A lot of students worry about their opening sentence(s). This is because you’ve probably been told that the first few lines of your personal statement need to grab the attention of the admissions tutor.
It’s good to think of a memorable way to kick things off but don’t overthink it or spend too much time on your opening; it’s not the be all and end all. Admissions tutors are less concerned with your ability to write a fancy or wacky introduction and more interested in your passion and enthusiasm for the course.
Begin your personal statement with a personal touch
Your opening doesn’t need to go over the top to impress admissions tutors. Jonathan Hardwick is a former head of sixth form and now a professional development manager at Inspiring Futures, a provider of careers information, advice and guidance to young people. He explains: ‘A straightforward sentence that goes on to demonstrate your enthusiasm is much better than trying to get their attention with an outrageous statement or a quote from an obscure historian about overcoming great difficulties.’
The most effective opening sentence will keep it nice and simple, and be personal to you. Think about what made you pick the subject and what you enjoy the most about it. Then try and summarise this in one or two sentences.
You could start your statement with something along the lines of ‘What I like most about studying French is getting to grips with a new culture. I enjoy the challenge of trying to read French literature, listen to French songs and watch French movies and plays in their original forms. I want to study French at university to improve my understanding of the language.’ To make sure it’s personal to you, draw on your own experiences and knowledge. Have you been to see a French opera performance or read the work of a French poet, for example?
‘Try to be as clear and concise as possible,’ advises Helen Relf, undergraduate admissions co-ordinator for English, drama & publishing at Loughborough University. ‘We are looking for bright, lively and articulate students who can tell us exactly why they are different or an individual.’ Cut the academic talk and long-winded sentences. Why say something in 20 words that you could say in ten words?
How not to begin your personal statement
To make sure your opening sentence is original, here are four ways you shouldn't begin your personal statement.
1. Avoid overused opening sentences
‘An admissions tutor might read over 3,000 personal statements a year so it can be hard to stand out,’ says Jonathan. Admissions tutors will appreciate it’s difficult to think of an opening that nobody will have ever used before. However, try to avoid using common openings that lots of students will use.
To give you an idea of the most overused openings, UCAS published a list of the ten most frequently used opening lines in personal statements in the 2015 application cycle. The most common opening was ‘From a young age I have always been interested in/fascinated by…’ (used by 1,179 students), while other openings on the list include ‘For as long as I can remember I have…’ (1,451 students), ‘I am applying for this course because…’ (1,370 students) and ‘I have always been interested in…’ (927 students).
2. Steer clear of clichéd openings and childhood anecdotes
‘Avoid anything too whimsical,’ advises Emma-Marie Fry, an area director at Inspiring Futures. Emma manages the career guidance team in London and the south-east and goes into schools to deliver support to students.
She says: ‘Admissions tutors want to know about your brain's potential and your education and development, not your childhood dreams. If getting your first telescope when you were five sparked your interest in astronomy or you’ve wanted to be a doctor ever since you broke your leg when you were six, that’s great, but it’s not what the admissions tutors need to know. What have you done more recently?’
Similarly, avoid talking about what your family members do for a living. ‘Don’t say “My parent is a teacher so I want to be a teacher.” It needs to be personal to you,’ says Jonathan. Instead, explain what you’ve done that’s made you want to become a teacher. Did you shadow a teacher at your local primary school for a week? Or do you spend your Sundays coaching the local children’s football team?
3. Be wary of opening your personal statement with a joke
You might have thought of the perfect joke to start your statement with, but does it set the right tone? And will the admissions tutor share your sense of humour?
‘Admissions tutors like to see originality but they don’t like too much jokiness,’ warns Emma. ‘They want to get a sense of you as a person but this means your academic strength and passion for the subject, not your sense of humour.’
4. Begin your personal statement with your own voice, not a quote from a famous person
Epigraphs – aka quotes – aren’t nearly as interesting to admissions tutors as what you’ve got to say yourself. ‘It might be tempting to start your personal statement with an epigraph but, often, beginning with your own words is best and more likely to be original,’ says Dr Helen Moggridge, a lecturer in geography at the University of Sheffield. If you do want to include a quote, make sure it’s relevant to the course you’re applying for and always explain how this quote links back to you and the subject you want to study.
You might think that a famous quote will help you stand out but you won’t be the only person who thinks it would be a great idea to include a well-known quote from the likes of Mahatma Ghandi, William Shakespeare, Karl Lagerfeld and so on. If you’re applying to study psychology, for example, it would be better to ditch the quote from Sigmund Freud in favour of a quote from a less well-known psychologist that you encountered through your wider reading.
You should also think about whether the person you are quoting is appropriate or not. ‘Avoid inspirational quotes from Drake or Kanye West, for example,’ says Emma. Similarly, it might not be wise to quote a reality TV star from The Only Way is Essex or Made in Chelsea.
