Elizabeth Burrows has got a superpower: she has an unbeaten track record of helping students secure offers from their first choice university by unlocking the potential of their personal statement. "Used wisely, the uni personal statement is a magical key to open stubborn doors, attract interviews and secure offers in a cut-throat, oversaturated arena," says Elizabeth.
Over 24,000 people applied to Oxford University last year – and only 3,300 got in. Even more shocking is that almost 78,000 students fought it out over just 6,680 places at Edinburgh University. That’s 11.6 applicants per place.
"The odds can be pretty terrfying," says Elizabeth, who is founder of My Private Tutor Online. "But I’ve seen the power of the personal statement firsthand. One of my students badly missed his conditional offer grades (Warwick wanted AAA*; he got ABC), but they honoured his place. Why? The Admissions Office told him they still wanted him based on the strength of his personal statement. I told you, those 4,000 characters are powerful."
Since 2010, Elizabeth has helped hundreds of applicants secure spots at prestigious universities, including at Oxford and Cambridge. She has agreed to share her expert tips on how to sculpt an outstanding personal statement with School Guide.
From initial research to final submission, the personal statement always takes longer than you think. So start the process early. I would give yourself a good two to three months to craft something truly outstanding. Create a timeline that allows you to brainstorm, research, draft and revise your personal statement multiple times (at least three rounds to reflect feedback from a private tutor/teacher/headteacher etc.). The UCAS deadline is the end of January, but you want to try and submit earlier if you can. Remember Oxbridge candidates and those applying for Medicine/Dentistry/Veterinary Science must apply by mid-October.
Elizabeth's Top Tip 1: First Draft Feedback
Although it’s always preferable to work with a tutor from the outset, first draft stage is a great chance to consult a specialist. At this point you have something tangible to work with. The clay is warm; an experienced advisor can help you sculpt and refine it to ensure you’re making the strongest possible impression.
Before you start writing, it's essential you understand the purpose of the personal statement. This is your chance to demonstrate your passion for the subject, your suitability for the course and your unique qualities that make you a valuable addition to the university community. It is not an academic essay, neither is it a CV.
Elizabeth's Top Tip 2: One Ring to Rule Them All
Remember, you write a single statement, which is sent to all five of your UCAS choices. Do NOT reference any specific university by name - it’s a surefire way of being rejected by the other four!
Begin by researching the course you're applying for. Understand its structure, modules and any specific requirements. Highlight the aspects of the course that attracted you and explain why it aligns with your academic and career goals.
Elizabeth’s Top Tip 3: Use Their Words
Build a bank of words/phrases used in official course descriptions and pepper your statement with these terms. Using the same vocabulary as your chosen universities helps build a subtle rapport and makes you seem more suitable for the programme. You never know, the person reading your statement might have actually written the course wording—speaking their language can’t hurt!
Your personal statement is all about you. As much as it might feel uncomfortable for some students, you need to put yourself firmly in the spotlight. It’s not showing off, it’s showing your compatibility with the course. Start with a compelling introduction that grabs the reader's attention. Share personal anecdotes, experiences, and challenges that have shaped your interest in this field. Yes, the subject is important but what’s more important is your engagement with it—your opinions, questions and realisations.
Elizabeth’s Top Tip 4: The Polaroid Moment
In life we only get one chance to make a good first impression. Your personal statement is exactly the same. When I work privately with students we spend time discovering their ‘polaroid moment’ together: an authentic experience that ignited their love for the chosen subject. What’s yours? Close your eyes and picture one activity/conversation/person that sparked your interest (don’t overthink it; your first idea is usually your best). Open your statement by showing the reader what this was for you. Some students find this tricky; working with a specialist can help unlock your Polaroid moment and give your first paragraph some serious punch.
Highlight your academic accomplishments, but don't merely list them. Explain the skills and knowledge you gained from each experience and relate them to your chosen course. Discuss any relevant coursework, projects, or research that demonstrates your academic prowess.
Elizabeth’s Top Tip 5: The Domino Effect
The best academic-focused paragraphs demonstrate the Domino Effect, a chain reaction that shows you actively and independently deepening your inquiry. For example, you learned about cells in A Level Biology, which led you to read an article in New Scientist on cell mutations, which you later encountered firsthand during your work experience in a hospital. You want to show your thirst for knowledge building momentum.
