Fine tuning the opening sentence of your personal statement is a task most students dread, particularly because so much attention is given to the opening sentence as it should catch the reader’s attention. You’re told that there needs to be a wow factor involved and that your sentence should set the tone and quality of the rest of the personal statement. No pressure, eh?
In fact, writing a strong opening sentence is relevant to more than just university applicants. You'll also need a strong opening statement for applying for an apprenticeship or a school leaver scheme so sorry guys, you’re not off the hook.
We’re not going to lie — the opening sentence is pretty important, but it’s also important that the personal statement doesn’t go downhill from there. Think of your personal statement like a football team — even if you have the best goal scorer in the world, if you have a dodgy defence or mildly-interested midfield, it’s not a great recipe for success.
Overused Opening Sentences
Whatever you do with your opening sentence, make sure you use something different to the most overused statements.
“But how do I know which opening sentences are the most overused?” I hear you cry. Well, we did some research and found an article by UCAS that listed the most overused opening sentences. Here they are:
1. From a young age I have (always) been [interested in/fascinated by]… (used 1,779 times)
2. For as long as I can remember I have… (used 1,451 times)
3. I am applying for this course because… (used 1,370 times)
4. I have always been interested in… (used 927 times)
5. Throughout my life I have always enjoyed… (used 310 times)
6. Reflecting on my educational experiences… (used 257 times)
7. Nursing is a very challenging and demanding [career/profession/course]… (used 211 times)
8. Academically, I have always been… (used 168 times)
9. I have always wanted to pursue a career in… (used 160 times)
10. I have always been passionate about… (used 160 times)
11. Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world… (used 148 times)
The (over)use of the quote from Nelson Mandela about “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” is particularly cringe worthy — if you’re going to include a quote, make sure it’s more than just a popular quote that you once saw on Instagram. Show that you’ve done some reading around the subject and be prepared to properly explain why you like a particular quote.
Writing Your Opening Sentence
Aside from avoiding overused quotes and words such as ‘passionate’ or ‘deeply fascinated’, we recommend being original and referring to personal experiences as a way to draw attention.
For example, if you were writing a personal statement for a History course, you could open with something like, “Making an evacuation suitcase at the age of nine made me realise for the first time how historical events had affected real people.”
Not only does this draw on personal experience and highlight your knowledge of a certain area of history, it also provides you with an opening to elaborate upon your interest in social history. If you already know what graduate job or scheme you want to pursue after university, then you can further relate your opening anecdote to your future plans.
Don’t sit in front of a blank page for ages and furiously try to come up with the perfect opening sentence. If you’re stuck on your opening sentence, then perhaps try writing it last. After all, writing the rest of your personal statement will allow you to see the finished piece before adding the token opening sentence. The best opening sentences refer to your experiences, so think hard about what stands out in your memories in regards to your relationship with your chosen subject. Jot them down and then make one of these memories attention grabbing for someone who doesn’t know you.
Opening sentences are tricky, but they don’t make or break a personal statement. For more information on how to write a personal statement, check out these articles:
Although many personal statements will not include any citation of sources, in some cases—particularly if your work is in the sciences and you need to provide a brief literature review—you will need to cite sources at the end of your essay in a “References” section. Chapter 1 discusses the ethical concerns associated with source citation as you write personal essays (see "Student Writing and Ethics" section). To address the more practical problem of citation mechanics, below are ways to address common mechanics challenges:
- In the simplest terms, the two basic citation styles appropriate for personal essays can be referred to as the number system and author-year system. In the number system, a number is provided in the text corresponding to a numbered source cited fully at the essay’s end. In the author-year system, the writer provides the author and year of the source in parentheses after the corresponding text, then cites the source fully at the end of the essay in a references list alphabetized by authors’ last names.
- When you use a references section at the end of an essay, provide full bibliographic information for your sources—e.g., author, article title, book or journal title, relevant page numbers, and website address if relevant. Because the mechanics of citation vary slightly from one journal to the next, most writers model their references page on that of a respected journal in their field.
- For convenience in a personal essay, it is acceptable to cite sources—especially if you use just one or two—in numbered footnote form at the bottom of the page. However, if you have more than a few sources, a separate section entitled “References” at the end of the essay is best.
- Sometimes, rather than a formal footnote or end citation, a contextual narrative citation will be sufficient if you are using a well-known quote or paraphrase (“Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge”) or attributing authorship and context directly (“As stated in a funding proposal authored by our research group, the hypothesis for my thesis research is . . .”).
- If you include figures or tables taken or adapted from a published source, cite the source directly in the figure or table caption, using the same citation style employed throughout the essay.
To see the above tips in action, browse through the sample essays in the later chapters of this manual, where you will find ample evidence of how other writers met their source citation challenges. For further detail about source citation practices, you can also go to Chapter 5 of the manual Style for Students Online.