My Top 10 Most Common Personal Statement Errors - (1) An uninspiring opening paragraph


Let’s start at the beginning. We know that first impressions count, and with personal statements it is no different. Picture the scene at a university that you are applying to - the admissions tutor is sitting in his or her office with a pile of UCAS forms on top of his or her desk, having spent a huge amount the last 3 months reading personal statements. You need yours to stand out, but not for the wrong reasons. Invest some serious time thinking about what you need to say and how you are going to introduce yourself and your thoughts to them. Think also about the amount of personal statements that the admissions tutor has already read that have started with “I am looking forward to studying xyz at university because…” or “Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve always wanted to be an xyz…” and how much more difficult that makes it for the writer to really stand out as an outstanding potential student.

Personal statements are tricky to write, there is no doubt about it. And most people would agree that it is usually best to play it safe and remain conservative. Out and out attempts at humour, for example, rarely work out well. But you don’t want to risk being so safe that your statement lacks any impact, encouraging the admissions tutor to merely skim through the rest of the document. You need to give them reason to read on with a positive expectation. And it is possible to play it safe and be interesting at the same time. A few years ago I was lucky enough to see the fabulous Brian Heap, often dubbed the ‘Guru of Higher Education’ speak on the subject of personal statements at a conference. He told the story of how one of the best personal statements he had ever written begun with the opening line “I am applying to study material science because I walked into the wrong lecture theatre” before the writer went on to tell the tale of how misreading a room number at a university open day introduced him to a whole new discipline and sparked a passion for a previously unconsidered subject. Whilst the first half of his opening sentence is hardly original, the second half delivers a hook that would be very difficult for an admissions tutor to ignore.

To quote or not to quote - that is the question. Whilst I often get the impression that students using quotes to start their statements think it is the height of originality, it is actually quite common. Just be aware that a quote used merely for the sake of it may not create the positive impact that the writer may think it will. In particular, some of the more generic quotes about the values of education usually come across as a little corny or even, forced. The general consensus view from Admissions Tutors would be to avoid quotes and spend your word count saying your own words, not someone else’s. And yet I remember, a good few years ago now, reading a wonderful personal statement from a mature student from the Caribbean which started with a Bob Marley quote before going on to talk about his ambitions to contribute positively to his home economy using the knowledge gained from his university education. The initial quote resonated so nicely with the rest of his personal statement that it was impossible not to like it. So clearly, there is no ‘hard and fast’ rule but do be aware of the risks.

Over the last 12 years I have read many great personal statements which have started in a very mediocre way. The risk here is that the busy admissions tutor will simply not give your statement the time that it deserves. Whether you decide to go with a start which is original, humorous, passionate or informative, at the end of the day it is up to you. Personal statements are subjective so there is never truly a right or wrong way to do it. But do make it interesting. A first paragraph which inspires the admissions tutor to read on with a detailed eye is always going to put you in a stronger position. It is no use leaving it until halfway through before you start creating any real impact. By then it may be too late.

Don’t forget that Momentum Careers Advice offer a personal statement review service for just £45. Email if interested or read my blog post What is involved in a UCAS personal statement review?

If you want to browse through the other blog posts that I’ve written on the subject of UCAS applications then please click on this link.