The Application Essay - Demystified

The UK and the US are among the most popular overseas destinations for Singaporean students, and the application processes for both countries require essays. For prospective students, writing a good application essay is an important hurdle to getting into the school of their choice.

By Janelle Lau

For most overseas universities applicants, the most daunting part of the application is the personal essays required. In fact, personal statements can make or break an application. Yet, whether you are applying to a school in the US or the UK matters as there are differences in the style of writing personal essays for both. We delve into the world of both the UK and US universities and show you how to follow the unwritten guidelines for both countries. This will help you immensely during your application process.


Style and tone
The essays can be more informal – while still in proper English. However, too much humour can seem disrespectful and carries the risk of backfiring.

A more formal, impersonal style is required. You need to be as succinct as possible, and showcase the breadth of your experience, while making it relevant to your statement.

Personal essays are written on pre-given topics. While these can be broadly categorised into the different types mentioned below, the main focus should still be on you. Here are some sample essay questions in different categories:

  • Introduction - How would you describe yourself as a human being? What quality do you like best in yourself and what do you like least?
  • Future ambitions - Please tell us about your career goals and any plans you may have for graduate study.
  • Creativity - Do you believe there's a generation gap? Describe the differences between your generation and others.”

Note that there will always be a free topic for you to write anything about. A common trick to answering this is to pick an incident in your life and to expand it by showing your reactions to it.

Personal essays have no fixed topics. You should still consider the following questions:

  • Why do you want to study a particular course?
  • What have you done in preparation for studying this course? (e.g. Internships, Attachments, school-related work)
  • Why do you think you should study the course?

A possible approach would be writing a point, elaborating how it relates to you and your strength, and linking it to your degree. Bear in mind that your essay still must flow.

What you should show and what they look for
As US universities prefer all-rounders, they prefer a breadth of experience. However, their essay emphasises on the depth of your character.

While UK universities prefer a depth of experience about your chosen course, their essay tends to favour mentions of a breadth of experience relating to your chosen course.

What is not needed
The emphasis of self means that you do not need to mention what degree you are applying for. However, you still should relate it to that degree. You may need to mention your non-academic achievements, but you do not need to mention all of them. Since you’re writing on an essay question, there is no need to force in mentions of your various non-academic activities, especially if it would disrupt the flow. However, you may choose not to, and it will not disadvantage your application.

Good examples of non-academic achievements would be those that demonstrate leadership abilities.

You do not need to mention your non-academic achievements, but some mention will be good. Common practice would be to focus more on the academic side of your portfolio, with around 25 - 30% of dedicated to non-academic achievements. The important thing would be to link how your non-academic activities have helped you to prepare for your degree, such as by teaching you an essential skill.

One example of non-academic achievements would be your ability to commit to something over a long period of time. In general, however, it is always good to mention the soft, portable skills, such as leadership and organisational activities.


Good grasp of English
Double check your application and read through it several times for any mistakes. Another common piece of advice is to share your personal statement with friends and relatives so that they may spot any mistakes or give suggestions for improvement.

You should be able to demonstrate maturity and an awareness of the responsibility of studying in a university.

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