Current students - Oxbridge personal statement advice? Watch

candokoala
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We are thinking of putting together a guide to writing Oxbridge personal statements. So if you're a current student who has been through the process, let us know your advice.

What would you tell students to definitely bear in mind when writing a personal statement for Oxford or Cambridge?

What do Oxford and Cambridge look for in personal statements?

Is there as much emphasis on personal statements as there is at other unis?

Do they care about extracurricular activites as much as other unis (aside from those interests that are directly relevant to the college you're applying to)?
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RhynieChert
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1. your ps is one of the least important elements of your application, especially for a science subject, much more important are your grades, interview and admissions assessment. with that in mind don't spend too much time*on it, i didn't begin writing mine till september and only redrafted once, honestly it's pretty embarrassing to read back. all personal statements sound pretty cheesy as they're you trying to explain why you love to study your subject and why you're good at it.

2. your personal statement should be PERSONAL - write about what actually interests you, not what you think they want to see, makes it a lot easier to talk about should they happen to ask about it at interview (which is relatively unlikely, more likely in arts than sciences and will vary by college)

3. better to list fewer things but explore what interested you about them, and how you then furthered that interest, for example in mine how i read one book then what it made me think about then what i read next as a result.*

4. there are multiple possible ways to structure it, there isn't some 'magic formula' and as long as it makes sense it should be fine

5. don't waste more than a paragraph talking about things you've done unrelated to the subject you're applying for (i stuck all mine in a paragraph at the end and also gave the skills they had given me) - they really don't care about extra curriculars, only about how academically suited you are to the course and the uni

(my perspective is that of a sciences student at Cambridge)
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candokoala
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(Original post by RhynieChert)
1. your ps is one of the least important elements of your application, especially for a science subject, much more important are your grades, interview and admissions assessment. with that in mind don't spend too much time*on it, i didn't begin writing mine till september and only redrafted once, honestly it's pretty embarrassing to read back. all personal statements sound pretty cheesy as they're you trying to explain why you love to study your subject and why you're good at it.

2. your personal statement should be PERSONAL - write about what actually interests you, not what you think they want to see, makes it a lot easier to talk about should they happen to ask about it at interview (which is relatively unlikely, more likely in arts than sciences and will vary by college)

3. better to list fewer things but explore what interested you about them, and how you then furthered that interest, for example in mine how i read one book then what it made me think about then what i read next as a result.*

4. there are multiple possible ways to structure it, there isn't some 'magic formula' and as long as it makes sense it should be fine

5. don't waste more than a paragraph talking about things you've done unrelated to the subject you're applying for (i stuck all mine in a paragraph at the end and also gave the skills they had given me) - they really don't care about extra curriculars, only about how academically suited you are to the course and the uni

(my perspective is that of a sciences student at Cambridge)
Thanks for all your advice, it's really helpful given you've been there, done that. Did you also write another mini personal statement on your SAQ form?
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Martins1
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Hey, I study a humanities joint honours at Oxford. Here's my advice:

Firstly, different colleges, unis and subjects use the Personal Statement more than others. Humanities at Oxford use it a little bit more. They often use the Personal Statement as a springboard for discussion in interview - a classic formula in the humanities in particular is to start with something (e.g. a book or topic) you've mentioned on your PS (i.e. something you should know about) and from there to find something related which you don't know (often by stretching you) and seeing how you react.

10 pieces of advice for an Oxbridge Personal Statement:

1) My number 1 advice is to make your personal statement something ONLY YOU COULD WRITE. I cannot stress this enough! I don't just mean to make it personal to you, but make sure that only someone with your exact knowledge & level of expertise could have written it. So, for example, I have no expertise in medicine. Nevertheless, I can easily write all of the following:
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"Ever since I was born, I've been interested in medicine. I am suited to this medical course because I am extremely compassionate, dedicated to the field of medicine and academically strong. For example, I recently read "When Breath becomes Air" and was fascinated by the patient-role dynamic he describes. I think that the functioning of the lungs is intriguing, and this has been underpinned by the fact that my father was recently diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, which taught me not only about the importance of medicine in society, but also about the importance of patient care in medicine..." and so on.

