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Your Personal Statement will be the first, and sometimes only, chance you get to introduce yourself as an individual to admissions tutors at your chosen universities. In a single page (or thereabouts), you have to give a good first impression of yourself, outline your key motivations for studying English, and prove that you've got both the skills and the passion to succeed on a challenging degree course. It's by no means a simple task!

Although a Personal Statement should be just that - personal - there are certain techniques, methods, and tips that you can learn to help you make your content shine! This guide will take you through our experts top advice on what to include or not include, how to begin, and how to end a successful English personal statement, as well as addressing some of the most common questions we are asked about personal statement writing.

This guide is split into the following sections:

Why are Personal Statements Important? 

Your personal statement is your opportunity to prove that you are an outstanding candidate whose application deserves to be taken seriously.

Everyone applying to Oxbridge will have excellent exam results and superb references from their teachers. Your personal statement allows you the chance to distinguish yourself within this competitive field and to give admissions tutors a clear sense of what excites you about studying English.


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What Should I Include in an English Personal Statement? 

Your personal statement needs to be filled with evidence of your commitment to studying the subject at the highest level.

You therefore need to show that you have read a variety of challenging texts beyond those which you have studied in the sixth-form. More importantly, you need to demonstrate that you have developed interests in specific aspects of these texts and formulated some detailed critical views about them.

You should also include evidence of super-curricular activities that have nourished your curiosity about particular aspects of the subject. For example, how did reading an article in the London Review of Books prompt you to research the work of a particular poet? How did listening to a literary podcast inspire you to learn more about the nineteenth-century social novel? How did attending an online symposium on the work of James Joyce cause you to re-evaluate your opinion of Dubliners?

Including detailed reflections of this kind will communicate a strong idea of what drives you to study the subject.

Also make sure that you convey a sense that you have a wide range of literary interests. We frequently come across first drafts of personal statements that focus only on the work of one author: this isn't a helpful approach. The curricula at Oxbridge and Cambridge span the history of the written word, so don't give the impression that you have only a narrow range of enthusiasms.

What Should I Avoid in an English Personal Statement? 

Avoid Overly-Emotive or Clichéd Language, Especially the Word 'Passion'

The Oxbridge admissions process is a way of measuring your potential ability to make interesting contributions to a university's intellectual community. It's not a competition to simply prove how strongly you feel about literature.

By filling your personal statement with insightful reflections on your wider reading, you will offer admissions tutors a stronger sense of your enthusiasm for the subject than by writing something like 'literature has always been my passion'.

Don't Write an Autobiography

Some students begin their statements by noting that they have wanted to study English at Oxford since the age of nine. This is both a cliché of the genre and an inadvisable gambit.

The length of time during which you've harboured an ambition to study English isn't a useful measure of your potential suitability as a student at Oxbridge. Admissions tutors want to know that you are currently developing your understanding of the subject by reading widely and reflecting on what you have read.

We recommend that you refer exclusively to texts that you have read and achievements that you have accomplished during your time in sixth-form.

Prove that You're an Independent Thinker Rather Than Leaning on Others

If you've read a lot of literary criticism, it can be tempting to reiterate the views of critics in your statement, especially if you find yourself agreeing with them. This isn't a particularly creditable approach.

It's much more interesting – for you and the staff reading your statement – if you can mount a well reasoned challenge to the view of a particular literary critic. You are not obliged to do this, of course, but it can serve as proof that you can think independently.

Precision is Always Preferable to Pomposity

 Writing a successful statement is not an exercise in showing off the breadth of your vocabulary. It's much more helpful to explain your literary interests using precisely chosen language than it is to try to demonstrate your erudition by including sophisticated vocabulary for its own sake.

Never Be Dishonest

Some students get caught out when called for interview because their personal statements contain exaggerations or elements of untruthfulness. Write only about texts which you have actually read and experiences that you have had yourself.

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Advice on How to Start an English Personal Statement  

Your statement should begin with a very brief explanation of why you are excited by the prospect of studying English at university.

Resist the temptation to try and write something dazzlingly original, witty or epigrammatic. It's much better to keep your opening honest and succinct, thus allowing you time to explore the details of your interest in the subject in the main body of the statement.

