Writing your personal statement is perhaps the most difficult and time-consuming part of applying to university.
You have just 4000 characters to convince the admissions tutor that you have both the motivation and the ability to flourish over the next three or four years - you need to draft, redraft, and then redraft again.
There are a lot of myths out there about what you should and shouldn’t say. Here, then, is a brief guide on what to include on a personal statement for a top university:
1. Your Areas of Interest Within Your Chosen Subject
Whatever you’re applying to study, it’s a good idea to show straight away that you understand exactly what the subject involves. This is especially important if you’re applying for a subject that you haven’t studied previously.
A great way to do this is to pick out some areas within the subject that particularly interest you. If you’re applying for a degree in Philosophy, are you interested in historical or contemporary philosophy? Are you interested in ethics or metaphysics? Both?
Point out that the course you’re applying for will allow you to explore these interests further. Moreover, many courses are joint honours. This means that you study more than one subject at a time. In these cases, it’s worthwhile pointing out why you would like to study these subjects together and how they interact.
It’s also important to make sure that you give each subject its fair share of the personal statement. An application to study French and Russian which hardly mentions Russian will likely raise some eyebrows!
2. Your Thoughts on What You’ve Read
Reading around your subject is a great way to show that you’re prepared to take your learning into your own hands. However, it’s not enough simply to list off a load of books. A reading list tells the admissions tutor nothing about your academic ability or how you think – you might have read every page of John Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’ and not understood a single word.
Instead of a long list, mention just a few important books and spend a couple of sentences explaining your opinion on the work – were you convinced by the author's arguments? Why? Why not?
3. Learning Experiences
Travelling around the world, working as an intern, visiting museums and galleries, and so on, are only worth including on a personal statement if you can explain what you've learned as a result.
While it’s great if what you’ve learned relates specifically to your course, keep in mind that top universities are also looking for students with good time-management, organisation, independent living, and communication skills.
While such transferable skills should obviously not be the focus of your personal statement, they may be worth a sentence or two.
4. Super-Curricular Activities
Extracurricular activities are any activities that you do outside of your studies. Super-curricular activities are extra-curricular activities that relate specifically to your studies.
As far as extracurricular activities go, top universities are only really interested in super-curricular activities. If you’re applying to study Chemistry, your admissions tutor isn’t going to be that fussed if you can play the guitar, kick a ball, or juggle.
Indeed, Oxford University has said on their own official website that “there’s a myth that Oxford is looking for the most well-rounded applicants, and that you will only be offered a place if you have a long list of varied extracurricular activities. In fact, extracurricular activities are only helpful in so far as they demonstrate the selection criteria for your course.”
Oxford Royale Academy, one of the largest organisations running summer schools in Oxford, have plenty of suggestions for super-curricular activities for a variety of chosen subjects.
5. Evidence of Passion
‘I'm really passionate about…’ is meaningless unless backed up by clear evidence. Claiming to be passionate about learning other languages, for example, looks pretty wobbly if you've never taken the time to have lessons or teach yourself some key phrases.
As a general rule, show, don’t tell. If you clearly have areas of interest within your subject, have thoughts on what you've read, and have participated in super-curriculars, your passion will come across just fine. There’s no need to use up all your characters on buzzwords. Maybe even avoid the word ‘passion’ altogether.
For more advice on how to put together a personal statement, check out the UCAS site.
Oliver Hurcum writes for Inspiring Interns, which helps career starters find the perfect job, in everything from sales jobs to marketing internships. To browse their graduate jobs London listings, visit their website.
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