Finally, steer clear of generic inspirational quotes about chasing your dreams, overcoming obstacles and the power of education. This can sound wishy washy or even a little bit pretentious and it doesn’t tell the admissions tutor anything about you or why you’re interested in the course.
Not sure how to begin your personal statement? Consider writing your opening sentence last
Just because your opening sentence is the first thing the admissions tutors will read, that doesn’t mean it needs to be the first section of your personal statement that you write. It can be tricky to decide how you want to begin your statement so, if you’re stuck on what to write, consider taking a break from it and focusing on other sections of your personal statement.
It might seem unusual but you might even find it easier to make your opening sentence the last thing you write. This will help you think about what the rest of your statement goes on to say and, therefore, how you can best introduce it.
Remember that the opening sentence is only a small part of the 4,000 characters that make up your personal statement. What you go on to write next is far more important to admissions tutors so don’t focus too much time and effort on just the opening sentence.
For help on what to write next, read our article on what to include in your UCAS personal statement. You can also use our course search to find the courses you want to apply to.
Selling yourself in under 4,000 characters to an academic you've never met is pretty daunting even for the most confident sixth-form student. So we've put together some dos and don'ts to make sure you show yourself in the best possible light.
Here are eight don'ts
• Don't spend ages trying to come up with a perfect, snappy first line – write anything and return to it later.
• Don't use cliches. According to the Ucas Guide to Getting into University and College, the most overused opening sentences this year were variations of "from a young age I have always been interested in…" This looks formulaic and is a waste of characters.
• Famous quotes should be avoided, as these will be found in countless other applications. For instance, this line by Coco Chanel was found in 189 applications for fashion courses this year: "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only."
• Don't list your interests, demonstrate them. Professor Alan Gange, head of the department of biological sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London, says: "Actually doing something, for example joining a national society or volunteering for a conservation organisation, tells me that students have a passion."
• Style matters. Don't be chatty and use slang, but on the other hand, don't be pretentious. Cathy Gilbert, director of customer strategy at Ucas, says: "If you try too hard to impress with long words that you are not confident using, the focus of your writing may be lost."
• Don't ask too many people for advice. Input from teachers is helpful, but it is important that the student's personality comes across.
Nicole Frith, 19, who has just started a BSc in Geography at the University of Durham, asked two teachers for advice on content. "I would seriously advise against asking teacher after teacher," she said. "There is no such thing as a perfect personal statement, and everyone has different opinions." Most admissions offices are happy to give general advice, and the Ucas website has video guides on how to plan and write your statement.
• Don't be tempted to let someone else write your personal statement for you. A recent news report says sixth-formers are paying up to £350 on the internet for personal statements written by university students. Ucas, which uses fraud detection software to identify cheating, warns of "serious consequences".
• Dont' skimp on paragraphs, despite their negative impact on line count. You want your statement to be readable.
And eight dos
• Organisation is the key. Caroline Apsey, 19, who started a medical degree at the University of Leeds this term, says: "Before I started writing, I made bullet points of everything I wanted to include, and ordered them from most important to least."
• Leave yourself plenty of time for editing. "Start writing early, so that you have lots of time to re-read it with fresh eyes," Caroline says. Then edit and edit and edit again.
• Be specific. Lee Hennessy, deputy head of admissions and recruitment at the University of Bath, says: "Don't just say, you're interested in a subject because it's interesting. Ask yourself, what it is, specifically, about the subject that interests you?"
Lee Marsden, associate dean of admissions for the faculty of arts and humanities at the University of East Anglia, agrees: "We want to know what excites the student: perhaps a book they have read or a play they have seen. There needs to be a hook."
• Show you are up to date with developments in your subject: perhaps you could analyse a recent journal article or news event.
"You need to tune in to what's current in your subject," says Louise Booth, assistant director of sixth form at Fulford school in York. "For example, if you're a politics candidate: have you been to see the prime minister or your local MP speak?"
• Around 80% of your statement should be dedicated to your studies and work experience, and 20% to extra-curricular activities. Hobbies are valuable, but must be used to reveal something relevant about the applicant.
"A simple 'I have done' list is not useful," says Helen Diffenthal, assistant principal for advice and guidance at the Sixth Form College, Farnborough. "Saying that you were captain of the cricket team doesn't make any difference unless you use it to show that you can manage your time effectively."
• Be original but treat humour with caution – jokes can fall flat.
"Original is excellent," says Gange. "I once saw a statement written in the style of a tabloid journalism article. It was factual and entertaining; the student gained a place here and got a first."
"We let through quirky statements if the student is quirky," says Booth. "Don't try to be funny if that's not you – it won't work."
• Correct spelling and grammar is vital, so use the spell-check on your computer and get other people, such as teachers, to proofread your statement.
• In the end, honesty is the best policy. Tell the admissions tutor, in your own words, why you deserve a place. "Just be yourself," says Nicole. "That worked for me."