Personal statements: make them unique

The Summer SMART Programme

The Summer SMART Programme

“Sorry I’m late” said Tom, “I overslept this morning and missed the bus.”

It was the second day of my visit to Tom’s school, where I was teaching a workshop to help students prepare their Personal Statements for university applications. Tom had been one of the more chatty participants, but today he looked a little bleary eyed. I suspect that there has been rather a lot of partying since the exams finished last week and although not all schools have broken up, the summer celebrations have already begun. The talk is of beach parties, shopping trips and visits to Wimbledon. I don’t begrudge it. These young people deserve to celebrate – most of them have worked really hard.

However, although I want them to take a well earned rest, it is also important that they start thinking about the next stage too. Some of my students have only one or two years left at school and will soon be applying for university or internships. They should use the summer holidays wisely and spend some of it doing activities which will broaden their academic or employment opportunities.

In the autumn my colleague Graham Lee and I will begin the process of looking though piles of personal statements as preparation for our mock interview programme. Many of these documents appear to be quite similar, with candidates citing the same books, the same sort of experiences and the same achievements. We always advise students to try and make their PS or CV “unique”. By all means mention the school trip or Duke of Edinburgh Award, but try to also include things which will make the application stand out.

I interviewed a college registrar recently who told me that he is far more impressed when students appear to have read beyond the syllabus or have arranged experiences for themselves, rather than relying on school or parents to provide the opportunities.
“It demonstrates that they have a genuine interest in their subject and wider education. Anyone can sign up for a school trip, but it takes a pro-active person to do something different from the crowd.”

Students often tell me that they cannot afford to do exciting things, but sometimes the opportunities can be close to home. They may need to think creatively. For example, I know a boy who wanted to read geography at university. He got a summer job at the local fruit farm, serving in the shop. While he was there he was able to examine at first hand how the farmer had diversified into tourism and how land use in the area had changed – this proved to be useful for his A level studies. He also became friendly with the fruit pickers – many of whom were a similar age and from Eastern Europe – and he spoke to them at length about migration and job opportunities. He wrote an article about this for a national magazine, comparing their prospects with his own.

“So what are you going to do this summer Tom?” I asked as my workshop session was drawing to a close.
“I’m volunteering at a night hostel” he replied. “I want to be a social worker, so I figured it would be good experience. And..” he smiled, “I’m not one for early mornings!”

A Memorable Occasion

Dame Shirley with  Victoria's daughter Sophie.

Dame Shirley with Victoria’s daughter Sophie.

Victoria’s daughter Sophie with Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley at the Cambridge Society Lecture. An inspirational businesswoman and philanthropist Dame Shirley arrived in Britain as an unaccompanied Kindertransport refugee and vowed she would make her life “one worth saving”. She talked at the lecture about autism and the charities she supports in memory of her son Giles. We felt pretty choked afterwards! A very memorable occasion and a great opportunity for Sophie to broaden her horizons and prepare for the future
Personal Statements – the earlier the better!
We are often asked, ‘when should I start writing my personal statement?’. The answer is definitely NOT in the autumn term of the year of your application – as many students astonishingly still do! We met a teacher last week, at a school well known for its success in sending candidates to Oxbridge, who encouraged his students to start a folder online in Year 9 where they placed anything at all related to their academic and personal interests. It doesn’t matter if you have decided on a definite subject area at this stage. At Prep4 we agree – we tell students it’s never too early to start.
We recommend students to think like an admissions tutor. When they look at your personal statement where do they find the evidence that makes your application sound passionate, properly supported and unique. Applicants for medical and vetinerary degrees may fare better in this respect because they know they must have a track record of work experiences, (not just a day of shadowing a doctor friend of Daddy’s). But when applying for high level courses in other subjects young people may lack appropriate experience to convince the admissions tutors. By all means begin your personal statement strongly stressing your lifelong interest in Ancient History, but……..admissions tutors want to hear about your experience. You tell us you are interested, now we want you to prove it – “Show us the evidence.” It could be a field trip, a holiday, attending a lecture or something you’ve seen in the local paper. If you’ve arranged ancient history seminars in school, or volunteered with the local history society, let them know. We recommend to students applying for highest level course a “Summer Smart” programme.

• Summer – make use of it!
• Move outside the syllabus
• Appropriate experience
• Read – develop yourself as a person
• Think about the world and your place in it