WHERE DO I START WITH MY PERSONAL STATEMENT?

Firstly, don’t try to start at the beginning. It is easy to waste hours trying to craft a gripping opening paragraph but your opening paragraph is bound not to be the bit that gets you into university. Also, invariably, when you’ve gone over the 4000 character limit, your first paragraph will be where you look to trim down the length. 

To get into university you need to prove to an admissions tutor whom you’ve never met, that you are knowledgable (without being arrogant) about their subject, that you are passionate (without going over the top), that you still have much to learn (without appearing ignorant) and that you’ve taken some steps towards understanding what it is you’ll be studying. 

My advice here is PROVE IT! 

So you say you are intruiged – prove it! What have read, seen or researched?

You claim to have read ‘the man who mistook his wife for a hat’ or ‘the selfish gene’ or ‘the economist’ every week for the last six months. Well write about something you read. Demonstrate that you have read what you claim to have read and, by the way, what is your opinion on it? 

You say you did work experience – ok, so what did you learn, what do you know now that you didn’t know then? 

You claim to love art – which artist? What do you know about him or her? What is it about their work that impresses you?

You say you want to be an engineer, but what engineering projects do you know about and have impressed you?

Treat this part of your personal statement like a piece of academic writing. Ditch the vacuous platitudes. Anyone can claim to be ‘passionate’ ‘determined’ ‘creative’ ‘intruiged’ ‘committed’ but fewer people can prove it. 

Once you’ve written this section – the real ‘meat’ of your personal statement, it is easy to top-and-tail it with paragraphs about your initial interest in a subject and your overall commitment to studying. 

IF YOUR STUDENTS HAVE LEARNED NOTHING, YOU HAVE TAUGHT NOTHING

I stumbled across this very good blog from “Faculty Focus”

http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/didnt-teach-learn/

It outlines an age old problem – what actually is the role of the teacher, and what do we mean by the terms “teaching” and “learning.”  A topic can only be said to have been taught when the learners have learned what is being taught.  Now, I want to make a confession here.  It’s about stalagmites and stalactites.  I’ve never learned which is which.  Many people have tried to teach me.  I’ve been taught various lessons about which ones “hang on tight” and are held with “all their might” but I can never remember which is which.  OK so before writing this article I googled it and now, I think, I know, but otherwise, I hadn’t learned it and so technically I had never been taught this despite attending several lessons during which the teacher would have claimed to have taught me the difference.

A rather silly example, but the distinction between teaching and learning is a subtle one.  In the blog I reference here, the writer alludes to a student who makes the claim that “the teacher didn’t teach us anything, we had to learn it all for ourselves.”  An immediate conclusion to jump to here is that the teacher is at fault.  The teacher is paid to teach and so the students in the classroom should not be expected to have to learn for themselves.  In fact it would be easy to see how that teacher would end up being disciplined by a superior saying “I pay you to teach! Why are you letting these poor students do all the work for themselves?”  But you’d have to be careful here.  The superior may have a very good point.  If the students are learning nothing from their teacher, he or she is in dereliction of his or her responsibilities as an educationalist and not fulfilling his or her most basic of job descriptions.

However there is a fine line here, because “learning” should not be a passive process.  Learning is hard work.  Learning requires us to make mistakes and take wrong turns before coming up with the right solution or the right outcome.  I’ve heard this described as “the pit.”  A dark place in which the student feels like they’re getting nowhere, only to finally and successfully climb out of the pit once the topic has been learned.  The teacher’s role is to facilitate this process.  The teacher is the facilitator of learning in any classroom or with any student or group of students.  They create the environment and the circumstances in which their students are able to learn.

This does not necessarily mean that they “tell” the students about a topic or that they act as a source of information for the student (although it may do).  A very good teacher will provide the tools and the materials and the environment and the circumstances and the support in which, with their guidance, learners are able to solve problems, create images, develop understanding, think critically, make comments (or whatever) and the learner may FEEL like they “learned it themselves.”  The student would be correct, they did “learn it for themselves,” because what other type of learning is there?  You can’t learn something for someone else and no one else can learn for you.

Key strategies in this process are:

  • Engaging learners
  • Giving appropriate and timely feedback
  • Encouraging independent learning
  • Challenging learners

So my point is that a good teacher would ensure that his or her students learned EVERYTHING for themselves and what looks like good teaching could be nothing more than good provision of information or a good resource or a good technique.  Staff in schools with “teaching and learning” responsibilities in reality just have “learning” responsibilities.  You can’t have teaching without learning, if nothing has been learned nothing has been taught.  So if you want to know if you’re a good teacher, make sure you check what has been learned by your students.  If they’ve learned it, you’ve taught it.  Congratulations!

DON’T START YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT WITH A CLICHÉ

“Ever since I was a little girl, I have always wanted to be a chartered accountant/engineer/medieval historian (insert degree of your choice here)…”

“I have always been fascinated by particle physics…”

“I remember being a small child and overhearing my parents discussing the balance sheet of our family business, it was at this moment that knew I wanted to be an accountant.” 

I’ve read so many variations on this theme in the past. It makes me cringe more and more every time. I take two issues with this approach:

1. There is no way it could possibly be true. No one wanted to be a chemical engineer or a pharmacist or architect or whatever when they were five years old. When children are five years old they want to be a fireman or an astronaut or a ballerina or, as one student said to me this week, a butterfly (good luck with that one!)

2. Even if it is true, just because you have wanted to do something for a long time, I doesn’t mean you’re going to be any good at it or that it is more likely to happen. For example, ever since I was a little boy, I have always wanted to play centre forward for England at the Word Cup. I’ve dreamed about it since I was a little boy, in quieter moments as a grown man, I still do dream about it and given this year’s World Cup performance, I rather think I may as well have been playing. However my dreams are unlikely to make this more likely to happen. 

