Writing a Personal Statement
What are Oxford tutors looking for?
The key issue is to find out more about why an applicant is applying for the course they have chosen: this is particularly important when applying for a subject that they have not studied before, such as Medicine or Engineering.
The personal statement should tell the tutor the reasons why that subject genuinely interests them, and should evidence that they understand what is required to study the course. For example if applying for Computer Science at Oxford, they should demonstrate that they know maths is integral to the subject. It is important to remind students that Oxford tutors do not have a checklist of criteria or topics that they expect to read in the personal statement but it can be helpful for applicants to follow the selection criteria for their chosen subject at Oxford and their other university choices.
Tutors are also looking to find out about the applicant’s skills and experience which may demonstrate their potential to succeed on the course. However, it is important to note that work experience is not a formal requirement for undergraduate courses at Oxford and candidates are free to make reference to skills or experience acquired in any context to illustrate compatibility with the selection criteria. Steve Roberts, Professor of Materials Science, makes clear that not having any work experience does not mean the applicant receives a mark against them, instead, where work experience is mentioned, it is important that an applicant is able to reflect on their experience and what they have learned as a result. The length or perceived quality of the work experience is not an important factor; what matters is that an applicant has thought critically about it.
Lucinda Rumsey, English Tutor and Tutor for Admissions at Mansfield College, is interested in further reading beyond the bounds of the current curriculum, particularly as students studying English at Oxford may be reading up to 100 books a year.
Tutors want more than a list of authors and texts; they want to know what the applicant thought of what they read. Try to remind students to engage critically with everything they include in the personal statement. Not all applicants will be asked about aspects of their personal statement in the interview but if they are, it is important that they have considered any counter arguments in texts that they have mentioned as well as their own personal opinion.
Students applying for maths, or maths based subjects, often worry about what to include in their personal statement as the selection criteria essentially focuses on their mathematical ability and potential. Dr Richard Earl, Tutor in Mathematics, suggests students should focus on writing about those areas they particularly enjoy in maths and any wider reading in maths that students have come across.
Tutors are not looking to make applicants jump over hurdles in the interview and often the personal statement is a useful starting point for a student to talk about something in their comfort zone. Therefore, it is even more important that applicants think carefully about what they choose to include in their statement as they are essentially highlighting topics to tutors which they should be knowledgeable about and able to discuss in some detail. For example, a student applying to study Experimental Psychology, who states they have a keen interest in consumer behaviour, should be prepared to answer questions about their thoughts on consumer behaviour, relevant models or independent reading and research around this topic.
Suggested reading lists for students can be found at www.ox.ac.uk/reading.