How to write a winning personal statement for postgraduate study

application_-_pen1A personal statement is your chance to make a great first impression when applying for a postgraduate course. It provides a space for you to convince the admissions tutor(s) that you have the motivation, relevant knowledge and academic capability to successfully complete the course, and reflect well on the institution.

When writing your statement, always check whether the admissions team has written instructions on what to include and how much to write – and if they have then make sure you follow them! Often, however, you will be largely left to fill in the blank space yourself – and in that case we recommend you write about 500 words, which equates to approximately 1 A4 page.

The structure should be logical and easy to follow, and most importantly you should address these questions…

Why do you want to study this subject?

Begin your personal statement with some concise motivations. You don’t want to waste space here on general comments that anyone could make, such as that you’re “hard working” or “enthusiastic”, but to clearly demonstrate your personal reasons for applying.

Think about specific experiences that have motivated you. Perhaps an inspirational talk you attended, a debate in the field that excites you, or the chance to make a real difference to the world. Don’t just make claims either – ensure your motivations are demonstrated by giving brief evidence.

You need to make the admissions tutor want to read on, so let your passion come through!

Example: My passion for transport planning was sparked when I attended a talk by John Nash at the Bristol Festival of Ideas in 2016. Inspired by the concept of modal shift as a means of reducing traffic congestion and therefore environmental pollution, I joined the Transport Planning Society and developed my understanding through their policy reports and attending regional events every month. I am now seeking to develop my knowledge through a Master’s in Transport.

Why have you chosen this specific course, at this specific institution?

Take time to really reflect on why you’re applying for this course and this institution. Consider what attracted you to it in the first place, and what continues to excite you about it. If possible, link your motivations back to your previous experience to provide evidence.

For the course, think about what makes it unique compared to other universities to show you understand what it’s really about. What excites you about the units? The course structure? Perhaps you get to study abroad? Or maybe it’s the reputation of the course within the field?

When it comes to the institution, avoid general statements like ‘you’re an internationally renowned university’ – this shows a lack of research and imagination. Instead, choose something specific about the institution you’ve discovered when researching it. Is there an academic you’d love to work with? Do they have strong links with industry? State-of-the-art facilities?

You must be able to clearly articulate why them – so don’t scrimp on your research!

Example: I am applying to the University of Bristol as I was inspired by the ground-breaking research led by Professor Joan Bateman into the impact of music on children’s development. I drew on the project’s unique interdisciplinary methodology combining musicology and psychology in my undergraduate dissertation, and would relish the opportunity to contribute to the development of this research.

What are your future plans?

Part of making it clear why you want to do the programme is how it fits in with your future plans. Show the admissions tutor that you’re not just doing further study because you can’t think of anything else to do. Again, you’ll need to think through and articulate your motivations clearly.

Example: As I aim to become an accountant I am particularly attracted to your programme for two reasons: first, it offers the accreditation needed; and second the extensive practical experience opportunities will allow me to develop good practice in advance of joining the work force and enhance my employability.

Are you academically capable of taking this course?

Admissions tutors will be looking for evidence of academic capability as well as motivations. You can evidence this with your grades, but remember you will also provide a transcript for this, so use the personal statement as an opportunity for you to demonstrate your relevant knowledge instead. Show that you understand what’s required to take your subject further, and that you have been developing this knowledge within and outside of your degree.

A good place to start is a dissertation or extended project, as this will show your passion for a certain area and requires the development of advanced knowledge or skills. You should also think about relevant units you’ve taken, projects you’ve been part of, any technical skills you’ve developed, and any prizes or scholarships you’ve won.

Example: Attending the weekly seminar series run by the Department of Classics developed my knowledge of Latin and its reception. In my third year I took two optional units on Latin language and founded a Latin reading group for non-classicists. As a result, my Latin is now B1 standard. These language skills will allow me to engage with primary material and contribute to class discussion. 

Do you have any relevant work experience?

Key skills for postgraduate study can be demonstrated by a wide range of work experience. In some cases, relevant work experience might be obvious, but even work experience that seems irrelevant provides you with transferable skills. For example, public engagement can be vital in some postgraduate research degrees, and skills in this area could be demonstrated explicitly from experience but also from being a sports captain, giving presentations at work, writing a blog, and so on.

Consider what you’ve been doing outside of your degree and reflect on the skills you have been developing.

Example: I have developed excellent attention to detail through part-time work. For example, when working at a betting shop my morning task was read through racing newspapers to identify the day’s races and present this information to customers on display posters. To achieve this, I identified 3 different types of races and 5 difference racecourses, then created a spreadsheet to input this information directly. Subsequently, I produced accurate daily race reports for customers detailing more than 50 races. This attention to detail will allow me to accurately collate data from multiple sources and present it concisely in termly reports to the course director. 

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Have I shown my passion?
  • Have I shown my knowledge?
  • Have I shown my commitment?
  • Have I given evidence?
  • Are my reasons specific?
  • Is it clear, concise, and structured?

For more information, including choosing a course, funding, and applying, see our ‘options for further study’ pages, and check out the Prospects postgraduate personal statement guide.

Lauren Cole 2018