Personal Statement: do's and don'ts

In theory, writing about yourself and your interests should be the easiest thing in the world. There is nothing you know more about. But in reality, many students simply do not know where to begin. This guide should give you some ideas of how to write your personal statement..

Keeping it Academic

You may be very proud of your Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award, or captaining your school Football team to the County Cup final, but when it comes to applying to Oxbridge, these achievements are not relevant. Oxford and Cambridge are looking for academic prowess, and nothing else. They want to know if you are engaged with and interested in your chosen subject, whether you can think about old ideas in an original way, and whether you can use your lateral thinking to analyse problems and critique ideas. Put simply, they are not interested in your extra-curricular achievements.

That said, there is one instance in which you can turn your non-academic activities to your advantage, and that is if you can weave them into a discussion of your academic interests. For example, if you are applying to study Psychology and have volunteered in a care home, you could discuss how working with dementia patients informed your view of cognition. If you are applying to study English and enjoy creative writing, you could discuss how this contributes to your reading of a text and the literary processes involved in constructing it.

In short, Oxbridge are only interested in your academic interests, they are not looking for all-rounders. Unless you can explicitly relate your other activities back to your chosen subject, you should not devote any more space to them than a brief sentence at the end of the statement.

Keeping it balanced

Your personal statement is your calling card, but it is not an essay, and as such it should broadly reflect a cross-section of your interests. What we mean by this is do not spend the whole personal statement writing about just one thing. If you love Contract Law and the precedent set in the case of Foakes v Beer is particularly interesting to you, that’s great, but if you spend four paragraphs debating the merits of the case, then your personal statement will lack balance, and will show up your inability to plan your writing coherently.

Oxford and Cambridge want to see that you have several academic interests, be these topics from your A-level studies or from extra reading you might have done, so structure your personal statement to reflect this.

Pick your examples

On the other hand, it is important to be discerning with the examples you choose to discuss. As problematic as it is to devote the whole personal statement to just one topic, it is far worse to simply list 20 things that interest you without elaborating further. The answer lies somewhere between these two extremes. What is most sensible is to select four or five key areas of interest and discuss each in a moderate amount of depth, given the space available.

Simply listing your interests tells the admissions tutors nothing about why you are interested in those areas, what your ideas are and how you think. It makes more sense to discuss these interests further, as this will provide an excellent basis for the start of a discussion at interview. If you can draw comparisons between the areas you choose to discuss, this is even better.

Fear the unknown

Every year, several candidates reference a text, and when quizzed on it at interview it becomes apparent they have not actually read it. This should go without saying, but given it is such a recurrent mistake, we are going to say it anyway. Do not include something you have not read. This is such a fundamental mistake and is borne out of laziness and an over-eagerness to impress. Yes, Oxbridge want to see evidence of extra reading, and yes, not including anything would damage your chances, but if you’re going to reference a text, make sure you’ve read it.

While for other universities, who do not interview, name-dropping might be an effective blag, at Oxbridge this will be the basis for a discussion at interview. If you are unable to answer questions on something you claim to have read, you can be pretty certain you will not be offered a place.

Don’t make arguments you cannot defend

Similarly, when writing your personal statement, you should always be thinking about how it might be used against you. Oxford and Cambridge interviews are rigorous, and it is likely that the content of your personal statement will at some stage be the subject of intense scrutiny. Interviewers are not trying to catch you out, but they will challenge you on what you have written. No personal statement will be perfect, and every argument you make can be criticised, and this is actually a good thing.

So for everything you write, think about how someone might challenge you. If you are unable to defend your position, it might be worth writing something else. Try to be exact in your presentation of your ideas, as generalisations can always be attacked. Good luck!