Personal Statements for Admission & Scholarships
What is a personal statement?
A personal statement is a document some universities use to evaluate an applicant’s suitability for admission. Sometimes the personal statement is used only for admission, and sometimes it’s also used to assess the applicant for scholarships (so the purpose can be two-fold).
Some personal statements (sometimes also referred to as personal profiles or other names) are required for admission and some are optional. For example, the Personal Profile is required for admission to all UBC programs, but the Queen’s Personal Statement of Experience is optional for most programs (although required for some Queen’s programs).
Admissions personal statements are common in the US. Although they are much less common in Canada, more Canadian universities are starting to use personal statements in their admission and scholarship processes, and I predict this trend towards more "holistic" admissions will continue to grow.
Why use a personal statement?
The rationale behind using the personal statement varies, but basically it provides another way for universities to evaluate the suitability of the applicant, beyond academics. It is used quite often at universities where admission is more competitive, as a way to differentiate well-qualified applicants.
For example, in programs like Queen’s Commerce and McMaster Health Sciences, most of the applicants have averages at 90% or above, so the personal statement provides another evaluation method to select the most qualified students. Some programs, like Waterloo Engineering and UBC Commerce have also added a video interview (in addition to the personal statement) as an another method of evaluation.
What are they looking for in a personal statement?
The kind of information that’s important for personal statements varies according to the statement.
More general ones, like the Queen’s PSE basically just ask the applicant for a list of their activities and to discuss their greatest learning experience outside of academics.
But for personal statements in supplemental applications for highly competitive programs, such as Queen’s QuARMS or UBC Commerce, the applicant must demonstrate more specifically their skills and personal qualities, and how they align with that particular program.
Generally speaking, though, what most personal statements have in common is they are looking for students to demonstrate self-knowledge, and to align their interests, skills, and personal qualities to the program or university in some way. They often ask students about what they have learned through their academic and non-academic experiences. It’s vital that students have done some self-reflection before they write the statement so they can communicate their best learning experiences (this is part of what I help students with).
Personal statements are also used to gauge the student’s community involvement and ability to manage time. If the student has been quite involved with their community, for example through volunteer activities, and they have still maintained a 90% average, it demonstrates they can balance academics and extra-curricular activities. Also, a history of involvement in high school increases the likelihood of continued involvement in university. That’s exactly what the university is looking for – a solid student who will become a part of the campus community and make contributions to it. They are not as interested in students who only leave their dorm room to go to class.
UBC provides the best description of what the personal profile is, and tips for how to complete it. Watch the video on the UBC Personal Profile page. Although the information is specific for UBC’s personal profile, it’s general enough to describe how to complete most personal profiles.