Personal statements and reference
writing for academic courses
Widening Participation Manager
• Students that show a real interest in the subject and
have a realistic expectation of studying at degree
level and will therefore complete the course.
• Students that have an in-depth understanding of
the course applied to.
• Students who will contribute to the
course, department and the university.
What are universities looking for?
• Qualifications and academic ability.
• Potential to succeed in higher education.
• Understanding of the subject and how it is taught.
• Real interest in and commitment to their subject.
What are admissions tutors looking for?
• Opportunity to sell yourself.
• Well structured.
• “Shows a good use of English, not just correct spelling and grammar
(essential) but a literate and logical style that flows convincingly”.
• Use standard English (no text speak).
• Analytical, not just descriptive.
• Concise (don‟t waffle).
• Current and relevant.
• Individual, but not too different.
• Explain any unusual circumstances.
• Basis for interview.
• Reasons for choosing the course.
• Show knowledge of and interest in areas likely to apply to
• Career aspirations.
• Work (paid and/or voluntary) experience.
• Skills and abilities.
• Interests and hobbies.
What to include
• Use varies between courses and universities.
• Admissions Staff will use all information on form to
• The statement and reference could be key in
determining whether applicant receives an
offer/invitation to attend interview.
• Students should sell themselves.
• Reference should provide clear insight into
student‟s approach to academic work and
suitability for chosen degree.
• Getting application in early will benefit students.
• Specific information.
Admissions Tutors hope for
• … is an FE College with 2,922 full-time and 7,436 part-time
students. 80% of the students are aged 20+ with 20% aged 16-19.
The college catchment includes around 270 International students
and the vast majority of learners are from the … postal areas ...
The college offers a range of vocational courses at levels 2 and 3
as well as Access to HE, part-time adult education and some
Foundation degrees in collaboration with the University of
Brighton. Approximately 70% of our Level 3 students apply to
Higher Education each year. There is not a single date for exam
results. The majority of students are likely to receive their results
by mid-August, though some may receive results earlier or later
depending upon their qualification and progress on the course. -
Too long - the Admissions Tutor won‟t read it!
• GCSE background and progression to university.
• Range of qualifications undertaken by students.
• Academic achievement and potential, including predicted results.
• Extenuating circumstances.
• Suitability for HE and chosen course.
• Evidence of commitment to chosen profession.
• Professional attributes.
• Contribution to college – social as well as academic.
• Personal qualities - what would student bring to university.
• Other interests – if relevant.
What to include
• Restricted to introduction to the school or college and
individual subject tutors commenting on academic
performance – often fails to give insight into
personality of applicant and suitability for course and
different styles can mean information isn‟t easy to
access – eg. Predictions included within text.
• Whole reference written by one subject tutor, who
knows student well, but may not provide sufficient
academic information on all subjects studies.
• Individual subject tutors provide in-depth information,
which is then inserted into reference written by one
• Avoid bland statements or „production line‟ approach.
• Are honest about physical and mental health (“Fitness to Practice” for professional
courses, eg. teaching and health professions).
• Mention challenges students may have faced – eg. dyslexia and whether they‟ve
adopted strategies to deal with it.
• Demonstrate understanding of course applied for: Sport Scientists not impressed by
claims that applicant will make a great PE teacher – they’d like to know about their
ability to apply science to sport.
• “Too many references tell me the applicant loves children, but fails to give any insight
into their desire to teach or interest in early years education”.
• However … Open references: Admissions Tutors likely to assume this has been
written as positively as possible.
“XXX is a student of excellent academic potential who has won the
respect of both staff and peers. He has consistently contributed to the
academic, sporting and cultural life of the school and proved to be an
outstanding Head Boy. He is mature, very hard working, self-motivated
and well organised.
In Performing Arts the student is an enthusiastic and committed
performer involved in all aspects of practical work. He offers originality
and insight during the preparation stages, uses rehearsal time wisely
and responds well to constructive criticism. He is admired for his
support and encouragement to others and his ability to offer leadership
and initiative to move the work forward. The student is prepared to
experiment with technique, work independently or as part of an
ensemble. He has natural talent, excellent stage presence, a calm and
positive attitude and a fierce determination to perform at the highest
level. All written work is completed to an exceptionally high standard.
His Unit 6 exam paper scored the second highest in the country. The
student writes clearly, showing evidence of good research and
analytical skills. He is able to evaluate work and offer clear opinions
with confidence. Altogether an incredibly impressive student”.
Personal insight and academic depth
“The student is a very conscientious student with an
excellent work ethic. She is a very good role model for
other students, displaying a mature attitude to college and
her studies. The student has always been very focussed
on a career in midwifery and has undertaken relevant work
experience at a local hospital. The student is an ideal
candidate for the profession. She would bring a good deal
of positive energy and enthusiasm to the degree course
being someone who can handle work pressure well and
remain calm in a crisis. The student would relish the theory
element and applying it to the training. She would add
value to any higher education institution and later to any
employer. We recommend her very highly as an extremely
suitable candidate for undergraduate study as a health
Suitability for subject or profession
“As all of the student‟s teachers will attest, she is a
highly able and motivated student who will undoubtedly
thrive at university. In all of her lessons she is able to
work well both independently and in groups and is
always willing to share her opinions and ideas with
others. Her attendance is 100% and her punctuality
record is excellent. We recommend her to you
Ready for university
• Statement: “I did not think much about psychology while growing up in Brazil.
At that time, my interest was focused around sports, which remains a passion
of mine. Since moving to London at the age of 14, I have faced new challenges
everyday, especially coming from a collectivist culture in Brazil to an
individualistic culture in UK. I learned that the only way to learn English was to
force myself to communicate. I went from being quiet and shy in year 10 to
being able to say whatever came into my mind, and to enjoy taking part in
conversations and discussions”.
• Reference: “The student is a bright, engaged, vivacious student. Her teachers
describe her as a real pleasure to teach: she is a positive influence on any
situation, and an asset in the classroom.
• The student was born in Brazil. She attended two primary schools there before
a private Jewish school from the age of 9. Her family moved to the UK in
stages, for economic reasons. In September 2006, with no English, the student
began year 10 at (name of school) a mixed comprehensive whose 2009 GCSE
results had 46% of students achieving 5 A* - C grades. She remembers the
difficulties of making sense of classroom discourse in those early months; she
had to learn quickly, and with little support. In this context, the student‟s GCSE
grades, particularly her C in English, represent a remarkable achievement”.
Picks up on aspects in personal
• Indicator of one aspect of student – Admissions Tutors learn to
read between the lines of certain statements:
• “potentially very bright student” – does that indicate not fulfilling
• “student works very hard” – maybe someone whose not
naturally gifted, but achieves good results through sheer hard
• Looking for indication of whether student might do well at
university - aiming to select students who can cope with working
• Looking for key words –
motivation, enthusiasm, punctuality, reliability, team player.
• Would love references to be more explicit.
How tutors use the reference
Personal statements and