Make a Statement With Your Personal Statement
I have fond memories of writing my personal statement. That is, writing 5 million drafts, hounding my friends and teachers for feedback, agonising over whether I can afford to use a long word like ‘computational’ while staying within the character limit…
Ahh. Fond memories.
Applying for university can be an exciting – and also stressful – experience. I remember looking at a blank word document that was my personal-statement-to-be, and thinking “Hey, what have I actually done with my life?”.
(I ask myself this same question every time I write a cover letter and CV for an internship.)
I’ve come out of the experience alive and well, so you can be rest assured that you will too. And to help you get through it, I hope I can share with you some tips I picked up on writing personal statements.
I’m going to give examples for Computer Science, but I think the advice applies more generally.
Let’s start with the sentence:
I am interested in Computer Science.
and see how I might improve this.
Disclaimer: This my own advice on personal statements, which is not informed by any insider knowledge of how Warwick’s Department of Computer Science evaluates applications.
1. Show, Don’t Tell
It’s very easy to say, ‘I’m interested in X’. Great! But what does that actually mean and how do we go about proving it?
(Not mathematically, thank goodness. Though we do like a good proof here in Computer Science).
Rather than just saying that you’re passionate about a subject, show how you’ve done independent research on specific areas of interest, highlight any extra-curricular work you may have done.
I have completed online courses on Computer Science.
Rather than saying that I am interested in Computer Science, I’m showing my interest by talking about the independent learning I have done.
2. Be Specific
I know how tempting it is to put in absolutely everything you’ve done – however, with a character limit, we end up with a number of things vaguely covered but in very little detail. Not particularly useful to the reader.
Instead, my advice would be to give specific examples of things you have done, which will give you more space to expand on them. Quality, not quantity!
For example, instead of saying that you’ve done a number of online courses, one could select one to talk about in more detail:
I completed an online course called ‘Introduction to Computer Science’ offered by Harvard University.
Much more illuminating! Not only does this make the claim seem more genuine by referencing something that can be checked, but it also opens up the discussion that comes after this…
3. So What?
One of the greatest bits of advice I received was to read through my personal statement, and for every point I make, ask the question ‘So what?’ to expand that point. Even better, getting a friend to do this exercise with you is really helpful.
Ok, so I’ve done something. So what? What did I get out of it and why do I want to tell the university about this? Did I improve some skills (e.g. teamwork, programming)?
In this example, I have completed an online course. So what?
Through completing an online course called ‘Introduction to Computer Science’ offered by Harvard University, I gained a deeper insight into key aspects of the field, such as algorithms.
A general answer could be to gain a deeper insight into the subject matter, as mentioned above. However, I think that we can iterate again – we can show that we’ve gained a deeper insight, and also be more specific.
Here we go again:
Through completing an online course called ‘Introduction to Computer Science’ offered by Harvard University, I was fascinated to learn about algorithms such as binary search, which I implemented in Python, and data structures like binary trees.
While it’s true that there are multiple things that I might have been interested in on the course, I picked an example to show that I really engaged with the course material. When it comes to choosing which example to pick, I think about how it fits into the story I tell.
4. Tell Your Story
Why have personal statements at all? I see it as a way to pitch yourself to someone who does not know you. Of course, with an unlimited character limit, it might be possible to ramble and say every little thing about yourself, but unfortunately, we don’t have this luxury.
So, when it comes to selecting things to say, my advice is to try to tie everything together to form a narrative about yourself. It’s like telling the uni your story of how you got to where you are now and how studying CS will take you where you want to go.
Through completing an online course called ‘Introduction to Computer Science’ offered by Harvard University, I was fascinated to learn about algorithms such as binary search, which I implemented in Python, and data structures like binary trees. I would like to learn more about how complex data structures are used to design more efficient algorithms and solve real-world problems.
This also informs the structure of your personal statement. Mine was vaguely chronological – starting with how my initial interest developed – but after that I grouped points into topics e.g. developing my mathematical skills.
I kept extracurricular stuff until the end to talk about how I want to spend my time at university outside of studies. Here is that extract from my own personal statement:
I have learnt, from Adobe Generation MOOCs, to use a variety of creative software. I used them at my work placement at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in their Digital department as well as in creating digital content for my school as the leader of the Marketing Committee. I look forward to doing media projects at university and pursue my interests in the wider Arts by participating in a range of societies.
So, there we have it! I hope this helps, and best of luck with writing your personal statements!