It’s that time of year again when thousands of students are preparing for their university applications. Every candidate is looking for the differentiating factors which will make them stand out from the crowd and search engines are on fire as they search for personal statement templates and top tips.

The British Science Association’s Innovation Manager Jane Dowden decided to make this search a little more personal by seeking advice from a university insider expert, Jane Marshall of Imperial College London.

Jane Marshall works as the Outreach School Visits Programme Manager at Imperial and advises hundreds of students on their personal statements every year. Her work with the students along with her collaboration with Imperial Admissions Tudors has shaped her unique point of view, which could assist students looking to start their academic journey.

Crafting a personal statement which stands out can be difficult.

Jane Marshall highlights how project work can provide evidence for the student’s interest and skills in their chosen field of study. She also identifies CREST Awards as an effective way to enrich a UCAS personal statement.

Read the full interview below to find out more.

What is your role?

My job title is Outreach School Visits Programme Manager and I work out in schools most of the time. I am currently working with over 150 schools mainly across London and the South East helping sixth formers write excellent personal statements and prepare for effective interviews. I also work closely with the Admissions team at Imperial, analysing applications and highlighting relevant information for Admissions Tutors.

How many personal statements do you (or your team) read each year?

I personally read about 500 personal statements across all subject areas pre-application every year, helping with proofreading, editing and suggestions for enhancement. I then read about 400 finished personal statements on applications to Imperial courses.

Why do you think doing a project is a good idea?

I always advise students that in order to write an effective personal statement, they need to pack it with actual evidence of their interest in the subject area.

If they are doing a project like a CREST Award which relates specifically to their subject area, it demonstrates a keen interest in the STEM subject they are applying for at university and also shows relevant skills which will be useful, such as independent research skills.

Isn’t it better to focus time and effort on improving exam grades? What does a project add?

Of course, students need to ensure that they have enough time to actually achieve the exam results they will need in order to meet the terms of their university offers.

However, as students also need to include evidence of their interest in a subject above and beyond the A level or IB curriculum, doing any kind of extended essay or extra project such as a CREST Award will not only add to the evidence they provide but it can also enrich the curriculum and broaden the students' knowledge of the subject area which, in turn, could also even enhance their exam performance.

Evidence of project work can be a valuable addition to any UCAS application

Is doing a project more useful if applying for certain degree subjects?

I would say that doing a project or extended essay is exceptionally useful for any subject as it adds to the evidence a student needs for their personal statement. For any subject where it is difficult to arrange non-compulsory work experience, a project can be just the thing to set a student's application above the rest.

What are the best examples of projects you have seen in personal statements? (any CREST projects or other science projects?)

Any project or extended essay which demonstrates that students have gone above and beyond the curriculum to satisfy their curiosity about a subject area - those are the very best examples.

It's also lovely when a student can get really excited about their project in an interview!

What are the pitfalls when talking about projects in personal statements?

Going into lots of detail! The personal statement just isn't long enough for an in-depth discussion of a project - I have seen TONS of personal statements with entire paragraphs delving into the academic depths of a project; it's overkill and just not needed. (Remember, the academics reading it know the science already!).

I would suggest briefly mentioning the type of project, e.g. CREST Award and the project title. Students can always go into much more detail in the interview. They could also use their project to include a couple of relevant skills they have developed such as teamwork or research skills, if they haven't mentioned them elsewhere.

What are your top tips for students who want to start a new project to enhance their personal statement?

Pick something which makes you go 'WOW!'. If you happen to be reading an article about something to do with your chosen degree subject and you think 'Wow! That was really exciting!' and you are motivated to look in to it in more depth...that's probably a great topic to choose.

How can students make the most of a project they have already done when writing their personal statement?

Always include lots of evidence of your interest in a subject - if you did the project in Y11, that's great! You just say, 'While I was researching for my project on XYZ, I discovered something interesting…’ etc. It doesn't matter when you did it, just what you got out of it and what it tells Admissions Tutors about your level of interest in the subject. Obviously, if you did a project back in Y2 it might have less relevance, so you do need to be selective!

CREST Silver and Gold Awards are intended for 14 to 19-year-olds. 

For CREST Silver, students work independently or in groups to run a project addressing a real-life STEM problem. At Gold level, students must complete a project which makes an original contribution to a STEM field of study. Both can be used in UCAS personal statements as an example of extra-curricular project work.They can start their project at any time. 

Get started with CREST here.