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As an Oxford admissions tutor for PPE neatly puts it, personal statements, particularly for top research universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, need you to answer three questions:

– What is your motivation to study this particular area?
– What evidence do you have to support this?
– Do you know what you are getting yourself in for? 

Consider a love letter. For a love letter to be effective, it needs to be truly personal rather than derivative, or using other people’s words. It also needs to be vivid, providing evidence of love rather than empty words. It needs to be specific to the person it is addressed to, rather than being applicable to any similar love interest. It avoids emotional blackmail, pretentiousness, and forced wackiness, but instead is authentic to the writer and the purpose of writing. It needs to show rather than merely pay lip service to their devotion.

Markers of excellent personal statements mirror these attributes. The best personal statements:

– Show substantial independent pursuit of relevant subject matter. This does not stop at one article or one lecture but moves through several stages of development.
– Demonstrate mature reflection on subject engagement rather than credulous acceptance of material.
– Hit the target, speaking to some of the very core concerns, debates, and ideas in the chosen discipline rather than peripheral or vaguely connected areas.

To achieve this, we recommend following these steps:

1. Brainstorm your examples of ‘evidence’. These might include:

– Societies / clubs
– Lectures watched
– Books and chapters read
– Articles read (legitimate publications)
– Articles/blogs written
– Competitions entered
– Awards won
– Podcasts listened to
– Seminars attended
– Experiences
– MOOCs
– Projects / EPQ
– Summer schools
– Insight days
– Gap year or travel plans
– Topics of interest
– Personal connections to the subject
– Relevant work experience details
– Extracurriculars
– Reflections on the subject
– And so on…

2. Develop this content further through reflection and further research.

During this ‘phase’, you might want to cluster some of your subject-related activities together to form broader themes or sub-topics to help give your statement some structure.

Your evidence might be too superficial to write a meaningful statement. For instance, you might realise that certain activities do relate to each other, but your investigation of the relevant area might be only very surface level so far. In that case, return to the research phase of writing and go discover more about the topic at hand.

Remember, that not every ‘category’ of super-curricular subject engagement will be equivalent in the eyes of admissions tutors. Ensure that at least some of your material is interesting at degree level.

This is also the phase in which you need to match your content with the courses you are applying for, to make sure it works across your desired choices.

3 . Put your statement into a structure.

There is no rule about how to structure your statement, but it can be a turn-off for admissions tutors when it appears candidates have obediently followed a formula – ‘insert A-Level skills here’, ‘insert 2 books here’, ‘insert Duke of Edinburgh here’. Generally, a well-structured personal statement will be broken up into five or six paragraphs and be easy to read. Structuring your statement allows a tired, time-short admissions tutor to ‘get’ what you are saying quickly.

A frequently-successful structure follows this pattern: an introduction, two to three course/subject-specific main paragraphs, a penultimate paragraph detailing your extracurricular activities (leveraging them, if possible, to show dedication to your chosen subject), and then a final summary paragraph. The final two paragraphs are sometimes pushed together to form one.

Leave yourself enough time to redraft your statement several times – each time you look at it with fresh eyes, you will see ways to improve it and things to add. For the first few drafts, make sure you spend your time strengthening the content. Once you are satisfied with the content, you can easily cut things out. Remember that your statement should cut down on flowery language and be concise so that you have space to show off yourself to the best of your ability.

Show your Personal Statement to tutors, teachers, and older friends for constructive feedback, but remember that you must be comfortable with how you come across in your Personal Statement. As with anything, the more time and effort you put into your statement, the better it will be – so start now!

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