Writing Your Oxbridge Personal Statement
Writing your Oxbridge personal statement? Being two of the most prestigious universities in the world, and having many applicants who surpass their requirements, we've provided a few pointers to help your personal statement stand out in your Oxbridge application.
The extra level of preparation that an Oxbridge application requires, combined with the October deadline, means that pupils should try to start planning their Personal Statement in Year 12.
The first draft of the personal statement should be completed by the end of summer holiday between Year 12 and 13, which means any extra reading or work experience that a student may wish to include in it must be completed before this time.
Focus on your academic strengths
Prove your academic strength in your subject with examples of books you’ve read around your subject, an essay you’ve written, a prize you’ve won, lectures you’ve attended, documentaries you’ve watched or even podcasts you’ve listened to.
Admissions decisions at Oxford and Cambridge are solely based on academic ability and potential. Whereas a regular personal statement might be split 75/25 into academic content and content focussed on extracurricular activities, this should be more like an 90/10 split for an Oxbridge personal statement.
Students should therefore try to use the limited word count to only discuss experiences which have helped expand their understanding or passion for their subject.
Here are some questions for to reflect on:
- How have my experiences expanded my enthusiasm for my subject?
- What skills/knowledge have I gained from my experiences?
- How will this make me a better student in the future?
Discuss the subject
- Be passionate. A requirement not often mentioned in guidelines for Oxbridge applications but which is of just as much importance is genuine interest and love for the subject you desire to study. Try to illustrate this in your personal statement not just through your achievements but also through actually talking about the subject.
- Tutors will expect you to have followed up on your interest in your subject through extracurricular activities and having read around the subject. Make sure to mention what you’ve read and done and explain to them in a way that shows you really know what you’re talking about. Remember the way to show genuine interest is not to tell them 'I’ve read X and I’ve done Y' but to make it implicit from what you’re saying. Talking ABOUT the content of what you’ve done or read as opposed to mentioning it in a sentence is a far better way of doing this.
- Express your thoughts and opinions, feel free to criticise or state your point of view on anything related to the subject as it will show analytical skills which is what the admissions tutors will be looking for. In preparation for writing your UCAS statement it’s important to read widely, visit places of interest, attend conferences and lectures and get work experience in order to deepen and expand your knowledge and understanding of your subject. Don't just take in all the information, but actually critically engage with it and form your own opinions. Thinking about and engaging in the current topics around your subject will be a major part of your life at university, so it's important to stay up to date with things by reading journals, newspapers and magazines. Showing that you’re already doing this will make you stand out from the crowd, and if you’re invited to interview it will give the tutors a good starting point for discussion.
Write about how your wider research has developed your thinking in your personal statement too. For example, if you’ve read a book about a period of history you’ve been studying at A-Level you can write a sentence about how that book gave you an alternative point of view that you hadn’t previously considered. Or, you can talk about the role you took in a debate at school and how that either confirmed or changed your opinion on a topic area.
- Be honest. Don’t lie about having read books that you haven’t or being interested in things you aren’t as you may get caught out at the interview stage. Most admissions tutors are looking for potential as opposed to prior knowledge so try not to make stuff up. In the past people who’ve gotten in have quoted from the likes of Harry Potter or nursery rhymes; which if done well, comes across just as well (if not slightly cooler) than quoting from a well known academic. If you do choose to use a famous quote or talk about a well known book then try to say something different!
Talk about yourself
- Make them want to meet you! Oxford and Cambridge place a great deal of importance on the interviews so to make sure you get selected for one, try to show the real you in your statement. It shouldn’t just be a list of your achievements (though I’m sure for some of you this could fill the entire word count). Whilst what you’ve done may be impressive, giving them a feel for your real interest and ideas will make them want to meet you and talk about these in an interview.
- Tie in your hobbies and interests to your academic abilities (where possible). This will make you a more interesting candidate and the tutors will be keen to find out more about you.
All successful Oxbridge candidates are interviewed as part of the admissions process, and interviewers often draw on things mentioned in the Personal Statement. To help put you in control of the interview as much as possible, you can leave ‘hooks’ for the interviewer which directs them towards subjects you will be able to expand upon. If an applicant writes: “I was fascinated by the similarities between Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte” they can expect to be asked what it was in particular that they found interesting, and think of some specific examples to talk about in the interview.
This is one reason why you should always be honest in your personal statement. You should never claim to have read a book that you haven’t, even if you plan to read it after submitting your UCAS form. Also, don't pretend to have an interest in a certain subject just because you think it will sound impressive.
- Try not to be clichéd and just tell them you read magazines like the Economist, as they’ll already be rolling their eyes as they read it. Talk instead about an article you found particularly interesting or your opinions on that newspaper to make you stand out from the crowd and show you have something to say.
- A strong opening is vital. This may seem pretty obvious but far too many people start their statement with a line about how they’ve recently become interested in the subject they’ve chosen to study. Think of different ways to start, perhaps with a quote or a story or talking about an article you’ve read, again remember not to go for overused quotes or stories again.
- Use language that you are comfortable with, and don't rely on a thesaurus to make you sound intelligent. Stick to words and phrases you would use in everyday conversation, and you will come across as a more genuine person that the tutors will want to connect with.
- Don’t necessarily stick to the standard format for personal statements. Whilst it’s important to include all the necessary information about your subject and yourself if you can think of a different way to present it then don’t be afraid to go for it.
For 2017 entry, Oxford University received almost 20,000 undergraduate applications for around 3,200 undergraduate places. This means there are around 6 applications for every available place. In 2017, Cambridge University received just over 17,000 applications for around 4,500 places. With many of these applicants holding top grades, it can be very difficult to stand out from the crowd. This is where your original thinking comes in handy. In your personal statement, think about how the subject you are applying relates to your other studies, the world around you and your personal experiences.
It’s important for the candidate to remember that the interviewers have made a career out of their chosen subject; they will genuinely be interested to have a conversation with you if you can bring an interesting or original thought to your personal statement and interview.