11 The first paragraph

Ever since I was a child I’ve always wanted to write a book about UCAS personal statements.

My grandfather wrote a book about UCAS personal statements and that sparked my first interest in them.

If those two ghastly paragraphs sound like your first paragraph, delete it. Every UCAS personal statement I’ve ever read seems to start with one of those. They’re unoriginal, and the first one is probably a lie.

There are two ways to write a seductive opening paragraph. One of them is much harder than the other.

The hard way is to be brilliant and original. One of the best opening paragraphs I’ve ever seen was for someone applying to read Biology. It began

I don’t believe in the theory of evolution.

What?! You’re applying to read Biology and you don’t believe in evolution? Are you insane?

As an admissions tutor, you must read on. You have to find out what’s wrong with this kid.

Or so the teachers at the junior high school in the USA that I attended would have me say.

Ah. Bait and switch. He’s not serious. But he has a bit of an edge. And an interesting background.

A start like that draws the reader in. Well, it drew in the admissions tutor at the University of Manchester. The student was offered a place. He graduated last year. And he’s now a model. (Not all of my students become models. Some become billionaires. You’ll read about that later in Chapter 17.)

It’s very hard to come up with something original, let alone something brilliant. But, as I said, there is also a second way to seduce admissions tutors: tell the truth and be sincere.

What is the actual reason you’re applying to university to study this course? Suppose you meet up with an old friend you haven’t seen for a couple of years and she asks you

So why are you applying to read Law at uni?

What would you really say? Why are you applying to read Law at uni? Surely you know. There must be a reason.

I actually did apply to read Law at uni. Indeed, I got into Cambridge to read Law so my personal statement can’t have been that bad. I started by talking about a television programme I used to love called Crown Court. It was a drama set in a criminal court. (It was replaced by Neighbours in the 1980s.) I thought the barristers were brilliant. I loved the whole wigs-and-gowns thing. I loved their clever arguments. I wanted to be one. And so I looked into it. I read about the stages involved in becoming a barrister. (I loved the fact that one of them involves eating dinners while being challenged to answer ridiculous questions.) I visited my local real-life Crown Court and talked to a judge. (He asked me what I would do if I was representing someone and they admitted to me that they were guilty. I was fascinated and surprised by his answer.) I went on a school trip to Gray’s Inn, one of the four places in London where barristers train and actually joined one of the dinners with the ridiculous challenges. I did a week’s work experience at a barristers’ chambers, which included attending court and making notes. I read Learning the Law by Glanville Williams. The more I researched, the more certain I became that this was what I wanted to do.

And that’s the truth. And it’s what I wrote, more or less, when I applied to Cambridge. It’s not a particularly clever approach. But it’s honest. And it worked. It ticks the boxes I mentioned in the previous chapter.

You may be thinking “but I haven’t done all those things!” Well, why not? You’re saying you want to commit to three years study and tens of thousands of pounds of debt. Shouldn’t you have done all those things? I once had a student who was applying to university to read Physics. In her personal statement she said she’d always want to go to CERN on the French/Swiss border, home of the Large Hadron Collider and Professor Brian Cox off the telly. I asked her why she hadn’t already been. “Book a flight,” I said. “Get on a bus at Geneva airport. And go there. Then write about it in your personal statement.” So she did. And she got into her first choice university to read Physics.

(And now you’re thinking you couldn’t afford to do that. Get a job at Asda. Work there for six months to pay for it. Now you’re ticking two boxes on your personal statement.)

After the first paragraph comes the second. And then the third.

NEXT: 12 The rest of your personal statement