My point is that if I, with literally 0 knowledge or interest in medicine, can write that, then so can anyone. So if you really are knowledgeable about or interested in medicine, don't write that, or anything like that. You need to write something that proves that you have that knowledge. For example, summarise the key arguments of an essay you wrote, or your EPQ, or your rebuttal to a point you read in a book. I wrote my entire personal statement basically only on two essays I wrote - my EPQ and an essay competition I entered. No one who wasn't generally interested in my subject area and knowledgeable about my subject area could have written my statement - it was just too technical and specialist. One way of thinking about this is to consider how many hours of work it would take to gain the knowledge and experience to be able to write the personal statement you did. If someone could write the PS you've produced after 2 hours of searching on SparkNotes and wikipedia, it needs more work. This piece of advice underpins all other advice I can give.

2) Show don't tell - Anyone can tell admissions tutors that "I'm interested in X". Compare the following:
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1) "I am really interested in philosophy, particularly the problem of identity which I read about in Simon Blackburn's Think. I went to see a lecture on the subject, which I strongly disagreed with. Nevertheless, I think this sort of interaction is valuable and it is this process of argumentation which i really enjoy. As a result, I am really looking forward to being able to challenge myself and develop my world views by studying philosophy at university."
2) "When I read Blackburn's section on personal identity in Think, I was struck by the difficulty of the problem. If what makes me "me" is my body, then this is problematic - after all, I would still think I'm the same person if my leg were cut off - or, as happens every 7 years, if every cell in my body changed. But, if what makes me "me" is my mind, a similar problem arises: it entails that I would be a different person if I lost my memories, or if my personality changed as a result of a mental illness. Yet we don't think like this in society. Bewildered, I watched a lecture which cited Parfit's claim that it is survival and not personal identity that matters. I intuitively felt that this must be wrong, and so decided to write my EPQ countering this claim. I argued that..." [and so on]

The difference is stark. At no point in (2) did I say that I was interested in philosophy, that I was curious about philosophy, or even that I had a good ability to understand and engage with rational argument - but nevertheless the reader believes that. That is what is meant by show, don't tell. Yes, it is longer, but it proves without needing to say so that you are dedicated, intellectually curious, intellectually capable and well-read. I've read countless personal statements which are just the first example over and over again.

3) There are no shortcuts for the personal statement - just because it's 4000 characters, doesn't mean it should only take a couple hours. It will be based on hundreds of hours of work you've done in your subject. Only after a lot of work will you be able to truly show Oxbridge that you actually are intelligent, motivated, curious and knowledgeable. The hardest bit is the cutting down. That it is only 4000 characters makes it harder, not easier.

4) Don't write about lots, write in depth. You need to write with detail and depth about a few topics, rather than at a surface-level about lots of topics. Similarly, whatever you're talking about should have been engaged with in depth, rather than in quantity. If you're talking about a book - depth of reading massively outweighs breadth of reading and this should show on your personal statement. Talk about lectures, podcasts, blog entries, essays you wrote, a TV programme, a discussion you once had... whatever it is, show that you've thought about it in depth - and do so by discussing it in depth on paper. Listing is your worst enemy. Admissions tutors everywhere, including Oxbridge, do NOT want a list of books you claim to have read, or a list of subjects you say you're interested in. After all, anyone who hasn't read those books or isn't interested in those subjects could write "I read X and Y and Z and...". Saying so doesn't make it so. If you really did read a book, and read it in depth, then you'll be able to bring up a point it mentioned, and what you thought about it.

5) Don't explain a book/subject back to them. You're going to be read by experts and world-leaders in a field. Don't try to explain Mill's Utilitarianism to them. Firstly, they already know it - they're not interested. Secondly, they already know a lot more about it than you do, I guarantee. Thirdly, it's a waste of space. Good students will be able to explain what Mill said - that's true. But the best students will be able to engage with what they've read/thought about. Tell them what you think about a subject. Do you think that Mill's utilitarianism doesn't account for justice enough? Why? Do you think there are any convincing counter-arguments Mill could make? How would you respond to them? Are there any other ethical positions you would adopt which you feel don't suffer from this position? Do they suffer from other issues as a result? Etc. Explain in detail - but clearly and concisely. The same applies to work experience. Explain what you learned, not what you did, and how you reacted to this.

6) Make it relevant. This is obvious, yet so often ignored. Almost everything you do (reading books, magazines, articles; watching talks, films, documentaries; going to lectures; listening to podcasts; writing essays, essay competitions, EPQs; debating, going to clubs or societies; doing work experience/placements etc) is ONLY useful insofar as to show your interest in the subject IF YOU CAN ACTUALLY USE THIS TO ENHANCE YOUR UNDERSTANDING AND DISCUSSION OF A SUBJECT. I cannot stress this enough. Anyone can read a book - only good students can understand it fully and only the best students can discuss it with ease and sophistication. Telling them that you worked at Credit Suisse for a week with your Uncle is of no use unless you can tell them what it taught you.

