Let’s Start At The Beginning – The Personal Statement

I could start this blog with which universities are ranked the highest, how they differ in course content and structure or which uni offers the greatest ‘hands on’ experience. But let’s be honest, at this point you don’t care where you go, you just want an offer. Any will do. Just let me in. Please. I will give you all my money for the next 5 years.

You have 4000 characters to stand out amongst the ceaseless storm of people who apply. You are competing with not only your age group but with those who have had a gap year to become model citizens and overseas students who always have an interesting story to tell. And to make it even harder, graduate entry dentistry has pretty much been phased out due to new regulation meaning mature students now compete for undergraduate places. And on top of that, an increasing amount universities are offering access courses which may (or may not) put your unknown, faceless personal statement further to the back of the pile.

Most university pages list what they are looking for in an applicant which is a great starting point, but if everyone is reading the limited resources that unis give, you are at no advantage to begin with.

However, you know you would make a great dental student, so how do you become the ‘diamond in the rough’ when the ‘rough’ are the elite? Here are my pointers to make your personal statement shine.

Number 1. Write a list

I am not an organised person (although I would never divulge this to my university) and I wasn’t about to become organised in the short amount of time I had to write this bad boy. I’m not kidding about the short time either, I left myself 2 weeks before the deadline before I even started thinking about what to write (causing a thunderous stress cloud to forecast over my head and two call-in-sick-days at work *cough cough*).

The first thing I did was write down anything and everything I have done that I could mold into a ‘reason to pick me’ even if you don’t think you will use it, WRITE IT DOWN.

Number 2 Write a better list

No matter how much you hate it, you will always benefit from hearing other people’s opinions’ and now is not the time to show the world how well you ‘take the initiative and work independently’. Take ALL the help you can get.

I roped in my family, friends, boyfriend and even boyfriend’s family for their opinions on how I could take these ‘experiences’ and turn them into ‘reasons to pick me’ (I will use this phrase a lot as this should be the resounding message you should be referring back to for the entirety of the process).

Your list should start to look more like detailed bullet points by now, if not, go back and think harder, think small, think “Well there was that one time I went fishing in Devon”. I honestly cannot emphasise enough how all the small things can be the building blocks for a successful statement.

Number 3. Find the gaps.

The weak spots in your statement should be pretty obvious by now. But that’s okay, as long as you actively look for them before an assessor has the chance to, you’re golden.

Volunteering

Look at your list- have you done enough for the community? You are expected to look like bloody Mother Teresa on paper, so you should have a decent amount of good deeds to talk about. If, when you came to this section, you panicked, don’t worry, I did too. I had helped in a few community projects and a day or two at a food drive, but I didn’t have an example of how I volunteered my time within a caring capacity (I would say this is crucial for your PS). So, I did a much panicked google for any hospitals/hospices/retirement homes that were looking for volunteers. The only opening I came across that I could fit around working full time was a nearby hospital. They didn’t have any vacancies but were interviewing for volunteers to start in a couple of months.

This next part is important.

 I turned my lack of charitable work into a “reason to pick me”; I didn’t just bulk volunteer during my summer holiday. By showing you are committing to future projects (especially if you are able to fit it around your busy schedule) demonstrates a true commitment to care provision. You can then talk about what you hope to gain from the experience. This is not a time for ‘selfless good deeds’. Each voluntary experience you share should have not only why you did it but what you got from it. And even better – why this will make you a better dentist.

Work Experience

I couldn’t write this article and leave out the all-important ‘work experience’. As you are aware, some unis state a minimum amount of shadowing, whilst others are more forgiving. I could only manage to get dentists to agree to one day each after hounding them with email and pretty much just cold calling any dentist in the South West. However, each ‘one day’ they gave, turned into multiple days. I did this by showing my enthusiasm for the profession and discussing my desire to see certain procedures (it helps if you haven’t seen the procedure on the day). No one can say no when you turn on the ‘all I-want-in-life-is-to-be-a-dentist’ charm.

You’ll see this advice everywhere and I’m not about to disagree; don’t just list what you’ve seen. How has it impacted you? What opinions have changed/solidified? What did you learn about NHS vs Private? What do you appreciate about continued professional development? Wait, you need insurance?

Number 4. Get writing

So you have your list and you are starting to think “okay so I have done things with my time other than morph into this studious, lonely loner”. However, how do you take these words and turn them into intelligent sentences that an academic with thousands of papers to wade through will enjoy reading? Well, right click synonyms will become your best friend.

I like starting a piece in the section that I am most excited about. In this case, my hobbies were something I knew I could write with minimal effort. I am by no means mechanically minded but I love old cars. I recently acquired a 1970’s Beetle and so I knew this was going to be a headliner in my PS. I turned my love of buying accessories for him (yes, him, not it) into a ‘reason why you should pick me’. I did this by just showing that I was passionate about something outside of academia. To have something you are passionate about is crucial for a PS, the more obscure the better, even if it’s a new interest that you’ve only just recently involved yourself in. Explain why you enjoy it. Be honest. If you’re not a book worm, don’t say you are. The hobbies section is purely for the assessor to develop a better understanding of who you are, rather then what you have to offer.

Number 5. Why you want to be a dentist

For me, I knew this would be the hardest section so I left it to the end to write. It seems silly that that this was the hardest, but I struggle even now to explain why in words.

This part should be completely personal to you. For me, it stemmed from a memory I have with my Mum – although it actually took me years to realise this. If you’re not sure you could answer this question at an interview, try starting with why you have chosen this path rather than medicine. I personally believe that dentists are involved in a much larger portion of the journey with the patient (others may disagree). Apply for free membership to the GDC E-newsletter, read dental forums, speak to a dental student on TSR. If you do your research you will develop an opinion without realising it. And if you come to the end of your googling and you still don’t have a definitive reason, don’t be afraid to let that be your reason – That there are so many little attributes, it becomes head and shoulder above the rest.

Number 6 My Final Pointers

It may seem like everyone around you has finished their statement and are half way through their UKCAT preparation book but DON’T PANIC. People always look calmer on the outside so don’t let them get into your head.

Don’t be flamboyant in your writing if that’s not how you speak in real life. Obviously I would never write an essay the way I speak, however if you’re not comfortable using the word ‘equanimity’ for Pete’s sake don’t use it. You probably won’t use it correctly anyway and it will stand out like a blistered thumb.

Getting to the interview stage is your biggest hurdle so take your time, let it be personal. If you can avoid it, don’t show your statement to anyone who may be in competition with you for a place. You may think your BFF would never take ideas from you, but let’s be honest, if yours are better they WILL. Likewise, don’t start googling other personal statements. They may be full of promises that they flew into dental school just by writing this masterpiece but trust me admissions tutors can and do google just as much as you. One similar sentence and alarm bells will ring.

Allow yourself to write without any word limits. This will give you the freedom to include everything you want. You can trim off the fat and lose all the terrible sentence structures later.

For the love of God, DO NOT start your personal statement with “Ever since I was a child”.

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