Map Oxbridge Applications. 14 – 16 Waterloo Place, London, SW1Y 4AR

There is a great deal of confusion surrounding how to write personal statements, especially when it comes to Oxford and Cambridge. Every year, thousands of students ask, “what qualities make a successful personal statement”. We have broken this question down into the 12 most frequently asked questions we find students ask when trying to draft their personal statement for an application to Oxford and Cambridge.

 

1. How do I write the introduction?

One great way to write your personal statement introduction is to wait until you have finished the rest of the personal statement. When you start your first draft, a blank sheet of paper can be very daunting. It is often easier to discuss specific achievements and interests – most suitable for the main body of the personal statement – than to start off trying to explain your passion for Mathematics or Anglo Saxon literature.

2. How many books should I talk about?

This question will obviously differ for different subjects. For more clinical scientific subjects, you will not need to write about many books. Conversely, Arts and Humanities Personal Statements for Oxbridge benefit hugely from discussing more than two books, or at least talk in detail about two. Our research of 2017 Personal Statements showed that for the Arts and Humanities, you were more likely to be successful if you included between 7 texts (75% of the applicants were successful). However in subjects like Law and Land Economy, students chances dropped by 15% when mentioning 5 or 6 texts, instead of 3 or 4. Remember also, that academic sources are not limited only to books. Discuss specific theories, lectures you have attended, or essays you have read in order to ensure that the academic points you raise are specific, rather than general. General waffling about a subject is one of the biggest pitfalls for students drafting Oxbridge personal statements, and the use of specific examples can really help you to avoid this.

3. What do I do if I have no work experience?

Again, the referencing of work experience in a personal statement is dependent on the course choice. For subjects like Medicine, work experience is integral, not only to the application process, but specifically to the personal statement. In the case of a vocational subject like Medicine, if at all possible you should ensure that you can reference at least one work experience placement. As a last resort, if you have left it too late, organise some for the future, and use the future tense in your personal statement when talking about it. For subjects like History, work experience is far less relevant: as long as you display a passion for your course, and demonstrate your knowledge and reading in the subject, then lack of work experience will not matter as much.

4. How long should I talk about extra-curricular activities?

For Oxbridge personal statements, extracurricular activities should be reserved for a quick mention at the end of your statement, unless you can show close relevancy to your academic subject and use the activity as evidence of your independent pursuit of your subject. For example, enthusiastic immersion in directing plays over several years at school can certainly help English Literature students to gain a more advanced understanding of their subject. However, the more tenuous the connection between your extracurriculars and your subject, the more they should be reserved for a footnote towards the end. Leave them to the final or penultimate paragraph, and assign an absolute maximum of 5 to 6 lines to discuss these activities. This is one of the most challenging aspects of drafting personal statements for Oxford or Cambridge, because the other universities to which you are applying may well place far more significance on your extracurricular activities as evidence of a well-rounded student. To counteract this issue, the best thing you can do is ensure your extracurricular activities are relevant to your subject, to please all you target universities. Ultimately, Oxford and Cambridge tend to value academic prowess over personal attributes in the personal statement.

Extra-curricular

5. How can I tailor it for different courses?

For subjects such as Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE) – offered at Oxford – and Engineering, tailoring your personal statement to Oxbridge and your other university choices can be tricky. For PPE, which is not studied in some other universities, we would advise students to focus on the subject that they are applying for at the other universities, for instance Politics, and then try to link the other two subjects to this. For Oxbridge, this will show that you can link the different elements together, and for other universities, this will show that you are mainly focused on one subject, but you understand how other topics link into it. For Engineering, most universities will make you choose a discipline within Engineering (i.e. Mechanical, Aeronautical, Civil). Therefore in your personal statement, you should focus on your Mechanical Engineering, broadening out to discuss how this relates to a wider interest in Engineering as a whole. In these cases, it is best to avoid mentioning the specific course name.