Avoid the temptation to begin with a quotation: this is simply hiding behind someone else's words and gives the admissions tutors little idea of what excites you as an individual.

Above all, don't worry too much about how you phrase the opening sentence. As long as it is clear, and puts across your truthful feelings about your application, the main body of the statement can be relied upon for the finer details.

Advice on How to Finish an English Personal Statement  

Personal statements are only 4000 characters long, so you need to make very efficient use of that space to demonstrate the scope of your intellect. You therefore don't have room to write a formal conclusion of the sort that you might include in a job application.

Provided that your statement is full of evidence of your ability to think subtly about a variety of texts and ideas, all the conclusion needs to do is offer a brief concluding sentence. Think about reiterating the main theme of your motivation or interests, and leaving the reader with the idea you most want them to remember once they have finished reading.

If you are going to include details of non-academic extra-curricular achievements in your statement – as valued by some universities, but not by Oxford or Cambridge – we recommend using the final couple of sentences of your statement for this purpose.


* Throughout your time in the sixth-form, keep a notebook of potential ideas to discuss in your statement. These can include your opinions on specific texts, your reactions to the views of critics, interesting points of connection between texts, and so on. Choosing what to put in your statement becomes much easier if you have a written record of your best ideas from the previous twelve months.

* Don't spread yourself too thinly; pick between four and six sub-topics that interest you and explore these in detail. There just isn't room within a personal statement to list all the books that you have read or all the ideas that you have about them. You need to select the ideas that fascinate you the most and explain what interests you about them. Draw up a list of these before you begin writing. Don't worry if you have to omit interesting ideas or impressive achievements: you can ask your teachers to refer to these in the references which they supply for you.

* Plan the structure of your statement to avoid exceeding the word-count. Some applicants begin by writing drafts which are much too long. They then face the challenge of trying to edit this document in order to meet the word-count, a time-consuming and often onerous task. Writing a brief plan of the five or six areas that your statement will cover eliminates the risk of this. It is much easier to develop a draft that is slightly too short than to abbreviate one that is far too long.

* Don't shy away from writing about lesser-known authors or topics if they excite you. It's always refreshing for admissions tutors to read the statements of applicants whose programme of wider reading has led them towards lesser-known texts or authors. Don't assume that you have to write about the most famous canonical texts. If you have interesting thoughts on the work of, for example, Denise Riley or Julian of Norwich, feel free to develop these in your statement.

You have 4000 characters or 47 lines to use in your personal statement. We recommend utilising as much of this space as possible to convey a thorough sense of your academic interests. If your first draft falls significantly short of this upper limit, it's likely that you need to include some extra details or develop your existing points.

Refer only to those extracurricular activities that have helped developed your understanding of English. For example, if you directed a school production of Othello and it inspired you to have specific thoughts on how Shakespeare's presentation of tragic heroes changed across his literary career, feel free to explain how these thoughts developed. If you have attended a lecture from an academic which caused you to re-consider the usefulness of the idea of literary canons, this might also merit inclusion.

Before you begin writing, it's useful to listen to some interviews with academics who teach English at Oxbridge. This will give you an idea of the way that they present their arguments, as well as some of the ideas and critical vocabulary that you will be using during your degree. Doing this often eases applicants' nerves: you will find that Oxbridge tutors usually present sophisticated ideas in clear, accessible language.    

Unlike some English degrees, the courses at both Oxford and Cambridge oblige students to analyse a broad range of literary genres dating back to the earliest recorded texts in the language. It is therefore useful – although not essential – if your statement can demonstrate that you are interested in studying the literature of previous eras (beyond the obligatory Shakespeare text on the A-Level syllabus).

However, resist any sense of obligation to write about the research interests of the tutors at your chosen college. Tutors are looking to offer places to independent thinkers with a variety of literary tastes and critical opinions which differ from their own. In any case, your personal statement will be sent to all the universities to which you are applying, so you should not be specific about any one course or lecturer, since it risks turning the other universities off.

Book your English Personal Statement Package

You can contact our Oxbridge-graduate Consultants on +44 (0) 20 7499 2394 or email [email protected] to discuss our personal statement packages. 

If you’d like to know more about English, we have admissions test guidance and interview preparation readily available. 

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