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  • Noel Chivers

How to Apply to a UK University

UCAS [The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service] is a UK-based organisation whose main role is to operate the application process for British universities.

So, you want to study overseas? America, Australia, or perhaps the UK? So you add it to the list of things that you want to do but maybe won’t.

How many people have thought about it and not done it because of the difficulties in merely getting there, let alone the three years of hard work in a strange country without the comfort of friends and family.

Not forgetting the language. Yes, I said don’t forget the English. IELTS 6.5 [usually the minimum required] is not easy to achieve.

So we at TENAZ Training have decided to help you out, not just with the language courses we offer, such as IELTS Preparation but an article on what to do, before and during.

So let’s kick off with -‘How to write your Personal Statement [and a few other things]’ – absolutely critical if you’re going to get the course you want at the university you want.

The dreaming stops here, now the work begins...

A Personal Statement for UCAS

The weight of having to write a personal statement upon which at least the first three or four years of your life rests, is a heavy burden for many students, doing it in English – your second or third language - can be a nightmare. It’s a constant worry, niggling away in the back of your mind, often pushing to the front with images of a glittering future. Whilst most students will get on with it, for some, the intentions of writing a personal statement can often disappear into thin air and ignored for as long as is humanly possible.

This is completely understandable. Having to put yourself out there in a maximum of 4000 characters (including spaces!), to be judged, selected and possibly rejected, is a monumental task for anyone, least of all an unsure 17 or 18 year old. First there’s your final year of tough examinations, then departure from the security of school life and separation from your friendship groups, only to find you’ve suddenly been propelled into the hard-edged, adult-world of decision-making.


There are several factors that are worth considering before you even begin writing. For example, you should have already put in several hours of ‘self-reflection’. This application is all about you. Not your parents. Not your teachers. Not your friends. This is a time for honesty and realism. You have probably got thirty or forty years of working life ahead of you – choose a course that mirrors your passion and interests, something that you are going to be really good at, and maybe something that will lead you into the field in which you want to work in the future. Once you have got this right, the rest will fall into place much more easily.

Research, research, research!

Next on your list is research. The UCAS website is an excellent first port of call; it is comprehensive, informative and easy to use. There, you will find a myriad of different course choices and qualifications, some of which you may never even have heard of, or considered, alongside application advice, statistics and links to university websites.

It is important at this stage to be ready to make some difficult decisions. You can only apply to a maximum of five universities in the UK and you will make only one application and write only one personal statement, which is sent to these five universities via the UCAS website. It is sensible to select five degree courses that are similar in title, or at least come from the same field, otherwise your justification for studying two completely different subjects will be questioned by some of your university preferences, making the risk of rejection much more likely, plus your personal statement will be much harder to write.

Choice is a great thing but it does create its own problems. Incidentally, if this impossible for you to do, you should perhaps consider a broader ranging degree course, like Social Sciences, a double degree or a degree that allows you to follow a second subject. If this is still impossible, perhaps you should consider applying to the US instead, where there is a much wider, high school-style curriculum in the first and second year of the course and where you are not obliged to choose any subject on initial application.

Once you have decided which courses are of interest to you (maybe a shortlist of around ten), it is absolutely vital that you visit the individual university websites and read carefully about the course content in each year and the different options available to narrow it down to five final choices. While you are doing this, make notes on the highlights of each course – you can reference this when you write your personal statement. Look for the things that make you go “Wow! I would love to know more about that!” For example, there may be the chance to take an industrial placement between your second and third year. There might be a chance to study Vegetation and Eco-systems in semester two as part of your BSc. Biochemistry. It could be anything, but there really must be something! You ought to check out the location of the university – is it campus-based or situated on several different sites in the middle of a big city? Does it have good travel links if you intend to visit new places or see friends/family [if you have any there] during the holidays? Does it offer student accommodation for the length of the degree course or do you have to find your own place to live in your second year and beyond? Check out the sports’ teams, clubs and societies that are on offer, if this is of particular importance to you. If you have any questions that are not answered on the website, send an email enquiry to the relevant person. Don’t forget to write using good formal English.

