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

There is often a large amount of confusion surrounding how to write personal statements, especially when it comes to Oxford and Cambridge. Every year, we have thousands of students ask us what qualities go into making a successful personal statement. To help you build a strong personal statement, we have broken down this question into 12 of the most frequently asked questions our prospective students ask when they are trying to draft their personal statement for an application to Oxford and Cambridge.

 

1. How do I write the introduction?

The best way to write a good personal statement introduction is to complete the rest of your personal statement first. When you are getting started on the first draft, it can be overwhelming to begin at a blank page but discussing your achievements and interests – relevant to the course and university you are applying to – can help you get started. Then you can come back and explain the reasons behind your passion for Mathematics, Anglo Saxon literature or your subject of choice.

2. How many books should I talk about?

This question can be answered in various ways depending on the subject you intend to study. Clinical scientific subjects will not require many book mentions, however, Arts and Humanities personal statements for Oxbridge see a great benefit from discussing at least two books in detail, with further reading mentioned.

The research we carried out on 2017 personal statements showed that Arts and Humanities students saw a greater chance of success (75% of students were successful in their application) when including at least seven texts. In comparison, students who applied for subjects like Law and Land Economy saw their success drop when they mentioned five or six texts rather than keeping it to three or four at most. 

It’s also important to remember that academic sources shouldn’t be only limited to books. A well-rounded personal statement discusses specific theories, touches on lectures you have attended or essays you have read to gain a better understanding of specific academic points rather than a general discussion. One of the biggest pitfalls students fall into when drafting Oxbridge personal statements is getting stuck waffling about general points around a subject of interest. To avoid getting stuck in general chatter, try to use only specific examples in your personal statement.

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

Referencing work experience in your personal statement is dependent on the subject you intend to study. For subjects like Medicine, work experience is integral not only to the application process but will help build a strong personal statement. When applying to a vocational subject such as Medicine, where possible you should always ensure you are able to reference at least one work experience placement held. If you don’t have any work experience and your personal statement is due, make sure to arrange some and refer to this in the future tense in your personal statement when talking about your upcoming placement.

Some subjects, such as History, place less importance on work experience and focus is on your ability to display a passion for both the subject and your course, including demonstrating knowledge and reading you’ve done in the subject. Work experience is still good for an applicant but for these subjects, it won’t matter as much if you haven’t done a placement. 

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

When writing an Oxford and Cambridge personal statement, extracurricular activities can be kept as a brief mention towards the end of your statement. The only time you’d give extracurricular activities focus in an Oxbridge personal statement is if you can prove it had close relevancy to your academic subject and the activity can be used as evidence towards your dedication and passion. 

For example, English Literature students that have enthusiastically immersed themselves over the years into directing plays have a direct benefit that has gained them a greater and more advanced understanding of the subject. 

If the connection between the extracurriculars and your subject choice is tenuous or far-reaching, it is better to reserve mentioning your activities towards the end of your personal statement in a footnote. Ideally, leave these notes in the final or penultimate paragraph and don’t allocate more than five or six lines to talking about your extracurricular activities. 

Often, students find this one of the most challenging aspects of drafting their personal statement for Cambridge and Oxford as the other universities they are applying to place a greater significance on an applicant’s extracurricular activities, to show evidence they are a well-rounded and dedicated student. The best way of counteracting this issue and please all your target universities is to ensure any extracurricular activities you include in your personal statement are directly relevant to your subject. 

Ultimately, applicants applying only to Oxford and Cambridge can focus on the academic prowess these universities place their focus on, rather than personal attributes, in their personal statement.

Extra-curricular

5. How can I tailor it for different courses?

Subjects such as Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE), that are offered at Oxford, and Engineering, can make it challenging to tailor your personal statement to cover Oxbridge and your other university choices. 

When discussing PPE, which is not commonly offered at other universities, we would recommend that students focus on the one subject they have applied to in the other universities, often Politics, and then aim to link the two subjects. To Oxbridge, this shows evidence you can confidently link the different elements together, while for other universities, you show your passion and focus for one subject but understand how other topics support and link into it. 

For Engineering, more often than not, universities will make you choose a discipline within Engineering such as Aeronautical, Civil or Mechanical. In your Engineering personal statement, it is best practice to focus on your chosen discipline and avoid mentioning the specific course name and, instead, discuss how your discipline relates and links to a wider interest in Engineering. 

Courses

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

Part of your UCAS application includes a full list of A-Level subjects studied alongside your personal statement but you can talk about how other subjects provide further insight into the course or subject you’d like to study. 

