Admissions tutors reading law applications aren't just looking for the sports captain who works part-time in a solicitor's office. Well-rounded applicants, with a firm grasp of current affairs and a genuine reason for wanting to study the law, are really who they're after.
"Schools of law know that not all candidates have had access to high prestige work experience," says Steve Jones of the University of Manchester, who recently conducted research into personal statements. "Focus on the skills that you do have. Think carefully about why you want a law degree and what you'll do with it. Everyone says they're 'passionate' about their subject – think instead about what makes you different from other applicants.
"Don't talk about your hobbies unless they're directly relevant to your chosen programme. Spend time researching the university departments and degree programmes for which you're applying. There's no big secret to the personal statement: universities just want applicants who are well prepared and have lots of potential."
So make sure you have done your research. Aled Griffiths, deputy head of the law school at Bangor University, says students must show an up-to-date understanding of the legal profession. "It's a bit naïve nowadays to say 'I want to be a barrister' unless you have some idea of how that might happen," he said. It's important to say which areas of law you're interested in, though it's fine for students to be undecided "as long as they understand what confronts them".
Reading newspapers is considered to be more important than reading law texts. "We want to know what turned you on to law, whether it's constitutional issues in Egypt or civil marriage," said Griffiths, adding that students should demonstrate a "knowledge of world events and the applicability of the law".
Griffiths said introductions should be about why you think you'll make a good lawyer or what attracted you to law. "Personal experiences which sparked your interest are great, but don't give us your whole life story," he added.
And it's no longer novel to mention your favourite law drama. The worst thing you can do is list your achievements without exploring their applicability to a law degree – even mentioning a placement at Jones Jones LLC is meaningless unless you say what you thought of it, Griffiths said.
Similarly, Deborah Ives, director of admissions for the University of East Anglia's school of law, recently rejected a 3 A* candidate who said "I want to be a lawyer because my father's a lawyer". Ives said that unless this has led to experiences which have generated a personal interest in law they are not interested "We are looking for an informed decision."
Some of the possible hobbies that relate to a law degree are public speaking, debating, languages and advocacy. Most admissions tutors, however, make it clear that there are many activities which teach transferable skills relevant to law.
Ives said that students underestimate how important sport is – any sport – especially if a student is good, because it shows motivation, diligence and determination. Work experience doesn't have to be directly law related either: "I was most impressed by a lad who was explaining about his interest in criminal law and how that had developed, and how he had gone down to the police station and volunteered to take part in identity parades," Ives said.
Every law school wants different things, however. Claire McGourlay, admissions tutor for the University of Sheffield's school of law, said the best thing to do is ring up the university and ask them what they are looking for. "I don't look for work experience that's just law related," she said, adding that she'd be just as impressed by someone who has got up at six every morning since they were 14 to do a paper round.
"As long as they can demonstrate that they have done something – a bit of an all rounder really," she said. "And they don't have to be an Olympic athlete, just as long as they have done something." Nor do applicants have to be clear on their career aspirations – it's OK if you don't yet know if you want to work in law.
McGourlay says every personal statement is individual. "Some are very creative, some are more concise. I don't mind either way as long as it shows them as a whole person and shows a general interest in the subject.
"The key is to write fluently. No spelling mistakes, no bad grammar, not plagiarised." The worst personal statements are always the ones that haven't been proofread, she said.
Daniel Attenborough, admissions tutor at the University of Leicester, agreed – saying that personal statements are a "sales pitch" and students need to express themselves in an eloquent and elegant way. He advised against simply stating that you like chess. Explain that chess has encouraged your independent thinking and competitive nature, and why this is relevant to a career in law.
If students mention something like enjoying the TV show Suits "it usually just makes me laugh," says Attenborough. "It doesn't necessarily go against the student at all." But he's more impressed by an interest in how the law interacts with broader social issues – how the law is shaped by capitalism, or the impact of UK law on asylum seekers.
And it's important to remember that the personal statement is only one part of the application. Neil Kibble, director of law admissions at Lancaster University, said he is reluctant to set too much store by personal statements as he's very aware that some students get more guidance than others.
"We don't want to privilege two or three types of extracurricular activities at the expense of others," he said. "We would ask students to reflect on whatever experience they have had, whether it's working in a shop or looking after a member of the family, and say what they have learned from it."
Kibble said he tends to pay more attention to personal statements during clearing, when a particularly strong statement can win him over to a candidate who has not achieved the right grades.
Here's an analogy every student of English will grasp: "Think of your personal statement as a very short, short story. It has to have a beginning and an end and a character that we care about.
"For the purposes of this story, you are that character. What makes you tick?" Sheffield English lecturer Jonathan Ellis recommends that's the approach you take when you start writing your personal statement.