Instead, when opening your personal statement, focus on not why you want to study a subject but firstly, what interests you about it and then, the take home point if the day, write about why you believe you are able to study it. There’s a big difference be wanting to do something and actually being able to do it and it is this difference that a university admissions tutor is looking for you to demonstrate. 

Here is a useful link to the UCAS website:

http://www.ucas.com/how-it-all-works/undergraduate/filling-your-application/your-personal-statement?gclid=Cj0KEQjw4uSgBRDZveXz9M-E1aoBEiQA2RMP6tc2jF4RF_Dv5rpe5EOehVSovmMtEHK4odRLk1o9phMaAiVf8P8HAQ

SEND YOUR UCAS APPLICATION EARLY!

The UCAS deadline for on time applications is always January 15 every year.  Whatever day of the week it falls on, this is the deadline.  If you are applying to medical school, dentistry, veterinary medicine or to Oxford or Cambridge, your deadline is October 15.  Again, whatever day of the week that happens to be, that is the deadline.  In this cycle, October 15 is a Wednesday and January 15 is a Thursday.

Visit the UCAS website for more details:

http://www.ucas.com

My advice is to complete the process as early as you possibly can.  If you’ve not decided where to go or what to apply for – start making some decisions. Go and visit some universities, research some programmes you are interested in and begin to take responsibility.

So why do it early?

Firstly let’s dispel some urban myths…

1.  There is no advantage to getting your application in early in terms of whether or not you are offered a place.  As long as you meet the Jan 15 (or Oct 15) deadline, your application is on time and will be considered equally with all the rest.  So take your time to get it right.

2.  If I’m not applying to Oxbridge I should wait until after October 15 before I apply because otherwise the other universities will think I’m applying to Oxford or Cambridge and therefore will reject me. Believe me.  They won’t. 

So why bother getting the application in early?

The main reason is TIME. You are buying yourself precious time by getting this thing done soon.  This term (between now and Christmas) is usually the busiest and most tiring of your sixth form career.  There is pressure of coursework, harder A2 material, AS re-sits to revise for, field trips, practical work (if you take practical based subjects), entrance tests, interviews, and that is just the academic stuff.  You also have to do your university application.  So it pays to do it early and get it out of the way.

Not only that, but also, although applications are dealt with equally if received before the deadlines, you can get an interview or even an offer before Christmas if you apply early enough.  That is a very satisfying position to be in when others around you have yet to even complete their applications. 

Experience tells me that the longer students spend on their personal statement, the less progress they make.  Personal statements are things of diminishing returns.  The longer you spend the less effectively you improve it!  Your personal statement is crucial.  In fact it is arguably the most important 4000 characters you will ever write, but it is easy to get bogged down in the process and pour over it for weeks on end without really making too much difference.  When it’s finished, send it and move on to the next thing.

In my experience, students with university applications unsent in December and even January invariably make bad applications.  They appear rushed (despite being several months in the preparation) and read as if little thought has gone into them.  So, if you are applying to university this year, act now.  Make some decisions, do some planning and some research and get your application done.  You will thank yourself for it later this year.

Good luck with your university application!

UCAS APPLICATIONS – CHOOSE YOUR 5 UNIVERSITIES WISELY!

Students beginning their A2 year of A level or their final year of IB will no doubt be beginning to prepare their university applications this week if they haven’t already started. As schools and colleges go back, so upper sixth/A2 groups are encouraged to register for the UCAS system and to start taking some decisions about university. There is lots of advice available and lots of advice to give about this process, but here is my tip for the week…
Choose your five universities wisely! 
This means that you should select five institutions that you would like to study at. It sounds obvious, but you are no longer required to rank you list in order of preference. In fact this practise ended decades ago. So your choices should be of five institutions or courses that you would definitely like to go to and you should ensure you’d be happy at any of the five. This is more difficult than you might think and the temptation is to rank them in your head in order of preference anyway.
This is dangerous, because it means that you end up with a ‘fifth choice’.  Fifth! Who cares about fifth!? Two places outside of the medals in an Olympic event and not even a champions league place (if you get the football reference). The problem is that your ‘fifth choice’ is likely to also have the lowest entry requirements and therefore, if you miss your firm choice offer it could well be the place you end up.  Experience tells me that on results day students who have made their insurance offers are disappointed that they now have to go somewhere they never really thought they would end up and they never really wanted to go anyway!
Now, I hope that every gets their grades for their firm choice institution, but the reality is that many people don’t.
So consider this.  You are lucky enough to have five offers from five universities which are:
University 1 – AAB
University 2 – AAB
University 3 – AAB
University 4 – AAB
University 5 – BBB
You then have to pick two. Your firm choice and your insurance choice (note they are not called first choice and second choice – that is deliberate). If you want to have a genuine insurance policy,  University 5 HAS to be your insurance choice, even if you would rather go to any of the others. So… You had better make sure you want to go there!
A trap students often fall into is to pick a ‘fifth choice’ that has substantially lower entry requirements than the other places you apply.  Imagine the scenario above, but where university 5 had entry requirements of DDE. If you miss your grades by a fraction (say you get ABB) you may well end up going to university 5 and you may feel under-sold.
More often than not this ends up as a wasted choice in any case. Why? Because if you end up with more than two offers, imagine this scenario:
University 1 – AAB
University 2 – AAB
University 3 – ABB
University 4 – BBB
University 5 – DDE
You’re not likely to pick university 5. You didn’t want to go there any way and so wouldn’t you rather have another university to choose from than this essentially dead choice?
And so, my tip for the day and for the week is – CHOOSE WISELY! Pick an range of universities that are within your academic range and skill set. Don’t over-sell yourself and don’t under-sell yourself.
Good luck!