Identify the skills and qualities that are crucial for success in your chosen field. Whether it's analytical thinking, teamwork, or problem-solving, provide examples of how you've developed and demonstrated these skills in your academic and extracurricular activities.
Elizabeth’s Top Tip 6: as Easy as A, B, C
Playing on a football team isn’t impressive. Or particularly useful to an Admissions Officer. What is interesting is how you benefited from it. Frame your points using the ABC formula: Action (what you did) - Benefit (what you gained from it) - Connection (how it makes you a better candidate for this course). A specialist can help fine-tune your formula and identify your strongest benefits, to ensure a balanced profile of skills and subject knowledge.
Discuss your extracurricular activities and relate them to the skills required for your chosen course. Whether it's volunteering, part-time work or involvement in clubs and societies, show how these experiences have shaped your character and prepared you for university life.
Elizabeth’s Top Tip 7: Find the Connective Tissue
The most effective paragraphs find insightful links between the skills gained doing your extracurriculars and the ones required for your course or career. I.e., how does your position on a basketball court mirror the environment of a fast-paced trading floor or high-pressure hospital? Skill-mapping is a great way to make your hobbies work harder for you.
Convey your passion for the subject and the course. Admissions tutors want to see genuine enthusiasm, so explain why you are excited about the prospect of studying this subject at university and how it fits into your longer-term goals.
Elizabeth’s Top Tip 8: The Devil is in the Detail
Vagueness is the downfall of most personal statements. Admissions Officers are looking for sharp students who can evidence their enthusiasm. Broad, sweeping statements like “I am interested in the world of finance and economics” are pretty pointless. What specific topic/principle/theory interests you? If you don’t offer details to prove your passion why should anyone believe you?
Admissions officers read thousands of personal statements, so it's essential to be concise and well-organised. Stick to the word limit: 4,000 characters and 47 lines (you can check if yours fits using the UCAS tool). Draft your statement using paragraphs to give it a clear structure, but remember that you may have to sacrifice line breaks to make your final statement fit.
Elizabeth’s Top Tip 9: The Elephant Act
I often work with students who come to me with drafts 1,000-2,000 characters over the limit. Don’t panic! Your first draft will always be too long. Re-read it (with fresh eyes) and ask yourself: what is really essential? Cut what’s not. If you’re really struggling to get it down to size then work with a specialist. If they’re any good, they should be able to ‘sit' on your statement and distill it down to its best 4,000 characters in a session or two.
Once you've written your personal statement, seek feedback from trusted teachers, peers or a specialist tutor. They can offer an objective view and help you refine your statement to make it more compelling and focused.
Elizabeth’s Top Tip 10: Three is a Magic Number
Beware of asking too many people for feedback. Everyone will have an opinion; some are more relevant than others. In general, I wouldn’t suggest giving your draft to more than three people to read.
Editing is a crucial step in the writing process for clarity, coherence and grammatical accuracy. Consider the overall flow of your statement and make sure each sentence adds value to your narrative. Revise as needed to ensure your final draft is polished and professional.
Elizabeth’s Top Tip 11: Like a Fine Wine
The strongest statements are the ones that have time to mellow and mature. Try to give yourself at least three days between editing sessions to allow your thoughts to percolate subconsciously between drafts. All the more reason to start the whole process early!
With so many stressful deadlines in Sixth Form, it can be very tempting to just hash out a quick statement. I get it. There’s a lot going on. But I’m not exaggerating when I say this could be most important document you ever write. It can open unyielding doors, edge you ahead of the competition and save your skin if you miss your conditional grades. Give it the time, care and respect it deserves and it will pay you back tenfold. I promise.
About Elizabeth Burrows
Elizabeth was offered a place to read English Literature and Education Studies at Cambridge. She chose to study at the University of Bristol instead, before going on to complete her Masters. She has been tutoring internationally since 2010; her clients include royalty and other high profile VIPs. She also has a background in journalism and worked as an editor for Forbes magazine.
Elizabeth is Founder and CEO of My Private Tutor Online, a boutique e-learning company helping ambitious families achieve outstanding results. Tutors are handpicked for their expertise and world-class; Elizabeth worked alongside most of the team during her placements abroad. Many tutors are Oxbridge alumni, some teach at top UK schools and a handful are official GCSE/A Level examiners. Support extends from pre-school to post-graduate, covering entrance exams (7+, 11+, 13+ and 16+), academic assessments (GCSEs/A Levels/IB etc.), higher education applications and everything in between. Contact Elizabeth at [email protected].