The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service describes the 600-word statements as a chance for students to “stand out from the crowd” in the chase for university places.
But the Times Educational Supplement, sister paper of Times Higher Education, reports that last year nearly 30,000 applicants failed to take that advice on board and sent in personal statements that Ucas’ plagiarism detection system flagged up as copied.
The software showed that at least 10 per cent of each flagged statement was identical to other applicants’ statements or to online examples.
In each case, the universities and colleges applied to were immediately informed of the plagiarism so that they could take appropriate action.
Hundreds of statements even shared identical opening lines, with a quote from Coco Chanel about the importance of fashion among the most popular choices.
“The personal statement is one of the most important parts of the online application process,” a Ucas spokesman said. “It gives applicants the chance to stand out from the crowd, which is why it should be an individual, and personal, piece of work.”
Ucas first trialled its Copycatch software in 2007 on the personal statements of more than 50,000 applications to study medicine, dentistry and veterinary science at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
It identified plagiarism in 5 per cent of the statements and, according to Ucas, many applicants borrowed phrases from the same free website.
In 234 applications to study medicine, candidates wrote that it was “burning a hole in my pyjamas at age eight” that sparked their passion for the subject.
The resulting publicity combined with warning letters to all UK schools may have had an effect.
The following year, when the software was used on all Ucas applications, the proportion of copied statements dropped to 3 per cent.
It fell further to 2.8 per cent in 2009 when 20,086 statements contained plagiarism, but rose to 29,228, or 3.85 per cent of applications, in 2010.
Alan Vincent, joint general secretary of the Association for Careers Education and Guidance, said it was possible that a “large proportion” of the careers teachers he represented were not aware of Ucas’ plagiarism crackdown.
“It is one thing to look at good practice on the internet – that is understandable. But it is another thing to then lift the material,” Mr Vincent said.
If you’re applying to university this autumn, you may already have been told to start thinking about your UCAS personal statement over the summer break, or even to put together a first draft.
If you haven’t, the time is now certainly looming to embark on this seemingly insurmountable task.
And this is why every year, some UCAS applicants choose to plagiarise their personal statement. After all, why should you try to conjure up the perfect piece of copy, when someone else applying for the same course has already done it?
Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward. Apart from being unfair, it can land you in hot water if your laziness is discovered.
Since 2007, UCAS has been using Copycatch - a system that scans personal statements against a library of personal statements already submitted to submitted to UCAS, sample statements from websites, and paper-based sources - to detect plagiarised applications. Thousands of applicants have already been caught lifting entire sentences from other people’s statements.
After sifting through hundreds of applications every year, many admissions tutors will also be able to tell if a statement has been copied.
So yup...it’s very likely you’ll be caught, either by UCAS or the universities you are applying to, and if you are, your application will be rejected.
As well as your ticket to a place at university, writing your own personal statement should be seen as a chance to stand out from the crowd.
Admissions tutors want to see flair, creativity and individuality in a personal statement. How else will you grab their attention?
Besides, do you really want to blend in with the thousands of other applicants, using stale, overused phrases and tired, unoriginal reasons for wanting to study your course?
Only you can sit down and write about yourself in the best possible light to convince admissions tutors you will be a valuable asset to their department.
To ensure you have the best chance of getting into your chosen universities, a little thought and planning will go a long way to creating a personal and polished piece of copy, as will a little bit of organisation.
Start drafting your statement as soon as you start back at school or college in September. This is particularly applies if you need to submit your form by the 15th October deadline (i.e. if you're applying to Oxbridge, or for a medicine, veterinary science, or dentistry course).
Begin by making some general notes about yourself, such as your academic strengths, work experience, personal qualities and plans for the future (our personal statement template is useful for this). You can then move on to putting together each paragraph. Once you have these basic blocks in place, you can begin to think about the overall structure, and making changes so that it flows well as a whole.
Creating at least three or four drafts (preferably more), and then handing them out to family, friends and tutors for feedback is essential during this process. Not only will they be able to highlight any important points you may have forgotten to include, but a fresh pair of eyes also helps to identify any spelling or grammar mistakes.
Once you have gone through these rounds of drafts, feedback and amendments, and you feel your statement is as good as it can be, you can give yourself a pat on the back and paste it into your UCAS application form.
There are lots of online resources you can use to help you, as well as books and other published materials. These can be great for inspiration, but remember the consequences of copying directly.
In 2010, 3.85% of statements contained plagiarism. Make sure you get your place at uni by not being one of them.
Don’t forget to also check out our other blog posts and articles related to UCAS personal statements, including:
as well as my eBook guides, available to download on Amazon Kindle:
If you have any comments, questions or feedback on my post, please leave your message below!
Editor's Note: This article was originallly published in August 2013. It has been completely revamped to reflect updates in accuracy and include additional useful information on the topic.