Be realistic

Whilst aiming high is imperative, realistic choices are important for success. Some students have unattainable “dream school” ambitions which usually end in disaster. This is a time for brutal honesty – don’t waste any of your university choices by applying for courses that require grades you cannot hope to achieve in the deluded mindset that hard work, determination and/or sheer good luck will win you a place. However, it goes without saying that hard work and determination are prerequisites for success at anything – and we can all hope for a bit of good luck, too!

Check out the entry requirements early on – your grades NOW should be reflecting the sort of grades your chosen universities are asking for. If you are aiming for top universities like Oxford, Cambridge, London School of Economics and so on, then you should be achieving current grades that put you in the top 1-2% of your year group in your school. Be sensible. Do not choose five universities that are all asking for similar grade profiles, just in case something goes wrong. Choose one or two university courses that require the maximum grades you think you can achieve, a couple that are slightly lower and one that is a “safety net”, which you can easily achieve.

Make sure you look at any other requirements your chosen courses ask for too – there are extra examinations required for specific subjects – STEP, LNAT, MAT, PAT, TSA, portfolios and so on. Some universities will ask you to provide examples of marked work, write an extra essay and/or attend an interview [see TENAZ Training’s Interview Skills Course or Writing Skil] – usually on Skype for overseas applicants. Top universities have a difficult time selecting applicants and often change the way they select, so keep checking their websites for new information and guidelines. Also, do take note of the information provided by individual universities regarding advice on personal statements and so on – they are telling you what they want to see, so don’t ignore it!

Mind your language!

As English is not your first language, it is very likely you will have to provide proof that your level of ability is good enough to cope with the demands of the course. Again, check the requirements carefully for the courses you have selected. Some universities are very flexible on the English language qualifications they will accept and some are very specific. If in any doubt, you should contact the admissions’ office as soon as possible. Do not underestimate the importance of achieving your English language qualification – usually IELTS – pay as much attention to this early on as you pay to your other subjects. It is often too much pressure for a student to know they need to achieve their A level grade equivalents and their English language requirements in the last two months of their final year. Don’t let this be you!

Getting started

And so to the actual personal statement. Now you know what courses you are applying for, you should feel much more focused on what you want to say. Reread the notes you made while researching. Use the planning structures suggested on the UCAS website. Make a list, a chart, a spreadsheet or a mind map (whatever works for you) of why you want to study this subject and why you will be VERY good at it.

The VERY is a reminder to be passionate, enthusiastic and upbeat. This is not a time for modesty – never say anything negative about yourself, but it is also not a time to list all your achievements either – hopefully your teachers will sing your praises in your reference [translated and notarised, of course].

You need to explain why you will be good at this subject, why you love it so much you want to spend the next three years studying it and why you will be a first-rate student. These last three ideas should come through with every sentence you write – it is a good test to match up each point you make to at least one of these ideas and if it doesn’t fit in, maybe it is irrelevant to the application.

Your opening paragraph needs to be about the subject you intend to study. It needs to be an ‘attention-grabber’, but doesn’t necessarily need to be anecdotal. Try to be honest and original. Don’t write about something that happened when you were three, or in first grade. Don’t use a quotation – the admissions’ officer wants to hear from you, not someone else. Don’t write about your parents or grandparents - everyone is influenced by them, it’s not exceptional and doesn’t make you look like the sort of independent student that universities are looking for.

And DON’T PLAGIARISE [Google it]!

That “tricky”middle bit”

Most students will be applying to study for a subject that they have studied before at school, a derivative, or an amalgamation of subjects. Think about what you have really enjoyed so far about your classes, your experiences, your reading. It might be subject knowledge, it might be the process of learning this subject, it might be lab work, it might be the skills you are acquiring, it might be the application of the subject to other areas, it might be the excitement of knowing where this subject might lead, it might be unanswered questions you absolutely need to find the answers to that go way beyond your current curriculum. Don’t be vague. Your experience should be unique, so go into detail.

