Perfecting the personal statement | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 26, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 26, 2019

Perfecting the personal statement

Your stepping stone to the university of your choice

Making the decision to study abroad for tertiary education and going through the actual application process can be very stressful for Bangladeshi students. The personal statement or the essay that they have to write for admissions purposes is one of the most important elements of this process where many university admissions officers in countries like the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and Japan use it to make their final decision for the shortlisted candidates. This is why MACES, a leading study abroad consultancy firm in Bangladesh realises the importance of getting students to practice writing such statements as it launched its upcoming 4th Annual Personal Statement Writing Competition 2019. Last year, eleven A-level schools from Dhaka and Chattogram participated in the event including DPS STS, Maple Leaf International, and Presidency International with registrations exceeding five hundred. 

In order to help students prepare for the competition, MACES has invited Mr. George Casley, Academic Director of CATS Education, Cambridge, UK, to conduct workshops on personal statement writing. Educated at Dulwhich College, Bristol, Kings, and Oxford, George has had an illustrious career spanning thirty years that involves teaching and advising students on higher education, as well as training teachers on relevant spheres. He is an advocate of transnational education who believes that individuals are “better together” and that recognising similarities and cherishing differences result in communities thriving.  After successfully leading schools in the UK and being a university academic, George joined CATS to develop staff and give higher education advice. As the academic director of CATS Education, he regularly visits all the CATS schools and works with senior staff to ensure that the CATS students can be their best selves by progressing to their preferred universities.

We sat for an exclusive interview with Mr. George Casley, where he talks about the importance of the personal statement in the application process for the UK and US, as well as shares insight on how students should go about deciding what to study and where.

What role does the personal statement play in applying to top universities?

In the UK, the personal statement is a key part of the UCAS application for most top universities. Departments and colleges of universities use them differently and students receiving expert advice in UK schools can tailor their statements appropriately. Even in the US, it is of vital importance and is one of the many more pieces of writings that universities often collect from prospective students.

Do personal statements help in obtaining scholarships?

In the UK, scholarships are rare. However, in the US, the personal statement can influence the awarding of scholarships.

What advice would you give to students looking to study in top universities?

Top UK universities are most interested in how you think and learn in your subject area. Therefore, to prepare for your applications, first and foremost, read around your subject. Start with the ‘Very short introductions series’ from the Oxford University Press Website. Use the excellent bibliographies you can find there to deepen your questioning of topics that interest you.

Secondly, question ideas and assumptions and come to reasoned conclusions. Talk with your friends about your subject – ask them to challenge your thinking.

Finally, look at the course outlines and apply for courses (not universities) that inspire you.

Top US universities are also interested in you as a whole person and your leadership, interpersonal and emotional skills, alongside the contribution you can make to their community. Therefore, to prepare your application, beyond having an outstanding academic record and being well-versed in all the tests and reading, you need to additionally have demonstrated and developed leadership skills; participated in, and learnt from volunteering; learnt from experiences and reading outside your subject area.

How do you think this competition can help students?

This competition creates a desirable difficulty. Writing a personal statement worthy of winning will be a challenge that encourages thought, analysis, and creativity. By entering into this competition, students are taking a risk- a risk that in being questioned about their ideas they will think differently; a risk that in exploring and making links between their ideas and motivations they will change their minds and courses of action; a risk that they will win and gain new opportunities.

How do students in the UK prepare for their university application?

Preparation is different in different schools. At CATS UK schools, we advise students to start looking at course outlines as early as possible. Once you know what you want to study, you should choose universities that suit your learning preferences and abilities. Having read vociferously around their subject, a good student will probably discuss about ten drafts of their personal statement with their adviser. It is a tough process to go through; encouragement and pastoral care are important. In US schools, it is even tougher as students make applications to individual universities (rather than applying to all five through one form in the UK). Many US universities also ask for essays, personal reflections, and many other pieces of evidence of academic and personal growth. Preparation has to start years in advance.

When is the time to begin preparation for writing the personal statement?

The right time is the moment the student knows the course that they wish to apply for. Students who have been well prepared at CATS usually start drafting them in the June before they apply in October.

What are some common do’s and don’ts that students need to know when writing their personal statements?

This differs for the UK and US. For the UK, make sure to argue, analyse reading and demonstrate your abilities, while avoiding descriptions and flattery. For US, follow the instructions for each university and demonstrate your values and concerns, while not being too humble.

What are you looking to achieve by conducting these workshops in Bangladesh?

I hope to help people to think, analyse and question more. As a teacher, I look forward to enabling people to be creative, imaginative and argumentative. However, learning is a lifelong process and I am here to learn too. A good teacher should always learn more than they teach in the classroom, so I hope that I will go home having been inspired, challenged, and informed by every person that I meet.

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