That said, you’ll want to avoid overused opening sentences. Whatever you say, don’t write that you’ve wanted to study your subject since a young age: there’s only so often admissions tutors can read that sentence without risk of mental collapse. Finding a balance is key.
Don’t assume Word will pick up on every error; if you’re running factory standard ‘American English’, the spellchecker will be letting through all sorts of Zs which should be Ss, for instance.
“A spelling or grammar mistake is the kiss of death to an application,” says Ned Holt, former head of sixth form at Reading School.
And mistakes are often hiding in plain sight as Ken Jenkinson, headmaster of Colchester Royal College, knows well: “This morning, we had a very bright student who spelt his name wrong.”
The advice from both men? “Always have someone proof read it.”
Write like you
Many personal statements end up looking less like a record of your brilliance and more like a written application to work as a human thesaurus. Admissions tutors are looking for substance, and pomposity won’t do anything to convince them you love their subject.
The personal statements that don’t do well, says Alan Bird, head of sixth form at Brighton College, are those which “lack genuine personal flavour”. Start telling your universities why you’re so keen to study and why you’ll be the best student since Hermione.
And never simply say you’re right for the course – it’s your job to demonstrate that by being specific. Whatever you write needs to be intrinsically you, which is something easy to lose while rattling off achievements.
Make everything count
Universities are looking for someone interested in the course and someone interesting to teach it to. Cut the small talk and press home why what you’re saying is relevant.
Alan Bird sees too many lists which say nothing: “Students might name a book and then give it a review – I could read that off the dust jacket.”
Remember that anything extra-curricular is padding, albeit the good kind, and needs to be spun the right way. “Charity work or being captain of a sports team is very positive and can be great as part of a statement – but make sure whatever you include has relevance to what you are applying for,” says Alan Carlile.
The University of Manchester’s head of widening participation, Julian Skyrme, encourages taking a straightforward approach: “We’re asking ‘why does your part-time job relate to you being an engineer?’ Nail your experience to the course. Personal statements can sometimes appear like a biography.”
You’re good but you’re not that good
After flicking through 30,000 admissions, a little modesty is likely to go down better than a literary rendition of Simply the Best.
“Confidence is great, veering into egotism is not,” says Alan Carlile.
Remember you’re applying to study something new. Your statement should convince universities that you’re excited to engage with new experiences based on your past experiences. Bragging about your achievements just won’t do this.
Ten most overused opening sentences
Ucas guide to the personal statement
UCAS: Dos and don't s (external)
Durham University guide: How to write an effective personal statement (external)
Studential: Writing a personal statement (external)
David Ellis is editor of studentmoneysaver.co.uk
The reason we are devoting nearly an entire section to tips on removing the passive voice from your writing is that it is both a very common flaw and very easily correctable. Within this section we also will explain how to choose more active language even when passive voice is not involved.
Defining Passive Voice
Passive voice occurs when the subject and object of an action are inverted, so the subject is the recipient of the act instead of its performer. For example:
Passive: The man was bitten by the dog.
Active: The dog bit the man.
Passive: I was told by my teacher to come at noon.
Active: My teacher told me to come at noon.
Note that the word "by" is present in these two examples. A sentence can be passive without the word "by," but it is always at least implied. For example: "I was given bad directions [by my friend]."
Passive voice always involves a to be verb. To be verbs include am, are, been, being, is, was, were. On the other hand, a sentence can include a to be verb without being passive. For example:
- "I have been involved in this organization for several years."
- "He is leaving in five minutes."
Later we will discuss ways to avoid to be verbs even when they are not in passive-voice constructions.
When Passive Voice is Acceptable
There are generally two cases when passive voice is acceptable: 1) when there is no defined or tangible subject; 2) when the emphasis really should be on the object of the action. In these cases, the alternative is often awkward and less natural sounding.
Case 1: He is referred to as "the great one."
Awkward alternative: The general public refers to him as "the great one."
Case 2: For the fifth time this year, Johnson was hit by a pitch.
Awkward alternative: For the fifth time this year, a pitch hit Johnson.
Avoiding Passive Voice
As we have already shown, the basic approach to avoiding passive voice is quite simple. Identify the subject of the action (the noun that follows "by" or is otherwise implied) and bring that to the front of the clause. Remove the to be verb. Adjust any other word-order issues as needed. Try these five examples as an exercise:
- He was given too many chances to start over by his friends.
- She was instructed to remain seated by her teacher.
- Their efforts were obstructed by brilliant defensive strategy.
- The machine was started by the operator on time.
- The door was shut by the angry mother.
- His friends gave him too many chances to start over.
- Her teacher instructed her to remain seated.
- Brilliant defensive strategy obstructed their efforts.
- The operator started the machine on time.
- The angry mother shut the door.
Achieving Active Writing
Active language comes not just from avoiding passive voice but further requires the use of strong action verbs. In addition to avoiding to be verbs, you should try to replace helping verbs such as have, had, has, do, does, did and other vague verbs like got and get.
Before: I had opportunities to develop my skills.
After: I sought opportunities to develop my skills.
Before: I got the promotion through hard work.
After: I earned the promotion through hard work.
Before: She did well in this competitive environment.
After: She thrived in this competitive environment.
Before: My mother didn't want to show up without a gift.
After: My mother hesitated to show up without a gift.
Before: The salesman told the audience about his products.
After: The salesman promoted his products to the audience.
The last two examples demonstrate the lack of clear distinction between strong and weak verbs. There is nothing in the dictionary that will tell you that promoted sounds stronger than told. It is largely a matter of how much meaning the word contains. Promoted has a more precise and nuanced meaning than told.
You can certainly develop a strong eye for these subtle issues, but active writing is an area where professional editing can make a substantial difference.
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