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Expert reveals how to perfect your UCAS application


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The UCAS deadline is just a day away, but it is not too late to help your child submit the best application possible.

An education expert has revealed common mistakes sixth-form students make when it comes to writing their personal statement, from spelling mistakes to generic experience. 

Cheshire-based consultant Edd Williams, author of the book Is Your School Lying To You?, explained the 4,000-character personal statement is crucial to ensuring your child gets offers from universities. 

It is the only part of the application that is truly personal, allowing students to show who they are and what they can offer, rather than being a reductive list of grades that only tell a part of a story.

Speaking exclusively to Femail he said:  ‘With just a day and some change left to hone and perfect the UCAS application now is not the time to be making wholesale changes but rather to make sure you’ve got the basics right. Steve Hanson, the New Zealand All Blacks coach, always says, ‘Be world class at the things that cost nothing’. 

‘In terms of UCAS that means making no silly mistakes and ensuring every part is doing what you need it to do.’

Here Edd shares his last-minute tips to help supercharge the application to really make it stand out from the crowd…

An education expert has revealed common mistakes sixth-form students make when it comes to writing their personal statement from spelling mistakes to generic experience (stock image)

CHECK YOUR BASICS 

Make sure you have the personal information correct. It sounds extremely obvious but so many candidates are so focused on finding that killer first line for the personal statement they overlook the basics. 

Make sure your grades at GCSE are correct, you’ve spelled your schools and college names right and that the dates add up, your predicted grades are accurate, contact information is right, email address is appropriate – no Sexyboi69@outlook.com need apply. 

Nothing is more off-putting than silly unforced errors, so double-check everything for spelling, grammar and accuracy. 

GET YOUR REFERENCE IN GOOD ORDER

More often than not a tutor or mentor at school or college will have taken care of this part of the process for you. 

If that’s the case they will likely have written many similarly themed statements in support of their pupils and, even with the best will in the world, come application season sometimes things fall through the cracks. 

Consultant Edd Williams, author of the book Is Your School Lying To You?, explained the 4,000 character personal statement is crucial to ensuring your child gets offers from Universities

Consultant Edd Williams, author of the book Is Your School Lying To You?, explained the 4,000 character personal statement is crucial to ensuring your child gets offers from Universities

Is the reference a fair reflection of you and what you are hoping to accomplish, does it accurately showcase your skills and experiences to any potential university?

Does it have gaps or errors? Hopefully the answer is no but it is worth spending the time to check it and if you’re unhappy, ask the referee if they are happy to make some tweaks, the reference is there to underpin and corroborate the rest of the application and if you’re not both singing from the same hymn sheet it puts question marks over your application.

BE WELL-ROUNDED, NOT AN ALL-ROUNDER 

Every year I have to tell my clients the same thing: don’t try and be everything to everyone. If you really want to maximise the impact of your personal statement, sell to your strengths. 

The largest misconception is that universities are looking for students who have done a bit of everything. This is not true. They are of course looking for well-rounded people, but even more so people who show potential or aptitude and ability specifically in one thing, who are committed to the course and to seeing it through. 

The blunders Edd has spotted on real applications – and what they SHOULD have written to stand out    

Always check your spelling 

‘Having been head bot and captain of my form’s debasing club, I have learned how to get the best out of people.’

‘From an early age been drawn to the law, I’m from a long line of lawyers and my interest in justice and being able to make a difference has been an abiding principle for as long as I can remember. My ultimate goal is to become a barista in the High Court.’

These are perfect examples of how taking the time to check your spelling and ensure accuracy can avoid silly pitfalls that whilst may get a smirk out of the tutors is unlikely to see you rise to the top of the pack.

Avoid posturing

‘Why is philosophy? I don’t know; that’s why I want to take it at university.’

Pseudo academic posturing never tends to end well, as an opening line to a personal statement it tries very hard to be bold and impactful but falls woefully short and reveals an absence of understanding of the core subject. If you want to demonstrate a passion for a subject something like the following would be better.

‘Even though my introduction to Descartes was through an Asterix book as a 7 year old, the idea of Cogito Ergo Sum stuck with me and I often went back to it. The more I read around the subject, specifically, First Meditations the more I realised how little I understood and that is what has led me to this path.’

This example demonstrates a number of things very succinctly, long standing interest, a passion for the subject, extra curricular reading and enough whimsy to make it personalized.

‘Ever since I watched ‘Octonauts’ as a child I have been passionate about becoming a marine biologist.’

This example tries to do the same but falls a little short because it doesn’t build on the juvenile influence to show greater depth of understanding as the writer has grown up.

