Personal statements: What do you really need to include?

Every personal statement will be different and should showcase your interests and love for the subject you are applying for. However, many students get lost on how to structure their personal statement, the difference between super-curriculars and extracurriculars, and fear that they need to do more to stand out against other applicants. Let’s break down what a personal statement is and some tips for making yours stand out!

The basics:

What is a personal statement? Your personal statement is a short document (with a character limit of 4000 characters) used when applying to UK universities to explain why you are applying for that subject(s).

You can only write one personal statement, so if you apply for multiple courses you would need to use the same personal statement. For example, if you apply for multiple subjects then your personal statement must simultaneously show your love for both subjects. This can be incredibly challenging if you are applying for two subjects with little overlap!

It is therefore worth considering which subject you have spent more time on outside of your studies researching, given that at university you will need to be much more independent and motivated. If you find it easy to go off on tangents in researching one subject because you keep finding small things exciting then this can be a good sign that that is the subject for you!

The structure:

There is no set structure needed for a personal statement, but there are some tricks to ensure that you structure your personal statement in a way that conveys your passion. There are also some over-used phrases to avoid that we will discuss.

A typical structure used by students is to have an opening couple of sentences explaining how they decided upon that subject and where their interest came from. It then will likely consider different actions taken by students around the subject before discussing extracurriculars and a closing statement reaffirming their decision. This often sets up the personal statement well to show a journey of how you reached your decision. However, there are a few overused phrases which you should avoid.

These phrases include:

“Since a young age/ for as long as I can remember I have wanted to study X”.

Not only is it overused, but it is often incorrect. It is incredibly rare to be born with a strong love for just one subject; it is instead likely that interest has grown over time and did not start properly until you are a teenager. When deciding who to offer a place to, tutors will prefer to have someone who found their love more recently but can clearly show how this occurred and how they acted upon it than someone who says they have always loved it.

“I am passionate about X”.  Although it is easy to fall into this trap and use words such as passionate and interested, they can be viewed negatively as you should show your passion for your subject without needing to state it like this. You should use your personal statement as a document of evidence, so any claims you make must be backed up with evidence.

You can use all of these phrases and still get all 5 offers, but to make the strongest first impression, we recommend avoiding them as much as possible.

The Content:

The content of your personal statement should include actions you have taken to increase your understanding of that topic and showcase your independence and motivations to study that subject at university. This can include reading books, watching shows, attending a class or study day at a university, joining a club or society and much more.

These are often called super-curriculars. That means anything that is more academic and related to your subject than normal extracurriculars. For instance, being in a choir would be an extracurricular for the majority of subjects, but attending a seminar is a super-curricular.

For Oxbridge and many Russell Group universities, there is a strong emphasis on super-curriculars over extracurriculars, as they want to see how motivated you are to act independently and that you will genuinely enjoy your degree, rather than how well-rounded of an applicant you are.

Finally, you do not need to have done loads of super-curriculars to put in a competitive application. Therefore, only do something if it interests you and remain honest in your personal statement, you could be asked about it at the interview…

All in all, apply for a subject because you love it and use your personal statement to prove to the admissions team that they should offer you a place. Try to avoid using cliché phrases, and emphasise any super-curricular activities you have taken part in to showcase your motivations and ability to research independently.

Good luck!


Second Year Student, St John’s College, Oxford.