Most people realise that they have to show some passion for their subject in an application for further study. What they don’t always realise is how specific you have to be with your reasons for wanting to study a particular course at a particular institution. Though universities can be quite vague in their instructions when requesting a personal statement, there are actually some specific things that universities really want to see included here.
If you are applying to do a PhD or to be part of an existing research project, then it is easier to be clear – this becomes almost like a project proposal or a job application as you can give the parameters of the project and prove that you have the skills to carry it out effectively.
If you are applying for a taught masters then the principle is actually very similar – they still want to know what you want to study and that you have the skills and preparation to be able to carry out the course successfully. While you might not have decided yet which optional modules you will take, what you would like to do a dissertation on, or whether you would like to go on to further study, it’s still a good idea to give an indication of your interests at this point. What in your subject has fascinated you and why? What questions do you still have that you would like to explore? What would studying certain modules give you in terms of knowledge and skills, and how might you go on to apply these in your career? Be specific – academics in your subject will read your personal statement, so use the technical terminology you have learnt on your course, refer to existing theories and the academics who are working in this area, and reflect on what you think your contribution to the field could be in the future.
Proving that you have had the right preparation for the course is very important – more than anything the university will want to be sure that they are not wasting the place on someone who will drop out halfway through. They need to know that you have the intellectual preparation in terms of having studied the necessary subjects, concepts, and theories. They also need to know that you have been successful in this prior study, so do tell them about any outstanding grades or pieces of work, as well as your overall average.
What many people forget to include in terms of their preparation for the course, is their study skills. Studying a masters will be slightly different from your undergraduate experience and you need to convince the university that you have the skills that will enable you to meet the challenges of studying at a higher level. On your course you will have developed skills that enable you to work unsupervised, to carry out and direct your own research, to evaluate different arguments and come to conclusions, and to deal with a large amount of information/data – among others. Outline these, with evidence, and explain how they will help you succeed in the course.
Finally, don’t forget to tell them why it is that you want to study at their university. What’s different or innovative about their course or teaching methods? Do your research – what is it that they are proud of that you also find attractive? Also, are there current projects or academics at the university that you find interesting or inspiring? Apart from convincing them that you have done your research, details like these help persuade institutions that you are passionate about your subject, and a serious prospect for the future.