from” would be a different Arabic word altogether.
Other critics of the slogan insist that by denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, the phrase itself is antisemitic. Under such thinking, protesters should instead be calling for a Palestinian state that exists alongside Israel – and not one that replaces it.
But this would seemingly ignore the current reality. There is strong scholarly consensus that a two-state solution is no longer viable. They argue that the extent of settlement building in the West Bank and the economic conditions in Gaza have eaten away at the cohesion and viability of any envisioned Palestinian state.
There is another argument against the slogan’s use: That while not antisemitic in itself, the fact that some Jewish people see it that way – and as such see it as a threat – is enough for people to abandon its use.
But such an argument would, I contend, privilege the feelings of one group over that of another. And it risks further demonizing and silencing Palestinian voices in the West.
Over the last month, Europe has seen what pro-Palestine advocates describe as an “ unprecedented crackdown ” on their activism. Meanwhile, people across the U.S. are reporting widespread discrimination , retaliation and punishment for their pro-Palestinian views.
On Nov. 14, George Washington University suspended the student group Students for Justice in Palestine, in part because the group projected the slogan “Free Palestine From the River to the Sea” on the campus library.
Principle, not platform
None of this is to say that the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” doesn’t have multiple interpretations.
Palestinians themselves are divided over the specific political outcome they wish to see in their homeland.
But that misses the point. Most Palestinians using this chant do not see it as advocating for a specific political platform or as belonging to a specific political group. Rather, the majority of people using the phrase see it as a principled vision of freedom and coexistence.
- Middle East
- Mass protests
- State of Israel
- Israel 1948
- Israeli-Palestinian conflict