7) Structure - make sure you PS has some structure. The structure itself should make it clear why you're mentioning something. Also, make sure it reads nicely. Admissions tutors have to read through tens if not hundreds of personal statements. Don't use extraneous flowery language - use precise and concise language which is easy to understand and gets your point across efficiently.

8) Don't waste space - it's obvious, but again, it's so often overlooked. Stuff that typically clogs up space:
a) Saying the same thing twice. ("I am interested in geography because.... For example.... that's why I'm interested in geography")
b) Telling, not showing. ("I am interested in geography because... I am a dedicated and intellectually curious student....")
c) Redundant flowery language ("As I slipped into a deep and dark existential angst regarding the potential, and somewhat plausible, possibility that scepticism is necessarily right and that we have no hope, no chance, no ability to know anything, any subject, any proposition, I found a shining light at the end of the tunnel in..." [YAWN])
d) Introductions. I don't think I've ever read an interesting or worthwhile intro. If you're going to mention something of value, just get to the point. ("My decision to apply for a history course was not one which was taken lightly, because I fundamentally believe that history is about the ability to learn from the past - and that is, in my opinion, as important as anything.")

9) Grammar and spelling - I mean it goes without saying. Check your work. Get other people to help check it. Don't make a silly grammar or spelling mistake. If you are as serious about Oxbridge as you're claiming in your PS, you'll have checked it meticulously at least 10 times - mistakes don't just slip through when you're doing that.

10) Process - Considering 1-9, my advice in terms of going about writing your personal statement is as follows:
step 0: before you do anything, write a "love letter" to your subject, and if you need to, to the uni as well. What I mean by this is get all the telling out of the way. Tell them how much you're interested in cardiology, just how passionate you are about quantum mechanics, how dedicated you are to studying the law etc. etc. Write a love letter mentioning what is so undeniably fantastic about the university and how great the university is. Keep working on it until you're getting a bit bored of your own voice. Now that that's out your system, delete all of it, and now you can start working on your PS.
step 1: write down all the possible things you could talk about - (books, talks, podcasts, essays etc; your interests; work experience/relevant olympiads; extra-curriculars; positions of responsibility etc etc)
step 2: whittle down to a reasonable number of things you want to talk about - and try to categorise them in a logical manner (e.g. "this book and this lecture were related, so I'll write about both of those under the title of (say) Victorian literature")
step 3: write it in full. don't worry too much about the character count, just write what you want to write. write it until you have what you would consider a pretty polished personal statement, with the exception that it's probably WAY over the character count (often 2-3 times as much).
step 4: decide which sections/topics are the most important - scrap the rest. You probably greatly underestimated how much you'd write for each, and now see that you should cut a few topics. You probably are also aware that one or two of the topics make the flow of the PS substantially worse, or are just weaker. Cut them. Your PS should now be between 1.5 - 2 times the required character count.
step 5: heavily edit what's left - only keep what is of value. Cut sentences which are extraneous. Get rid of that introduction. Halve the size of each paragraph by going through sentence by sentence and asking yourself "what value does this bring to the PS?". And I mean that literally. I went through each sentence and would write down a bullet point list for each sentence about what value it brings. If it didn't bring any new value / it didn't bring enough value, I just cut the sentence. If it brought limited value, I considered merging that with other sentences. What does the sentence show to the university? If the answer is "nothing", get rid of it.
E.g. just writing this I was about to write "If it didn't bring any value another sentence didn't add" but realised that can be said more concisely: "if it didn't bring any new value"...
At this point you should be nearing the requisite character count.
step 6: polish this first draft of your PS. Dot the i's and cross the t's. Make sure the spelling and punctuation is perfect. Make the syntax of every sentence easy to read. Make sure you've used capitals and apostrophes in the right places. Get it to exactly the right character count by eliminating any surplus whatsoever.
step 7: get some external advice. Get a friend or a parent or a teacher to look at it. Ask them to focus on different things: 1) is it a good personal statement?; 2) is it easy to understand?; 3) is all the grammar/spelling correct? When I did this I asked different people different things depending on their strengths.
(One caveat to this: don't ask too many people. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Personally, I think two advisers per each of the above questions is about right. Since your teacher will probably comment on all three, I think it works best to ask one teacher, one family member and two friends (one who does the same subject, and one who doesn't))
step 8: integrate this advice, working your way through steps 4-6 again.
step 9: put your current PS on one page, and pull up an empty word doc. Now rewrite the entire thing.
This sounds ridiculous, but it's well-known writing advice. When we have to rewrite, our own inherent positive bias towards what we wrote disappears because we're all too lazy to write things out again unless it's absolutely essential and amazing. Earlier, out of laziness you would just pass over something, thinking "I quite like that". Now, you won't be bothered to re-type it because you recognise that it's not necessary, or not good enough. This will also vastly decrease your character count because you'll probably think of ways to reduce the length of every sentence by rephrasing it - you can almost always say the same thing in a simpler way, and in less characters. This also makes it much clearer and easier to read and understand.
step 10: lather rinse and repeat - personally I would then just do steps 7 and 8 again and again until it's perfect. Every time you make serious changes you'll want to do step 9 again. Any substantial changes I would personally always ask my friends/family/teachers about.
step 11: the final check. Personally I would do this with completely fresh eyes. When you think you're happy with it, and it's hit the right character count, leave it for a day and then come back to it. Once you've perfected it with fresh eyes, it's done.
step 12: leave it alone! You can do too much on your PS. It will start to only make sense to you because you've read it 1001 times - and to your advisers, because they've read it 19 times. Deciding if you prefer a dash or a semi-colon isn't worth it. Once you're done, you're done - leave it alone!
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RhynieChert
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(Original post by candokoala)
Thanks for all your advice, it's really helpful given you've been there, done that. Did you also write another mini personal statement on your SAQ form?
yes but not a personal statement so much as just me explaining why I wanted to do natural sciences highlighting my interesting in taking earth sciences and my intention to study history and philosophy of science in my second year after getting a grounding in the physical sciences. honestly it's not worth worrying about as it's so short (I think the limit is like 1000 characters or something?) and no one should worry about leaving it blank, it's mostly for explaining your interest in the Cambridge course if it's different than the others you're applying for, like natural sciences, you won't ever be penalised for leaving it blank
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Ashleyh12345
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(Original post by candokoala)
We are thinking of putting together a guide to writing Oxbridge personal statements. So if you're a current student who has been through the process, let us know your advice.