Courses

6. How should I talk about my other A-level subjects?

Your subjects will be listed alongside your personal statement in your UCAS application, however talking about other subjects can provide further insight into your chosen course. For instance, if you are studying English Literature and you have taken Classics, you may want to talk about the translation of texts such as the Aeneid, and how is has provided you with the understanding of classical influence in English Literature. Your Personal Statement should be completely grounded in your subject, however if you can find an interesting and relevant way in which to weave another subject in, it can be an interesting way to stand out.

Subjects

7. How long should it be?

Your personal statement should be no more than 4,000 characters, or 47 lines, (whichever comes first). It can be shorter than this, but we strongly advise that you take advantage of the full space. In reality you should be in a position that you are having to cut down and edit your personal statement to shorten it, rather than struggling to fill the space. If you find yourself in the latter position, you probably need to discuss more subject-specific content in the body of the statement.

Essay Length

8. What formatting should I use?

You don’t need to worry about formatting, as you will need to submit the final version in digital form, which doesn’t allow any formatting options. This means that you don’t need to make and decisions about font, colour, bold or italics as this will not show in the submitted version. Your school has probably already recommended this, but just in case – do not write your draft in the real form. Stick to a word document and save regularly, to avoid a devastating loss of some of your best work due to an unfortunate accidental refresh of the web page!

Essay Length 2

9. How many paragraphs should it be?

There is no hard-and-fast rule, but generally a well-structured personal statement should have 5 to 6 paragraphs: An introduction, two to three course/subject-specific main paragraphs, a penultimate paragraph detailing your extracurricular activities, and then a final summary paragraph. The final two is often pushed together to form one.

College in Cambridge

10. Will they find out if I slightly…exaggerate my talents?

Yes! The personal statement for Oxford and Cambridge is fundamentally a bit of a springboard for interview, and you might find yourself quizzed deeply about any single part of it. We have students come to us in January every year upset that they spent twenty minutes of their interview on a particular author – “I only mentioned that book briefly as a side note!” Admissions Tutors could seize on any part of your personal statement to ask you questions. You never know when you are just briefly mentioning the pet-interest of the person who will be interviewing you. There is no point in bending the truth, and lying and invention are outright no-nos. Your personal statement should be just that, a reflection of you, personally, and what makes you a strong candidate. Honesty is key when writing your personal statement. If you feel like you need to write more, and you haven’t got enough to write about, then start doing more! Read more books to talk about or organise some work experience. Then, once you have got the content of your statement down, spend time between submission and the interview ensuring you know it back to front. Don’t settle for just talking about what you’ve already mentioned. Read more by that essayist; explore linking theories that are impacted by the one you have discussed. If you find you are thinking about lying on your personal statement, then you should also think about whether the course is really for you. You may be ill-suited to the course, and perhaps a different course is a better fit.

Honest

11. How many teachers should check my personal statement?

It is a good idea to get your personal statement checked by at least two teachers or advisers, one who is subject-specific, and one from a different department. The first should check the content of the paragraphs, and the latter should provide support in checking the grammatical accuracy of the statement. Guidance from second and third parties is useful, but we also advise that you don’t ask too many people for an opinion. Everyone has an opinion when asked to provide one, and if you attempt to incorporate too much feedback into the statement, you are likely to end up with a very jumbled statement that ceases to reflect you, and your personal communications style.

Teacher

12. Should I start my personal statement with a quote?

The short answer is almost always no. Starting a personal statement with a quote is highly over-used. Many Admissions Tutors end up wondering – when you only have 4,000 characters to discuss yourself, why would you waste so many of them on someone else’s words? Similarly, we’d advise against other cliché or twee phrases such as the phrase ‘Webster’s Dictionary defines (insert subject here) as…’ We read thousands of personal statements every year and far too many start with this. It’s easy to understand why: it all comes down the Question no.1 above – it’s really hard to start your personal statement. Rather than rely on someone else to talk for you, go back to the answer above, and consider whether you can use your own words to say it better!

Quote

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