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.