What would you tell students to definitely bear in mind when writing a personal statement for Oxford or Cambridge?

What do Oxford and Cambridge look for in personal statements?

Is there as much emphasis on personal statements as there is at other unis?

Do they care about extracurricular activites as much as other unis (aside from those interests that are directly relevant to the college you're applying to)?
What would you tell students to definitely bear in mind when writing a personal statement for Oxford or Cambridge? I encourage people to think about it more like a cover letter for a job than an essay (obviously without the formal trappings of a cover letter). Don't feel the need to fill every character (there aren't marks to be picked up for each sentence!) and focus on why you want the course and why you're the brightest bunny in the pack. Appreciated the comparison isn't directly useful to the 17-yr-olds themselves, but it can mean much more to parents and teachers (I coach a lot of international applicants, whose teachers don't necessarily know the system so well), which in turn helps the applicants.
What do Oxford and Cambridge look for in personal statements? Not to sound pedantic, but they don't want anything at all from the statement itself, what they want is from the candidate. The statement is therefore one of a few methods available to a candidate to demonstrate they have what is sought. You should put the question to the tutors but, principally, they want someone who has understood what the course involves (you'd be amazed how many turn up to interview with not even the most basic understanding of what they'll be studying or how, e.g. uni level maths or economics differs from their A-level courses), are at least half as interested in the subject they've chosen to dedicate their lives to as they are, and show a clear aptitude for it. I'd say that order of priority. In my experience interviewers are faster to ding someone who they think only applied because they were good at the subject at school regardless of glowing exam results than someone clearly passionate about the subject but an imperfect academic record, hence every year there are always a few people with more A-levels than digits who get dinged while others get offers only to not make the grades. That said, as others have said, the decision is the tutor's and the tutors are all individuals with their own preferences.
Do they care about extracurricular activites as much as other unis (aside from those interests that are directly relevant to the college you're applying to)? In a word, not too much (and I'm not sure what you mean by 'directly relevant to the college' unless you're talking choral scholarships, wherein the answer would still be no, as you can get an offer without the choral scholarship). Give them a sentence or two at the end, not more, is my usual advice.

Interested to know the outcome of this product as I do a lot of PS advice myself. Is there a way you could keep me posted?
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