Think about how your tone will be interpreted and don’t ‘try too hard’

‘Ninety per cent of life is showing up.’ I have regularly showed up and this kind of can do spirit epitomises me as a student. I always show up. Sometimes a little late but I get there in the end.’

‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. I’m all three.’

These are both great examples of how not to use quotes, they are striving for impact and I hope humour but they come off as aloof and unaware of how people may see them. 

The problem lies with the likes of the Apprentice when the contestants spout patently ludicrous brags, but that’s for entertainment not UCAS. 

Quotes are rarely helpful and oftentimes will have been read so many times by the tutors as to have lost all meaning. One of the better references I saw used the title of a book to indicate how they came to become interested in the subject, it shows erudition but is a little less on the nose.

‘Without being too blunt it was Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ that shocked me into paying attention to the wider geo-political landscape.’

Show don’t tell  

‘My work ethic is second to none, I work hard at school, I work hard on the hockey pitch, I work hard in my part time job. If I had to sum me up it would be hard worker. Sometimes hard work is its own reward, but often it’s just hard work.’

If you want to showcase how hard you work it should be more of a question of show not tell. Using examples and then mapping it on to the narrative you are trying to create.

‘I believe that my experience of juggling my extra curricular activities and my part time work alongside my academic studies will be a genuine asset once at university as I’ve shown I have the ability to manage my time effectively and prioritise accordingly.’

 

With a drop-out rate of around 7-8 per cent, universities want a demonstrable long-standing interest in the field and everything in the essay should help sell to that narrative.

If you’re applying to be an engineer, the fact you once played third donkey from left in a school nativity, or were a middling gymnast is less compelling than speaking about ones’ work experience in an engineering firm or a machine that you’ve built. 

Being well-rounded is not the same thing as being an all-rounder. Play to your strengths and stay on message, by trying to be all things to all people you risk underwhelming everyone. 

KEEP IT RELEVANT 

Reference the courses you are applying for. Too often people use the personal statement to make some bold claims, reference some quotes by an eminent thinker and talk about their experience in the javelin team. 

Don’t lose sight of what the application is there to do. Yes, it is a summary of your academic achievements to date but more than that it’s a selling document, a flyer offering you as the product. 

Admissions tutors will pore over thousands of applications each year and nothing is more off-putting to them than seeing an application that offers only a cursory acknowledgement towards what they can offer you. 

The sale you are trying to make is that your skills, interest and experience will dovetail with what they can offer, aspects of the course, the history of the university, the staff and so on. 

Obviously with multiple applications to different universities you have to box clever to make it feel both highly personal as well as being broadly applicable but there is value in doing it. 

Where this can create extra cachet for you is that it demonstrates that you have taken the time to research the course, looked at the university and your decision is based on the end result of real consideration not just a dashed off application as your predicted grades fall within their boundaries. 

They need to feel the love because if you can sell that, they will have more confidence that you’ll accept an offer and more importantly stick around once there.

Edd Williams is the careers and academic consultant behind Edducan.com and the author of 'Is your school lying to you? Get the career you want. Get the life you deserve.'For more information on careers and education the book is available now via Amazon or Ortus Press for £11.99.

Edd Williams is the careers and academic consultant behind Edducan.com and the author of ‘Is your school lying to you? Get the career you want. Get the life you deserve.’For more information on careers and education the book is available now via Amazon or Ortus Press for £11.99.

MAKE ROOM FOR YOUR SOFT SKILLS

Yes, the main thrust of your application should be squarely focused on your academic and experiential activities, specifically linking it back to the course but don’t neglect to explain who you are. 

Any tutor is looking for someone who can actively enhance any incoming cohort, which is good for seminars, good for the clubs, the social aspects and ultimately the legacy of the university in the future. 

Take the time to explain what motivates you, why, what influenced your decisions, activities you’ve been involved in. 

As explored above this is not a rote list of entirely ordinary achievements but rather an insight into what you do away from school to shine a light on the who not just the what. 

Sometimes it’s as basic as playing five aside football at the weekend, what it demonstrates is twofold, sociability and the capacity to be a team player but crucially your ability to juggle your academic workload and still find time to enjoy yourself. 

No matter what activity you choose to showcase it shows you have extra in reserve, that you can step up the tempo and meet the greater rigour of university as well as having the wherewithal to manage your time effectively. 

Independent study and the capacity to prioritise are two of the biggest banana skins once at uni so persuading them you can avoid them based on your prior experience can only be a benefit. 

  • Edd Williams is the careers and academic consultant behind Edducan.com and the author of ‘Is your school lying to you? Get the career you want. Get the life you deserve.’For more information on careers and education the book is available now via Amazon or Ortus Press for £11.99.

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