For example, students who have taken Classics that intend to study English Literature at university can talk about translating texts, such as the Aeneid, and how this helped gain a greater understanding of classical influence in modern English Literature. 

Preferably, your Cambridge or Oxford personal statement should be completely based in and around your subject, however, if you can find a relevant and engaging way in which to work another subject in, it can be an interesting way to stand out amongst applicants.

Subjects

7. How long should it be?

Your personal statement should be at most, 4,000 characters or 47 lines, whichever you meet first. Although it can be shorter, we strongly recommend taking full advantage of the available space. Ideally, you want your first draft to be much longer so you can cut down and edit your personal statement to be shorter, rather than using general waffle or struggling to fill the space. 

If you find you are struggling to reach 4,000 characters or 47 lines, you probably need to revisit the body of your personal statement and discuss more subject-specific content. 

Essay Length

8. What formatting should I use?

The final version of your personal statement will be submitted in a digital form with no formatting options, so there is no need to worry about formatting. That means you won’t have to decide what font or colour to use and there is no need for styles such as bold or italics. If you do include these, they won’t appear in the submitted version.

Your school should already have discussed best practice for writing your personal statement but as a reminder – do not write your statement draft in the real form! As with any content that is going to be submitted digitally, you should write it in a word document first (Microsoft Office, Google Docs, OpenOffice) where you can save a copy locally to your computer (and back-up regularly). This way, you can avoid the devastating loss of your best statement draft due to an accidental refresh or the internet dropping out. 

Essay Length 2

9. How many paragraphs should it be?

There is no set-in-stone rule for the number of paragraphs but generally, a well-structured personal statement will be broken up into five or six paragraphs and be easy to read. The paragraphs you should include are; the 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 paragraphs are sometimes pushed together to form one.

College in Cambridge

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

Yes! Your personal statement for Oxford and Cambridge should be considered a springboard for your interview and you could and should expect to be questioned about any single detail of it. At Oxbridge Applications, every year, we have students that approach us in January who are upset that their Admissions Tutor spent 20 minutes focused on a certain author when “I only mentioned that book briefly as a side note”.

Admissions Tutors can and will use any part of your personal statement to raise questions and you can never know if something you’ve mentioned is a pet interest of the tutor who is leading your interview. There is no point in trying to twist the truth and out-right lying or invention are absolute don’ts. 

Your personal statement is a chance to show what makes you a strong applicant and sets you apart from the others. It should be an honest personal reflection of you and your academic interests. If you are struggling to use the available space or you feel like you need to write more, then you need to start doing more such as reading more books that you can include or arranging work experience. Once you’ve got the content of your statement sorted, you should spend time between submission and your interview, ensuring you know every part in detail and can confidently answer any questions you get asked. 

Avoid focusing discussion around what you’ve already mentioned in your statement, instead spend time reading more by the authors and essayists you have mentioned and explore theories that link back to and impact the ones you have included. Anytime you feel you have to lie or make something up on your personal statement should make you reconsider if the course is going to be a good fit for you and, instead, you may find more confidence and discussion topics in a different subject. 

Honest

11. How many teachers should check my personal statement?

Preferably, you will get your drafted personal statement checked by at last two of your teachers or guidance advisers. One should be subject-specific who can check over the content of your paragraphs and the other can be from a different department to provide feedback on grammatical accuracy and quality of the statement. 

Getting guidance from second and third parties can be useful but avoid asking too many people for input as trying to incorporate feedback from a variety of different opinions is challenging. If you try to include everyone’s different opinion, you can quickly end up with a jumbled statement that no longer reflects on you and your communication style and strengths. 

Make sure you leave plenty of time between completing your first draft and the Oxbridge personal statement deadline ensuring you have time for others to check it over and you can make changes as necessary. 

Teacher

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

The short answer is almost always no to including a quote. Over the years, opening your personal statement with a quote has become highly overused and many admissions tutors have begun to wonder why you would seemingly ‘waste’ space on someone else’s words when writing a statement to reflect yourself. In a similar sense, we would advise against using other cliché or twee phrases including the phrase ‘Webster’s Dictionary defines (insert subject here) as…’ 

At Oxbridge Applications, we read through thousands of personal statements each year and too many of them start with quotes, it can take away from the quality of a personal statement and influence how the rest of the statement is assessed. Avoid using someone else’s words to do the talking for you at all costs. If you are really struggling, simply refer to Question 1 and leave your introduction for the end, once you’ve got the main content of your statement sorted. 

Your personal statement is your first chance to show off your strengths to Admission Tutors and you should leave plenty of time between starting the first draft and the submission deadline. Leaving plenty of time for amendments, feedback and ensuring a high-quality final edit. 

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