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Friday 25th January 2013

I’ll confine my comments regarding UCAS statements to making applications to medical school as this is what I see most of - but many of my comments will apply equally to other subjects.

The most obvious thing that has come from 23 years of helping students with UCAS statements is that they have a tendency to make their most powerful point in the SECOND paragraph when it should be in the first! I suspect that this derives from the antediluvian insistence of many school teachers in still peddling the received wisdom that a ‘good essay’ should have an Introduction, a Body and a Conclusion. As a result I see many laboured, pointless ‘introductions’ and ‘conclusions’ that add nothing to the essay (or statement) except word count. I prefer the military approach of ‘saying what you’ve got to say and then shut up’ - and so will most selectors who have to plough through a hundred wearisome statements before lunch. If the statement starts and ends a bit abruptly - well, so does most of life!

The simplest way of fixing this problem is usually to move the second paragraph (with modifications) to be the first - or often just chopping out the first paragraph altogether!

The other biggest defect that I find in UCAS statements is that most students are shy about putting ALL of their achievements on them. How often have I sat down, read a statement and then pulled out a blank piece of paper and asked the student to list EVERYTHING they have done - only to find that they have modestly omitted being a school prefect, having grade 8 on piano and being a county netball or rugby player? So before you start get a piece of paper, write EVERYTHING down (yes, being Chairman of your debating team is something that selectors will want to know about) and make sure that it is ALL in the final statement.

The other point to bear in mind is that anyone can say “I will be a brilliant medic” so statements about how wonderful you are and how effortlessly you will take to the profession of medicine are just so much hot air. Your statement has to be EVIDENCE-BASED at all times, so rather than saying “I am an effective team player and born leader” it is better to say “I believe that I am a good team player and effective leader, as shown by my being the Captain of the school 1st XV rugby team”.

The attributes that the selectors are looking for in potential medics have already been listed in a previous log. But in recap they are: 1) Academic ability; 2) Ability to work in a team; 3) Leadership; 4) Stamina; 5) Ability to empathise with people; 6) Ability to communicate clearly; 7) Knowledge of what you are getting into, and 8) Ability to relax! Provide hard EVIDENCE for your possessing each one of these attributes from your life to date if you can and you will be well on your way towards making a successful statement. Sports, music, drama and other ‘group’ activities always go down well as evidence of ability to work in a team and to empathise with others. Prolonged dedication to a particular sport or hobby wil suggest that you have both stamina and the ability to relax. It may not seem like it but everything that you have done in life to date will be of interest to the selectors and if you don’t write it down they are not mind readers!

Academic ability may seem to be self-evident from your GCSE and AS-level performance to date, but it does no harm to mention any ‘extras’ that you have done such as school projects, conferences, lectures or even books that you have read about the subject. Mentioning areas of your chosen field that you have read about and have an interest in is good, but do be prepared to talk knowledgeably about them in an interview (ie do your background research!) and try not to lecture the reader - I personally dislike it when students try to tell me that genetic engineering (for example) is THE future of medicine. Everybody likes a bit of modesty so without hiding your accomplishments try to suggest things rather than state them. The phrase ‘I believe that ’ generally serves better than ‘it is obvious that...’, for example.

A few words and phrases grate on me personally and, I suspect, on the medical school selectors and should be avoided. For example, if I have to read the word ‘aspire’ one more time in a UCAS statement I may well go nuts! People do not generally ‘aspire’ to becoming something - they ‘want’ to do something. If you feel a high-fallutin word or phrase coming on on that you wouldn’t use in real life then chop it out and replace it with a good old, common English one.

It is essential that you get your statement checked over for basic errors of grammar, syntax and punctuation by someone who knows what they are doing. Spell-checkers are only as good as the person using them, so do not rely on them. A bady-written statement shoots you in the foot immediately with regard to ‘communication skills’.