Write about any further activities you have done relating to this field. Perhaps you have done some work experience or an internship. Maybe you have conducted a piece of research, entered (and possibly won) a competition, produced a project, given a presentation, attended a lecture, interviewed someone, been a subject teaching assistant, travelled abroad, met an influential person or just read around the subject beyond the required course textbooks.

At this point, explain not only what you did, but the skills and knowledge you learnt from the process, how this affected you, and how this might link to what you will need to be a successful student.

A few other things to remember. Firstly, if you have done a project or a piece of research as a team, do mention that – you cannot take sole credit for something you did with help, but do highlight your part in detail, and also say what you learnt from working with other people, how you grew from this experience personally, and how you look forward to further opportunities like this at university. Secondly, don’t lie. Only mention books you have actually read – if you’ve only read chapter 6, say that. There are some books that are overly cited (Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, for example) – if you really want to use one of them, make sure you have something original to say about it. And finally, it is much better to make your references professional ones, but if a family member has really influenced you, keep it about you, not them, and be objective.

Other bits and pieces

If you do any extra-curricular activities, have a hobby or an interest, either in school or outside school and they are really important to you, do write about them. If you can link them to your subject in some way, do so. If not, don’t worry. If you are applying to top universities, read very carefully what they advise on their websites about this.

However, you should always try to write about the learning experience you have gained from these activities, not just what you do. Say if this is something you would like to continue with or take further at university – engagement with the student community is what makes the university experience so unique.

Final touches

Lastly, finish by reminding the admissions’ officer why you really need to study this subject, how much you are really looking forward to university life and your ambitions for the future: this might be a possible master’s degree, working for a top company in the field you are studying, setting up your own business, professional subject examinations, volunteering using the skills you have learnt, research and writing or something else. This last item could be an extension of something you have mentioned previously, but doesn’t have to be. If you can bring the ending back to a reference of something in your opening paragraph, this can be a very smooth and elegant way to finish.

Give it a polish

From a technical perspective, write your draft in Microsoft Word, if possible, and save it constantly. Let the words flow when writing, but keep using the review tab to check your word count (remember: 4000 characters WITH spaces – it’s not that much!). You should aim to be just below the magic 4000 characters, as when you copy and paste it into the text box, the formatting might be slightly different.

Keep re-reading the whole piece and revise as soon as you see a mistake or something you don’t like. When you have finished and are reasonably happy with it, get it checked for grammatical errors, spelling and typos – you cannot make mistakes in this area, you need to look your best and prove that your English language skills are good enough to communicate your ideas effectively at university level. Even native speaker candidates will get their spelling and grammar checked by someone.

Places at top universities are very competitive and this is your first (and maybe last) opportunity to engage with the admissions’ officer and make a great impression. You might also like to get a second opinion on what you have written – this is always a good idea, but do ask someone who has recent experience and success helping students in the process of applying to UK universities – the US application letter is quite different and university requirements and expectations have changed from when some teachers applied to university themselves! Also, do not ask more than one person at a time – you risk getting conflicting advice that will confuse you and you may well upset the people you ask as it may give the impression you think their opinion is not valuable enough.

So, to conclude this article on your personal statement, good luck! Write from the heart, be confident and above all, enjoy the path towards what will be a life-changing experience.

Don’t forget to contact us directly if you have any particular questions regarding any aspect of your English language needs.

That’s it folks, the end of the article on your personal statement. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading it and it's been helpful. If you still haven’t started one of TENAZ Training’s courses or discussed your language needs with one of our Learning Consultants, why not? We do our very best to really help you succeed on the long exciting journey ahead, so why not come and try one of our free ‘Taster Lessons’, and see what we do and how we do it. We think you’ll like it! It’s down to you now.

Remember - ‘Every journey starts with the first step…’

So contact us now to see how we can help.

Source - Personal Statement for UCAS

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