The Personal Statement: Structure and Style
22nd August, 2019
The content of your personal statement is incredibly important, and needs to be delivered clearly, or its meaning may be lost or obscured. At its best, a personal statement is a concise and individual footprint of your academic interests. At its worst it can be predictable, boring and cringe-inducing. So what are the key things you need to remember about the structure and style of your personal statement?
Have a clear plan and stick to it
One of the most important parts of a personal statement is its structure. Oxford and Cambridge are looking for passion and engagement with your subject. They do not want to read a stream of consciousness. They are looking for candidates who can express their ideas in a cogent and ordered way. As such, it pays to plan.
We recommend making a skeleton of your personal statement along the following lines before working on the body. This is by no means the only way to structure it, but may help you as a starting point:
1) Opening paragraph – ideally 2-3 sentences, succinctly describing why you are interested in your chosen subject.
2) Areas of interest – this could focus on what you have studied at A-level, particular modules that interested you and why, and what these studies have taught you about the wider discipline as a whole.
3) Extra reading – tutors want to see that you have gone above and beyond the basic course content of your A-level studies, so it is a good idea to include a paragraph on any interesting extra-reading you have done. It is better to choose only one or two things you have read and discuss them in some depth than to list five or six books or articles/journals.
4) Supporting activities – here you can write about anything non-academic you have been involved in that may be directly related to your subject. So for example, if you’re applying to study Politics, and you recently attended a youth council meeting, you could talk about this and how it influences your understanding of politics. If you can’t think of anything, this might be a good point to mention anything in your field in the news happening currently that you have found interesting.
5) Extra-curricular activities – this should be no more than one very brief sentence as a footnote to your application.
6) Closing line – A concise, punchy recap of the first paragraph, clearly summarising why you want to study your subject at university.
Be clear and direct
One thing you will definitely want to avoid is waffle. Too many candidates try to flesh out their personal statement and disguise their lack of content by using flowery, unnecessarily eloquent language, and repeating themselves too often.
The tutors reading your personal statement will see straight through this. In terms of your style, try to be concise and direct with what you are saying. Drop in a nice turn of phrase here and there, but by and large the most important thing is clarity. Ultimately, space wasted with unnecessary waffle is spaced that could be used exploring a subject in more depth. You have only a limited number of words to impress. Use them wisely.
Start and end on a good note
First off, please, please, please do not write any variation of “Ever since I was a baby I’ve been fascinated by…” It is the most predictable, clichéd and cringe-worthy opening you can write, and every year admissions tutors collectively groan as they receive hundreds of identical personal statements.
Your first line is nonetheless important, and it’s worth spending some time thinking about who will be reading it and what impression you will make. Ideally, you want it to be snappy, memorable and in some way represent how engaged you are with your subject. This is no mean feat but it can be done, provided you put the requisite thought into it. We cannot prescribe what you should write, as this will be personal to you and your interests, but it should attempt to explain your unique link to your chosen course.
Try varying your language up a bit. Note that the adjectives “passionate”, “fascinated” and “interested” are useful but overused, so if you can think of a different way of expressing that sentiment then you’ll stand out. Ultimately, an honest personal statement will stand out and be easier to write. Good luck!