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There is often a large amount of confusion surrounding how to write personal statements, especially when it comes to Oxford and Cambridge and other top research universities.

Every year, we have thousands of students ask us what qualities go into making a successful personal statement.

To help, 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 statements.

1. How do I write the introduction?

Introductions are often disappointingly generic. To help you achieve more specificity and concision, the best way to write a good personal statement introduction is to complete the rest of it 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 courses and universities you are applying to – can help you clarify what your motivation to study the subject really is. 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.

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 and articles 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.

Centrally, admissions tutors want to see that you know you are getting yourself in for. Only reading a couple of books from their introductory list will therefore not tantalise them; try to follow your interests in a bit more depth and look at readings and ideas which are representative of degree level material.

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. A rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether you think an academic in the faculty you are applying to will think your work experience was relevant for the course. If you are applying to study History, for example, your two-weeks at an accounting or law firm organising files will be of little interest.

For 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.

Work experience can also be useful for other more vocation-leaning subjects, such as architecture and engineering. More widely, doing work experience is extremely useful to help you begin thinking about what you might want to do with your career, and can build highly useful skills, but, unless it is relevant to the course content, it is unlikely to proffer you any credit for university admission.

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

Leading research universities are looking for your potential to succeed on the course you are applying for. Nevertheless, two applicants who seem academically matched might be distinguished from each other by their ability to balance their time with several other things. Do include what you do outside of academia, then, but keep non-relevant activities mentioned to a minimum rather than an exhaustive list. This might mean sacrificing some of the things you do outside of your course and focus on those few things you do most often, or to the highest level. (N.B. Your reference might be able to discuss some of your extra-curricular activities too, and you don’t want to overlap this material).

What you do mention, try to link to your subject. This might be easy, as with an English literature student who has directed lots of theatre, or less easy, such as a maths applicant who plays the violin to a high level. Nevertheless, making these links convincingly can bring originality and creativity to your statement.

5. How can I tailor it for different courses?

Subjects like HSPS at Cambridge or Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at Oxford might make it tricky to tailor your statement for different courses. Oxford and Cambridge are very understanding of this, and specific guidance can usually be found on faculty websites about their expectations.

However, as a rule of thumb, focus on the areas of convergence between the courses you are applying for. If these differ in title, then avoid stating the title of the course in your statement and instead refer to the disciplinary area or focus instead. This involves: a) making sure the courses you are applying for are sufficiently similar to give you a chance of doing this, and b) doing your research on the course content and options so that you are covering the appropriate material.

This research stands even if you are applying for the same titled course everywhere. English, for example, is taught very differently at Oxford to Bristol, and focusing on an interest which does not feature in either course will result in your application being put aside.

Doing this research early can also help you to direct your reading and research to build material for your personal statement which speaks to all your choices.

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

Lots of students are told to discuss the skills they have gathered from their A Level subjects, but we caution around this; your UCAS application includes a full list of A-Level subjects studied, and your school reference will discuss your A-Level abilities. Talking about the time management or analytical skills you gained from studying history, and the logical skills you gained from physics, can therefore come across as ‘fodder’ which could have already been inferred.

You can, however, 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. As with the whole statement, the more specific you can make this, the better.

7. How long should it be?

This is an easy one. 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.

Cutting it down is usually relatively easy, but it might take an outside eye to see the ‘wood from the trees’. Any non-relevant, generic material, anything which is likely to be in many other statements, and frilly, decorative language or repetition can all be chopped down.

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. You may, alternatively, need to go back to the research and reading phase of writing.

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, Pages, etc) 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.

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. Admissions tutors will need to comprehend your statement very quickly, so structure with this in mind.

A frequently-successful structure follows this pattern: 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 paragraphs are sometimes pushed together to form one.

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”.

However, you DON’T need to be an expert, or even particularly knowledgeable, about a particular idea or author to mention it in your statement. If you are questioned about an aspect of an author’s work you have mentioned which you are unsure about, then be intellectually honest and say so, but try your best to have a go given what you already know about them or similar authors/ideas.

This is not only the case for authors/books mentioned, but also if you put forward a highly ambitious or critical view in your statement. If you want to argue that Marx was totally wrong, then you better be ready to defend your view in a nuanced way. The bottom line is: stay intellectually honest and err on the side of modesty; academics tend to become less rather than more sure about the ‘truth’ the further they delve into their subject matter.

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 ensure you retain editorial control, and that your voice and taste runs through the statement. 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.

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

‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.’ Oscar Wilde.

How much have you learned about me from reading Wilde’s words?

Quotes are used each year by applicants who end up getting offers from top universities, including Oxford and Cambridge. It’s not necessarily going to bring your application to an end. Quotes are also awarded marks in certain A Level subjects, if you have taken the time to remember them and give them a bit of context.

However, your personal statement gives admissions tutors the chance to hear your voice, and to get a sense of what you might be like as a student on their course. By definition, using a quote – i.e. someone else’s words – is not personal. It is therefore preferable to avoid using a quote unless it’s absolutely essential. Using a quote doesn’t make YOU sound more interesting.

Before you decide to use a quote, think long and hard. If you would really like to use a quote, try to make it as pithy and concise as possible, and make sure it elevates and builds on what you are saying; that it expresses something you couldn’t have otherwise expressed on your own. (Also, by ‘quote’, we are not talking about specific concepts or theories – these are absolutely fine to include.)

Driven by 20 years of research and first-hand experience in guiding thousands of applicants, our consultations provide an honest and detailed assessment with guidance on individual personal statements.

If you would like to speak to one of our Oxbridge-graduate advisors about your own personal statement, contact our Oxbridge advising team on +44 (0)207499 2394, email at [email protected], or request a callback to discuss your situation.

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