Personal Statements: Three Approaches, One Goal

Clock at Dickinson University


A personal statement is an essay written by a student and used for admissions purposes. For many years, they have been an important part of admission application processes in the United Kingdom and United States. More recently personal statements have gained traction in the Canadian process as well.

For many, the personal statement is the most difficult element of the university application process. Essays require a lot of self-assessment and reflection. And to complicate matters, requirements and guidelines vary by country, making it difficult to re-purpose a personal statements across countries. In the Canadian setting, where essays are not submitted through a centralized application, the themes and requirements can vary from university to university.

The following is an overview of the personal statement requirements by country.


In the United Kingdom, the application is centralized. Applicants submit their applications, including a personal statement through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

Those interested in studying in the United States typically submit applications, along with a personal statement and supplemental responses, via Common Application (CA), Coalition Application (CCA), and/or Universal College Application (UCA).

Applications to Canadian universities may either be submitted directly to universities or through a provincial application. Three provinces have centralized applications, these are: Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. Unlike in the US and UK, personal statements are submitted via student portals administered by individual universities.


Admissions officers across Canada, United States and United Kingdom use personal statements for the same purpose: to gather insight on the student not reflected in other parts of the application.


Personal statements written for UCAS must not exceed 4,000 characters in 47 lines; that’s approximately 500 words. The Common and Universal applications permit a maximum of 650 words while the Coalition Application recommends between 500 and 550 words. Personal statements for Canadian university are generally between 300 and 700 words.


Students applying to British universities are not prompted to write on a specific topic; however, they are expected to address why they are applying to their chosen subject and why they are qualified to do so.

The American applications use prompts to encourage students to write on specific themes of a personal nature. Recently the CA and CCA applications have also included the option to submit an essay on a topic of the student’s choice.

Canadian applicants can expect a combination of the British and American approaches: an interest in academic motivation as well as personal qualities. Typical, eh?


Students using UCAS submit a single personal statement to apply to a maximum of five courses/programs. In other words, you can apply for five courses/programs at one university or a different course at five different universities. As a result, students must avoid mentioning specific universities and should write about themes common across subjects of interest.

Applicants using the CA, CCA and UCA submit the same personal statement to different universities. In these cases, the prompts lead students to discuss personal qualities rather than to discuss academic interests as is the case with the UCAS. As a result, American universities interested in learning more about a student’s academic motivation will require students to respond to supplemental questions.

As was noted earlier, applicants to Canadian universities submit personal statements directly to their preferred university. The main challenge is that the prompts are never the same. However, depending on the program, you may find some common themes across prompts.


Students applying to Oxford, Cambridge, medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine/science in the United Kingdom must submit their completed applications, including personal statements, by October 15. For other universities and courses, the deadline is January 15.

Deadlines for American universities vary, but in general, applicants applying on an early plan must submit their completed application and essays by November 1 or November 15. Regular application deadlines may be as early as January 1.

The deadline to apply to Canadian universities varies but application deadlines are generally in mid-January.

VerveSmith helps students find universities and programs that match their aspirations, and to develop an admissions application strategy. To learn how we can help help with your personal statements, contact us.

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