How to write a personal ucas statement for history
History is the tenth most popular subject to study at degree level in the UK, and with many universities forgoing candidate interviews, your personal statement is the most important way to make yourself stand out. The competition is fierce (the top universities require grades of A*AA), and a muddled or mediocre statement will harm your application.
So how can would-be historians impress application tutors? Dr Elizabeth Tingle, of Plymouth University, wants the statement to reflect the candidate who wrote it. She says: “When we talk about originality inpersonal statements, we really mean individuality.”
Southampton University’s Dr McHugh agrees that many applications are “too generic and vague. We want to get a sense of who you are as an individual, and what kind of student you would be.”
This individuality should not be achieved through wild or outrageous methods; your statement doesn’t need to be written in old English, or abstractly represent the consciousness of Thomas Cromwell. If you do something outrageously different, there’s probably a reason why no one’s done it before.
Instead, a personal statement should show something of you as a person, and convey your own unique engagement with history. Dr Ryrie, historian of religion at Durham says:
“The kind of personal statement that warms an admissions tutor’s heart is the kind which is honest: which describes, in genuinely personal terms, quite why the student loves the subject, and conveys something of their passion for it”.
‘Passion’, however, is a controversial word. UCL’s Dr Jason Peacey complained that “it gets a bit tiring reading hundreds of forms where the student proclaims that they have a ‘passion’ for history”.
Dr Ansari, head of history at Royal Holloway, agrees, and wants “genuine expressions of interest in history, but not in terms of ‘I am passionate about…’. Simply wanting something strongly is not enough”.
You need to convince admissions tutors that you have the intelligence and academic ability needed to successfully undertake a degree in the subject.
Dr Peacey says: “Students don’t always do enough to explain what it is about history that interests them, why this interest can only be met by undertaking more study at a higher level, and what should make me think that they have the potential and ability to study at this level”.
The same sentiments are also mentioned by Dr McGladdery, admissions officer at St Andrews. “Studying and writing about what happened in the past has little purpose if students cannot develop the skill of critical evaluation. Historiographical awareness is very important, as is the ability to present an opinion supported with evidence and cogent analysis.”
Students who show that they have considered the subject in relation to other academic avenues are likely to impress. As Dr Gadja, of Oxford university, says:
“Historians like to take insight from a huge range of perspectives, so we are always delighted when students can demonstrate how their interest and ability at foreign languages, philosophy, or political thought, literature, and so on, might intersect with their historical interests, and be of use in their development as historians”.
A clear, competent analysis of the ways in which your different subjects interact, and how this has aided your ability as a history student, can be a valuable inclusion in your personal statement.
Dr Gadja says that it is important to mention extra-curriculur interests. For Gadja, an interest in visiting museums, going to public lectures, and anything that shows an interest in history beyond the demands of one’s A-level course, would be relevant.
If you have had any relevant work experience, do mention it, but it must have had a definite impact on your approach to thinking about history. If you haven’t managed to gain experience in a historical field, though, don’t worry too much.
Gadja says: “we certainly don’t look for relevant work experience when making decisions – most applicants will not have had the fortunate opportunity to work in jobs relating to the heritage industry or similar, and that doesn’t put them at a disadvantage at all”.
Mention of non-academic areas in which you are wonderfully talented should be limited to a couple of sentences at most, and should always be linked back to the ways in which they have contributed to your academic or personal development; such as by improving time-management, or organisational skills.
Dr Simon Smith, of Oxford University, say: “Unlike some US universities or colleges, UK universities are not seeking to admit quotas of musicians, sports people, or thespians.”
It is important to write the statement in clear, concise prose, avoiding the use of formulaic words or phrases. Dr Peacey says:
“If I had a pound for every time I had been told that history is important because, as George Santayana said, those who fail to understand the mistakes of the past will merely repeat them… then I would be a rich man indeed.”
Try and avoid stilted references to the “eternal value” and “enduring fascination” of the past. Far more impressive is to explain and analyse what it is that makes you so interested in history, and specific areas in particular.
Above all, you should engage with the concepts that you are discussing, rather than just stating them. As Dr Ryrie says:
“Make us feel that you are a person of vision and imagination, for whom your outstanding A-level performance is just the beginning.”
Avoid anything bland or dull, and make the personal statement a reflection of your individual talents and interests. You want your statement to be different and engaging, otherwise it will slip through admissions tutors’ fingers without leaving a mark.