Due to the intensely academic nature of Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the high demand for places, to make a successful application students must write their Personal Statement in a particular way. Here are 6 tips.
1. Start Early
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.
Tip: if a student is unsure on the particular course they wish to study, encourage them to start planning a more general Personal Statement, or even two separate ones for two different subjects. By writing about their enthusiasm and their experiences, they may find that their decision becomes obvious.
2. Focus on the academic
Prove your academic strength in your subject with examples of books you’ve read around your subject, an EPQ 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?
Instead of: “I am interested in molecular biology”
Try: “My interest in molecular biology led me to read X”
3. Set yourself up for an interview
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 Ovid’s Amores and contemporary love poetry” they can expect to be asked what it was in particular that they found fascinating, and they should think of some specific examples in advance to bring up in the interview.
This is one reason why it is crucial that students remain honest in their Personal Statement. Students should never claim to have read a book that they haven’t (even if they plan to read it after submitting their UCAS form). Likewise, they should not pretend to have an interest in a certain subject just because they think this will sound impressive.
4. Show that you can be thoughtful
Oxbridge admissions tutors are looking for thoughtful and perceptive students who are curious about their chosen subject.
An applicant who can recite a list of books they’ve read is much less impressive than an applicant who has read two or three books but has thought deeply about them. Encourage your students to talk through the process that led them to discover a certain historical interpretation or scientific paper in order to demonstrate a thoughtful approach to their studies.
Instead of: “I read X then X then…”
Try: “Upon learning about X at school I continued my studies by reading X. I was particularly interested by the chapter on X which led me to further research X…”
Another way of proving you can be a thoughtful is by drawing links between topics, books, articles, films, lectures, etc. This will demonstrate that you are not just capable of consuming information, but processing and applying it - a crucial skill that admissions tutors will look for.
Questions to consider:
- Did two different theorists/directors/writers/commentators interpret a concept/story/event differently?
- Is there a theme that runs through a set of concepts/books you’ve read?
- Did you disagree with an opinion presented at a lecture?
Tip: the quantity and breadth of material a student has consumed is less important than the way they have thought about them.
5. Try to be different…
In 2015, Oxford University received around 18,300 undergraduate applications for roughly 3,200 places. With the vast majority of these applicants holding top grades, it can be very difficult to stand out from the crowd.
This is where a student’s ability to think thoughtfully and originally comes in. In their Personal Statement students should think about how the subject for which they are applying relates to their other studies, the world around them and even their personal experiences.
For example, almost every Classics student out there will know the plot of Medea but how many of them will be able to demonstrate that it’s since been stolen by the screenwriters of Eastenders? Did campaigning for the most recent election remind you of a piece of propaganda from the First World War?
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.
6. …but don’t overdo it
Don’t try to be original for the sake of it. And do go overboard with the thesaurus - concentrate on being clear rather than impressive.
A note on the SAQ
If a student has submitted an application to Cambridge, they will receive an email within a couple of days after the submission containing a link to the SAQ form.
This is an additional form to the UCAS one, requiring you to fill out extra personal details and your complete education history, including the A Level (or IB or equivalent) topics you have covered, and the raw marks of any exams you have already sat as part of your current courses.
There is also a space to add an additional 1,200 character ‘mini personal statement’. A student can use this to outline specific aspects of the Cambridge course which appeal to them and anything else which they may not have been able to include in their main UCAS personal statement.
Advise your students that they need not agonise over drafting and redrafting an SAQ; it is simply a supplement to the main body of the Personal Statement, in case they have more they wish to tell the admissions tutors.
Applicants to Oxford will not have to complete an SAQ, so they may wish to include the elements of the course that appeal to them in their main Personal Statement. However, it’s important to remind pupils that they need the application to be relevant to all five of the universities they are applying to, so they should not mention Oxford (or any other specific university details) by name.