Personal statements for postgraduate applications

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They allow you to sell yourself to universities, but personal statements are often the hardest part of the postgraduate application process

Your postgraduate personal statement should be unique to you and tailored for the course, regardless of whether you're applying for a taught Masters, research Masters or PhD. It will provide universities with proof of your skills, desire and academic ability. You must show that the programme will benefit from your contribution as much as you'll benefit from the programme.

How long should my personal statement be?

Usually, it should be one side of A4. This equates to around 300 to 500 words. Some universities require more, so check the guidelines.

What should I include?

Show that you're ready for the demands of postgraduate life by demonstrating your passion, knowledge and experience. Tell admissions tutors why they should consider you above similar candidates. Think about:

  • why you're applying - this may be linked to your career goals, academic interest, personal development or the university's reputation. Consider which aspects of the course you find most appealing, such as modules or work experience opportunities;
  • your academic and non-academic experience - highlight relevant skills and knowledge that will enable you to make an impact. This may include grades, awards, placements, extra readings or conferences attended;
  • your preparation - address how undergraduate study has prepared you, mentioning your independent work (e.g. dissertation) and topic interests;
  • your skillset - mention the abilities that you've developed in areas including IT, analysis, numeracy, time management, communication, organisation and critical thinking;
  • your goals - consider your short-term course aims and long-term career ambitions, relating the two.

How do I write a good personal statement?

Personal statements differ depending on the programme, but these tips are fairly universal:

  • give yourself plenty of time to complete it;
  • read any rules, guidelines or selection criteria carefully before writing;
  • research your chosen university and course, tailoring each statement accordingly;
  • stick to the word limit;
  • continue to redraft until everything's right;
  • ask a friend, family member or careers adviser to check your statement once it's finished.

You should always structure your statement with a clear introduction, main body and conclusion.

  • Introduction - capture your reader's attention with enthusiasm and positivity from the outset.
  • Main body - express how your skills, knowledge and experience relate to the course. Around half of this section should focus on you and your interests. The other half should focus on the course.
  • Conclusion - summarise why you're the ideal candidate for the programme in the most powerful way possible. Emphasise your key selling point.

You can inject personality into your statement by mentioning exactly what inspired you to study in this area or apply for this course. You could also reference the department's specialist subjects. Ensure that you're not bluffing, though - showing yourself up as uninformed could be costly.

Address clear weaknesses, such as lower-than-expected module performance or gaps in your education history. The university will want to know about these things, so explain them with a positive spin. Lower-than-expected results may be caused by illness, for example. Admit this, but mention that you've done extra reading to catch up and desire to improve in this area.

You must ensure that your spelling and grammar are perfect, as the personal statement acts as a test of your written communication ability. Memorise what you've written before any interviews.

What do admissions tutors look for?

Admissions tutors will be looking for:

  • reasons why you want to study at this institution;
  • an insight into your academic and non-academic abilities, and how they'll fit with the course;
  • an explanation of how the course links your past and future;
  • evidence of your skills, commitment and enthusiasm.

'The statement needs to express the applicant's interest in the subject, and perhaps include some academic references or reading that they've undertaken,' says a spokesperson from the University of Kent's recruitment and admissions office. 'Explaining why a particular university or school has been selected will also demonstrate that the applicant researched the institution's area of expertise.

'Applicants may also allude to their career aspirations, or whether they would be looking to continue with a PhD or postdoctoral studies. They could also mention that they would welcome the opportunity of an interview to expand upon their application at the end of their statement. This would signal to the admissions officer that the applicant is open and willing to discuss the application in person if required, not just in writing.'

What do I need to avoid?

You shouldn't:

  • be negative;
  • follow an online template;
  • include irrelevant course modules, personal facts or extracurricular activities;
  • lie or exaggerate;
  • make pleading statements;
  • needlessly flatter the organisation that you're applying to;
  • repeat information found in your application;
  • use clichés, gimmicks, humour or Americanisms;
  • include other people's quotes;
  • namedrop key authors without explanation;
  • use overly long sentences;
  • use the same statement for each application;
  • use your undergraduate UCAS application as a template;
  • waffle.

Example personal statements

The style and content of your personal statement will depend on several variables, such as the type of postgraduate qualification that you're applying for. Here are three examples to help you get started:

LPC personal statement

Although CABs, the centralised applications system, allows space for a personal statement up to 10,000 characters in length, many law schools aren't expecting students to fill this space. It's therefore important not to unnecessarily pad out your personal statement with irrelevant detail.

Students apply to three courses ranked in order of preference, so your personal statement must reflect this.

MBA personal statement

Many MBA courses still ask for personal statements but some - particularly those at the more prestigious business schools - instead set one or two essay questions that must be answered to a strict word count.

Some of these essay questions ask for specific information on personal motivations or knowledge of business-related topics. However, others ask for content similar to a personal statement such as:

  • why do you want to do this course?
  • what can you bring to the course?

Research each MBA carefully to see what the institution is looking for.

Psychology personal statement

Applications for conversion courses such as these are fairly straightforward and made directly to individual institutions.

You need to explain why you want to change subjects and how your current subject will help you. Explain what experience you have that will help you with your conversion subject, and what you hope to do in the future.

Personal statement for a PGCE secondary application

Explain why you want to become a teacher and demonstrate your strengths, skills and suitability for teaching. The UCAS Teacher Training (UTT) personal statement has up to 4,000 characters or 47 lines of text with an introduction, main body and conclusion.

It's important to:

  • use examples based on your recent teaching experience;
  • tailor your personal statement according to school/age group;
  • use good, clear, written English, using the first person, such as 'my' and 'I';
  • be original and honest;
  • avoid clichés and general statements such as 'I've always wanted to teach';
  • demonstrate a passion for teaching.

Before drafting your personal statement, think carefully about the things that teacher training providers will want to know.