Writing a Personal Statement
Top tips for advising students
Extra-curricular is secondary. Remind students that Oxford’s admissions decisions are based on academic criteria, and excellence in an extra-curricular activity will not compensate for lower academic potential. Link any activities, hobbies or outside interests to the subject as much as possible and don’t write lists; choose what is included carefully.
Honesty is key! Each year a number of students still find themselves in the awkward situation of being asked about a book they said they read or a topic they said they were ‘passionate about’ in their personal statement but unfortunately they never managed to complete the book or perhaps were not so keen on the topic after all. The best advice to give students is that they need to remember that anything they include in their personal statement could be a talking point in the interview so they should only choose to mention books, or topics, they have definitely read, thought about and will feel comfortable talking about in depth.
Read aloud. Some students might find it easier if they imagine they are talking to a tutor across their desk. This is a good way for them to spot where their statement does not work well by reading it aloud. If possible, asking students to read each other’s statements in pairs and then asking them to note down the applicant’s key qualities that they picked up on is a useful exercise to get students to think about how they are selling their skills.
Mind Map. Many students find just starting the first paragraph the trickiest part of writing their personal statement. Creating a mind map of all their reasons for choosing the course, their skills, achievements and relevant extra-curricular activities could be a helpful start and a good self-esteem exercise.
Read the last paragraph first. Often the first half of the personal statement is the section that is re-drafted and considered more carefully. If you ask the student to read their statement backwards (from the last paragraph to the first) they may pick up on some of those obvious errors and hopefully it will draw closer attention to the content and style of the second half of their statement.
Limited space. Don’t forget, students can only enter up to 4,000 characters (this includes spaces) or 47 lines of text (this includes blank lines) in their personal statement. UCAS recommend that students prepare their personal statement offline using a word-processing package and copy and paste it into the Apply system to prevent any issues with time-out (Apply will time-out after 35 minutes of inactivity).
Keep a notebook with you. It can be difficult for students to remember, when required, all those things that they wanted to put in their personal statement about their interests in the course and the wider reading they have done. Writing down anything relevant that comes to mind or remembering any books, programmes, public lectures or even conversations that inspired them about their subject leading up to their application is helpful. This is a useful way for students starting Year 12 / Lower Sixth (or equivalent) to think early about their subject motivation and the value of wider reading.