If you get the statement checked-over for content make sure that it is by someone with experience of such things (teacher or tutor or educated parent) but do not get it checked by more than three people or you will start to get different opinions and become very confused. If you do not like the corrections offered by an experienced person then see what somebody else has to say about it - but do remember that this is YOUR statement and not theirs. If your statement appears naive or foolish to an experienced adult then do remind them that you are being judged by the standards of your fellow 18-year-olds and perfection is not expected.

Do put yourself in the position of the poor old reader, who will almost certainly also be your interviewer. Although professional interviewing techniques (with clearly scored ‘criteria’ that have to be met, if only to provide legal evidence on which to base a rejection) are becoming more common, it is still not a task that is generally enjoyed by most academics. If you had to interview a dozen people before lunch who would you be most interested in? I suspect that somebody who put something interesting in their statement like “I collect 18th century French doilies” might provide a bit of welcome relief - and evidence of individual personality - to a selector bored out of their skull talking about ethical problems in medicine all day. On the other hand it may be ignored completely by the interviewer if they have a set series of boxes to tick to keep the administrators happy. Such is life.

Sadly there are as many different styles of interviews as there are interviewers. The whole process of how to deal with interviews is another topic best left to another blog, but bear in mind that ALL they know about you is what is in the application and statement and they are probably bored out of their skull at having to talk to a succession of no-hopers all day long. Throw them a bone of interest in the statement without appearing too eccentric and you may be onto a winner. But if you do so, make sure that you know something about the topic and can talk about it knowledgeably.

For medicine (and related fields) in particular it is vital that you talk about your personal experiences of this field to date. The selectors will want to know from this that you are aware of exactly what you are letting yourself in for. I would suggest that this forms the first paragraph of your statement as you can weave into this exactly how the experience has made you determined to become a medic/vet/dentist and also give the interviewer some material around which to base any questions.

For medicine UCAS statements it became the vogue a few years ago to talk in the first paragraph about how a formative incident in your childhood set you on the path to becoming a medic. This usually revolved around falling out of a tree aged four, breaking both arms and loving the brightly-coloured plaster casts they put on you in hospital. Unfortunately a whole load of ‘templates’ for these opening paragraphs got onto the web and many less-able candidates simply copied them into their own statements. Nowadays we have anti-plagiarism software and all of these applications were simply binned immediately - and very probably ‘blacklisted’ for future applications as plagiarists. Personally I would avoid childhood stories altogether nowadays.

A good opening sentiment might be to say something like “I was fortunate in being able to work for X weeks in Y hospital last summer doing Z, and the experience really reinforced my desire to go into medicine...”. It is factual, arresting and the details of X, Y and Z will give the interviewer some ‘meat’ on which to grill you further. However, do bear in mind that anti-plagiarism software will have picked up this blog and so make sure that the exact way in which you express such a sentiment varies from this!

Do be aware that medicine is a team occupation involving many different specialities (Doctors, Nurses, Care Assistants, Physiotherapists and so forth) and that you therefore need to make it clear at an early stage in your statement that you are applying for the correct role. The old chestnut “I want to be a doctor to help people” has (I hope) run its course now as it does beg the obvious question “so why not be a nurse then?”. You have to show that you realise the unique nature of the Doctor’s role, which may be best summarised in the key word ‘Diagnosis’. Only the Doctor may diagnose (with all of the associated requirements of intellectual skills and academic ability) and all others work at their direction. Hence the need for evidence of leadership in your statement.

I hope to be able to put some anonymous examples of good and bad personal statements up on the web soon so that others can learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. But I have to request copyright from their authors first so this may take some time! In the meantime I hope that these ideas will help you to formulate your thoughts more clearly. The first draft of the statement will almost certainly go over the character limit required by UCAS but if you have EVERYTHING in there presented in the RIGHT ORDER (the most arresting statement first followed by a long list of EVIDENCE of concrete achievement) you can then work on pruning it down to the character limit by slicing away unnecessary words and phrases.

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