But in telling your story, don't let your imagination run riot. Listen to the note of caution sounded by the academics who read the personal statements submitted by sixth-formers trying to get on to their English courses. You need to play it safe, they say.
The quietly thoughtful, honest statement will go a lot further than one puffed up with flamboyant claims and razzmatazz.
Professor Martin Coyle, admissions tutor for English at Cardiff University, says students who strain too hard for effect often sound hollow. An interest in the minor figures in Jane Austen's novels is more likely to interest an admissions tutor than a statement written in blank verse, he says.
"They should also be looking forward to university – to anything from analysing grammar in detail, to learning old English, to studying post-modern American poetry," says Professor Coyle.
Does he object to students with a "passion" for their subject. Not really, he says. "If they're not passionate at 17, they're never going to be passionate!"
But Dr Hilary Hinds, an admissions tutor from the English department at Lancaster University, finds cliches such as "passionate about literature" and "I've loved books for as long as I can remember" dull and predictable. "Demonstrate it rather than claim it," she says.
Lancaster University offers English with creative writing, a course that gives applicants a little more scope to be imaginative in their personal statements, says Dr Hinds.
But it is more important to provide evidence of creative writing experience, such as submitting work to a poetry magazine or editing a school magazine.
Dr Hinds advises students to avoid reeling off a list of their A-level reading. "Give me some kind of contextual, analytical or historical angle that shows you are actively engaging with course texts."
School-leavers fresh to an English degree have to brace themselves for a hefty reading list, and evidence of extensive reading in your personal statement will convince tutors you can handle it.
Dr Richard Storer, admissions tutor for English at Leeds Trinity, recommends students read and discuss as much as they can outside of the A-level curriculum. "Books from pre-1900 will catch the eye – that shows more of a readiness to take on a challenge," he says.
His personal bugbear is the opening quote from Plato, Nelson Mandela or Oscar Wilde that may or may not reflect the applicant's philosophy on life. "Quite often they don't seem to have actually looked at the quote or understood it."
Such misplaced pretension is not going to impress Oxbridge either. Steve Watts, chair of the Cambridge admissions forum, says he's never happy to receive personal statements in badly written verse. "There's standing out from the crowd – fine. But there's also making a show of yourself – not so fine," he says.
"The worst thing you can do is to declare how much you love Tolstoy, say, when you're only at page five of War and Peace. You can guarantee we'll ask you about something from the middle or end."
What should you include in your statement? Ucas guidance recommends applicants state their career aspirations, reasons for choosing the course, academic interests, relevant experience and other interests. Is that applicable to an English degree?
Well, the trick is to keep it relevant. A Duke of Edinburgh expedition to the Lake District might seem tangential but it is interesting if it inspires you to read Dorothy Wordsworth's journals. A supermarket Saturday job doesn't develop your powers of literary criticism – but it does show you can get up early and take responsibility for yourself.
English tutors at the University of Cambridge don't really expect work experience – unless its something that enhances how you think about literature, says Watts.
He also says he'd be surprised if many candidates knew their career aspirations at the personal statement stage. Other interests, however, are important: "Reading, theatre-going, film-watching, creative writing, making drama could all be called hobbies but are also part of the business of critical engagement which most English degrees are all about."
Tutors are assessing your potential, not what you have already achieved. They are aware that some students have a better chance of gathering impressive life experiences than others.
Research conducted last year by Dr Steve Jones of Manchester University found that personal statements from independent school applicants were generally better written and listed more prestigious experiences than those from state school applicants.
"Admissions tutors are increasingly conscious of how past advantage can affect the statements submitted," says Dr Jones, "Academic capital is more important than cultural capital – so it's great if you can play the flute, but we'll be more impressed if you show a deep understanding of your discipline and the kind of content you'll encounter on your chosen courses."
He also advises erring on the side of caution when it comes to style. "Don't be under-formal or over-formal, don't crack jokes, and don't use up your word count with pretentious quotes," he says.
There are subtler and more effective ways of bringing your personal statements to life. "The best personal statements," says Sheffield's Ellis, "have their own story to tell – perhaps beginning with the first book you finished in one sitting or the first book you re-read.
"Do you care about authors or genres? Novels or poems? There's no right answer.
"We certainly don't look favourably on personal statements that don't mention a single book. Alas, there are many of these every year.
And of course, every tutor makes it clear that impeccable spelling and grammar are paramount, particularly for English applications. The advice is to check and check again, then get parents, teachers and friends to check.
A misplaced apostrophe can be really off-putting to admissions tutors, and you don't want to give them an easy reason to turn you down.