Writing a personal statement for Ucas is a tricky art.
Students need to demonstrate a genuine interest in their chosen subject, yet it’s their only opportunity to present their character in their own words.
Too often the personal nature of the personal statement is sacrificed for course-related content that students have learned specifically for their application, confounding the original purpose.
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The US college application essay is free from these hang-ups. It focuses only on a student’s personal experience and character, enabling them to write engaging – and honest – pieces of work.
Here are five useful strategies that we can take from the US college essay to help our students write more integrated personal statements.
Ucas personal statements: focus on writing craft
A US college essay is a story, written using creative techniques to have maximum impact. This enables students to get creative and present themselves to the reader.
UK students could make their personal statements more memorable by sharing an emotional connection with the reader, offering an interesting hook, and ending with a killer closing line. They could start with a line of poetry or a short sentence summarising a controversial idea.
Use a problem-solution structure
US students often describe a problem and then explain how they overcame it. A problem-solution essay can emphasise a student’s capacity for resilience and self-reflection.
Mentioning vulnerability isn’t common in a UK personal statement. However, if it can be matched with a positive outcome – overcoming differences in a team or overcoming a personal barrier, for example – then it can give readers a real insight into the applicant.
Depth before breadth
A US college essay will focus on one experience, interweaving other points throughout the narrative. In contrast, UK students’ aim is to cram as much information as possible into their personal statement. Consequently, a reader might not be able to create a clear picture of the student at all.
A more effective personal statement might look at one subject-specific issue in depth and relate it to personal experience. They could perhaps explore the Extinction Rebellion movement (for sciences, law, politics or media studies, depending on the angle), linking it to where they stand, involvement in environmental projects and so on.
Both US colleges and UK universities look for students who are motivated. However, in the US, students are able to share their personal history to show what motivates them.
In the UK students are supposed to be motivated by their subject, yet there may well be personal reasons that explain a student’s drive – family, overcoming adversity, a desire for social justice – and if they can evidence it, they shouldn’t shy away from sharing it.
Have a vision for the future
A great US college application essay will take the reader on a journey, and, importantly, must look forward in the final section. Rather than packing in lots of new information, this should bring together the main points of the essay.
Personal statements should finish on a high, presenting the student's ambitions and plans. We should always make sure we allow the person to shine through the personal statement.
Louise Turtle was an English teacher in Birmingham, and has recently moved to the US, where she is mentoring high-school students. She tweets @LouiseTurtle