Education Quandary

'How can I sell myself to universities when I'm just an ordinary student?'
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'I don't have anything to put in my UCAS personal statement. How can you sell yourself to universities when you are just an ordinary student?'

'I don't have anything to put in my UCAS personal statement. How can you sell yourself to universities when you are just an ordinary student?'

Hilary's advice

Presumably by this you mean you haven't got grade-eight cello, been on a school trip to the Amazon rainforest, won your Duke of Edinburgh's gold award and played county-level sport? Well, take heart. Neither have most of the students applying to university this year.

And university admissions officers claim they aren't even particularly interested in those sorts of accomplishments. What they are looking for, they say, are people with a genuine interest in the subject they are applying to study, who look as if they will be interesting to teach, will be able to make a contribution in seminars, and likely do well in exams.

So put yourself over as someone with a deep commitment to what you want to study, explaining why you have decided to take this subject, and offering some evidence of an interest which goes beyond simply studying it at school. Outline the areas of your chosen subject that most interest you. And if you have any sort of long-term ambition, however vague, mention this.

When it comes to explaining about yourself, don't only list school-linked accomplishments. If you spend the weekends DJ-ing, helping your mum with her catering business, or stripping down motorbike engines, put that in, too. Think hard about everything you do in your life. Do you have computer skills? Have you ever worked as part of a team? Or led any sort of project, however small? All this is grist for the mill. And when it comes to writing it down, do it clearly and enthusiastically, selling yourself hard, but without going too far and sounding phoney and insincere.

Readers' advice

I had the same dilemma, but it is possible to make an average student a unique student if you break your personal statement into a few key paragraphs. Firstly, universities want to know why you are interested in the course, so do your research and find out reasons. For instance, if you're applying for economics, tell them that you are intrigued by the interplay between macro and micro economics and how factors in both can influence consumer behaviour.

Secondly, tell the universities about the current courses you are studying, why you're studying them and what aspect you enjoy - for example, you're studying drama and enjoy the teamwork and self-evaluation involved.

Thirdly, include any other achievements which make you seem a cut above the rest. Finally, include your hobbies so your admission tutors know they are getting a well-rounded person who will take part in the social side of university.
Nazmin Yeahia, London, E6

Firstly, are you uncertain about your subject choice? If so, you can't and shouldn't make a serious attempt at your personal statement. See an adviser or use a career-choice computer program.

If the problem is truly what to write, then consider the main question in admission tutors' minds: why do you want to study this subject? Approach this from angles such as what led you to think about the subject? What topics in the degree most interest you and what type of career have you envisaged for yourself afterwards? Don't say "I think I can make the world a better place"; be specific. Always try to find an interesting angle when dealing with a topic, although do get your tutor to vet it for ultra wayoutness!
Cole Davis (, London NW2

Our school gave us a form where we could list things under different headings, like hobbies, jobs we'd held, trips we'd been on, things we'd done at school, and it was surprising how much there was to put down. Once you start, you might find your main problem is how to get it all in.
Jason Astley, Cheshire

Next week's quandary

What, exactly, is a Montessori school and why are they supposed to be so great? My elder child will be coming up to nursery age soon. There are some good nursery classes near us, but loads of the parents I know seem to be fighting to get their children into a Montessori school.

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 13 September, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser