The answer is simple: universities do not care much about personal statements. In 10 years of experience doing admissions, I would say that in 99 per cent of cases the decision is made independently of the personal statement, and in well over 50 per cent of cases it is made before the personal statement has been read (if it is read at all).
Heads of sixth form should look at it from our point of view. We are looking for a certain level of academic competence combined with an absence of those character traits which result in a student skipping lectures, failing to write essays, and being otherwise problematic.
Very occasionally a statement will explain why a student has under-performed (eg a bereavement in the exam period), and sometimes it will unintentionally reveal negative character traits, but the rest of the time it says nothing of interest at all.
So here are some tips:
* Keep it short: the easier it is to assimilate, the more likely it is to have an impact. The ability to combine brevity and clarity is very impressive.
* Use a 12-point font and double line spacing, since the Ucas form will be scanned, reduced and photocopied several times before it gets to an admissions tutor.
* Keep it as factual as possible. Unjustified or undefended opinions are exactly what we are trying to discourage at university.
* Extra-curricular activities are only good if combined with academic achievement. To be frank, we would rather accept someone who does nothing but work and gets a First, than someone who plays sport for her country but gets a 2.2.
* Be plausible in what you claim to have read - it is better to have read and understood an introductory book than to have ploughed through a classic and learnt nothing from the experience.
Dr TWC Stoneham Department of philosophy University of York