How to help students with university personal statements

Annie Manning

Annie Manning is a qualified NLP Life Skills Coach and Counsellor including; spiritual healing, bereavement and cognitive behaviour therapies. Annie fully values the importance of a student’s wellbeing, positive intervention and uses these additional communication skills to help coach tutors, parents and students. She runs a blog with tips on mindfulness, avoiding exam stress and promoting support charities in mental health, bereavement and anti-bullying.

She is an experienced freelance report writer, marketing and quality consultant working within Commercial and IT markets, Health, Education and NFP Sectors. Her quality projects have included speaking with schools, universities and researching protocol and purchasing patterns within the LEA nationally. As a marketing manager within IT she dealt with, schools and IDPE members on a daily basis for many years.

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Teachers, parents and students alike have some apprehension and comments for debate on this vital document, which may be one of the first yet most important written pieces our children will have to produce. Schools and students nowadays have access to mountains of excellent advice and guidelines. Some of which is spot on for the majority of courses a student may wish to take.

"We are dealing with young adults at time when their life is changing radically, and exam pressure is just one of many stress factors they are facing"

Be warned, it’s not a one size fits all, and university requirements will vary greatly even for a similar course.

I know from a close associate, who is a tutor of psychology, that the whole process is very stressful for students and can even distract them from their studies. What we all have to try to remember is that we are dealing with young adults at a time when their life is changing radically and exam pressure is just one of many stress factors they are facing. Anything we can do in support of keeping an eye on their emotional-wellbeing helps eliminate unnecessary panics.

Speaking as a parent representative who works closely with heads, private tutors and teachers and talks to parents and students alike; to a certain extent the personal statement is taken out of parents’ control and placed in the safe hands of teachers. Understandably we must not write this personal document for the students. I am certain most schools have the right staff member facilitating and helping with the process.

However, I will raise a flag of caution based on personal experience. Students and teachers focus a lot of their guidance based on what the UCAS online system records for each university. There are grey areas, in that not all universities have their most up-to-date requirements on this system.

So please, please right up to the last minute ensure your students are cross-referencing with the latest information which appears on the university’s dedicated website pages for the specific course to which they are applying. Sounds obvious, I know!

It is a difficult task to cram in all the relevant information with the limit on characters, especially without a facility to send any attachments to substantiate your child’s achievements. It is a compromise, but even with a tight word limit with careful re-editing and planning the crucial information can, and indeed must be included.

Please encourage students to check and recheck that they have included the correct information. While the teachers aspire to do an excellent job in assisting students, they are not experts in every given field, nor should parents expect them to be (but they do). Personal statements are one of many additional duties teachers inherit, and it’s a huge responsibility.
Keep in mind, information you may feel is irrelevant for some courses may be the difference between receiving an offer or a refusal if omitted for others.

Example: An application rejection was down to a student not including vital dates and lengths of work experience, even though generically the criteria had been met within the body of the personal statement. The student had also followed precise advice from the head of the course concerned during a university open day visit prior to submitting the personal statement (a fact pointed out to the university concerned).

Fortunately, the University were not only approachable and helpful when contacted; they were really reasonable, reconsidering their decision when contacted after the parent had highlighted the grey area…. for want of a better description. The student, after a fair exchange of ideals, was given the opportunity to email the ‘missing information’ and later called in for an interview.

I know a lot of my readers, and some teachers will be cringing and saying ‘Parents are not supposed to contact the universities’. If it is the difference between a student securing his/her place then go for it; indeed, teachers have been impressed by this initiative…when it works. I know there is a bit of frustration among parents, as the document is in school and out of view of their peering parental eyes.

Speaking as a quality consultant, the universities also need to be aware of any anomalies, as they may well be missing the opportunity of considering and seeing a brilliant candidate and handled positively they welcome feedback. I have to say I have been really impressed with admin staff, lecturers and tutors, with whom I engaged during university open days and the process thus far has been impressive.

The high volume of applications that universities have to look at it means the selection process cannot be an easy task, and this sadly means that they have to be ruthless to a certain degree, and their criteria requirements must be strictly met. Occasionally mistakes may be made, and it's worth challenging if you are unhappy with the decision.

However, I am certain teachers will agree that students have to face a university rejection, and it is just part and parcel of life’s rich tapestry. It is how we move forward and reconsider our options (and if necessary, lowers our expectations) that starts to form our character - a lesson that we all enforce onto these young individuals.

Be proactive in encouraging your students to ‘think public’, as it certainly pays off with year houses. As a great believer in encouraging a child’s social skills from an early age, the process of their personal statement certainly confirms the need for these to be as important as their work experience and academic qualifications. For example, volunteering and working within their community and with local charities demonstrates initiative and responsible strengths within their character and all enhance their life’s CV.

How do you deal with personal statements? Let us know in the comments.

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