Every year our team of former Oxbridge Admissions Tutors look through dozens of candidates’ Personal Statements. While every Personal Statement is unique, there are certain elements that Admissions Tutors will always be looking for, and certain mistakes that crop up time and again. In this resource we have compiled the six issues most commonly highlighted by our team, allowing you to give your students the best possible guidance in this aspect of their application.
The start of a personal statement is very challenging for many students. Few will have experience writing anything similar, and many fail to strike the right balance in their opening sentences. Our Admissions Tutors emphasise the need for candidates to stand out – they need to sell their interest in the subject with a punchy start. All too many fail to get across their supposed passion in the subject to the reader.
“You need a punchy start that sells you and your interest in land use and the issues this raises in Law, Economics and Geography.”
“The introduction is all about Economics – the economists know why they like their subject – what you need to do is talk about you and your enthusiasm for the subject from the very start”
The other side of this, however, is that some fall into the dreaded ‘X factor style’, overly-dramatic opening, which may even risk being treated with derision, so needs to be avoided too.
While there is no ‘correct’ structure for personal statements, and our Admissions Tutors react positively to those which come across as genuinely personal when they are read, a failure to separate out themes with structure is a common issue.
“One large paragraph is an eyesore, break up into ‘why’, ‘experience’, ‘lateral reading’ and ‘conclusion’ to bring everything together“
Points need to stand out by themselves, so a student trying simultaneously to get across their aptitude for calculus, their ability to work as part of a team and their interest in the work of a particular author. Presenting their attributes like this risks certain aspects being lost on the reader. The skill is in making the points stand out by themselves while still allowing the piece to flow neatly from one section to the next.
“Make sure your message stands out clearly with a separation of ideas, yet making connections between them”
The personal statement is, primarily, a chance to show one’s academic achievements and potential. Accordingly, overly-jovial writing styles are frequently met with negative comments by Admissions Tutors. Our team consistently emphasise that the inclusion of jokes, anecdotes and inappropriate exclamation marks are risks that candidates simply should not take; an academic style is always preferable.
“Revise your tone: there is no need to be unconventional – this comes across as emotional storytelling at the moment”
Furthermore, a student who is able to convey sensitivity to his or her existing experience and knowledge is always welcomed. Other students unfortunately come across as thinking they already know all that there is to know about their chosen subject, or make outlandish sweeping statements that may entirely overlook areas of academic debate.
A very common issue raised is the way candidates discuss the books they (at least claim to) have read. Many will essentially just provide a list of books, while others’ analyses are far too superficial.
“You need to discuss the authors’ arguments with more depth and analysis – this is just a reading list!”
With only a certain number of characters available there is clearly a limit to what can be done, but students should try to show why they thought of the book and why. A scholarly approach to this is essential, with the focus a focus on the academic content rather than anything else. Showing how the reading has had an impact on them, e.g. to do some further research in a particular area, is also a big plus.
“Explain more why your reading has been important for you. Have a paragraph on your outside interests and achievements, and how if at all there is a connecting theme to your academic interests.”
There is not necessarily a need for a ‘conclusion’ in a personal statement, though some admissions tutors indicate that they like to see something resembling one. There is certainly nothing wrong with drawing it to a close with a neat finishing couple of sentences.
“It would be nice to see something separate at the end summing up why you are an ideal candidate”
However, some students waste hundreds of characters simply reiterating large aspects of what they have already said. Long sentences detailing the future of their chosen subject and why this means it should be studied are also not uncommon, and Oxbridge tutors clearly don’t need lessons in such areas of discussion.
“This could end much more strongly – it currently drags on quite a bit and is telling me what I’ve already read about you”
In essence, given that personal statements should be content-heavy, and that this applies right until the end, any feeling that the final paragraph is dragging on should indicate the need for a rethink.
Despite this being a central part of the UCAS Application, it is startling how many basic spelling and grammatical errors crop up. Even in final drafts typographic errors are not uncommon. These are simply negative marks against an applicant’s name that do not need to be there. Oxbridge candidates should be perfectly capable of writing 4,000 characters of error-free text – many just need to take a little more time to ensure their work is thoroughly proofed, either by themselves or by their family/friends.
When advising your students to write their Personal Statement, it is important to encourage substance over style in the initial planning stages. Sourcing content that demonstrates how a student’s history and abilities apply to the subject they are applying for will allow the statement to be interesting and impressive, without falling into arrogance.
This brainstorm sheet is the way to figure out what that content will be. Give your students this sheet to help them begin to think about the information they want to include in their personal statement.
This workbook is interactive, giving students space to brainstorm and write down information in structured areas to help focus on what should be included.