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10 Tips On How To Write The Perfect Personal Statement: From A Cambridge Grad

Your personal statement is an important part the university admissions process.

Sure, it’s not the only part. And for Oxford and Cambridge, it’s actually one of the lesser important aspects – after your achieved grades, predicted grades and performance at interview.

Nonetheless, this is your first opportunity to really stand out from the crowd.

Why are you the best student for the course? What makes you unique? What have you done and achieved to demonstrate your passion for the course you’re applying for?

These are some of the questions that your personal statement needs to answer.

Student writing their personal statement using a laptop and notebook

Put yourself in the shoes of your typical admissions tutor for a moment. They have to trawl through thousands of personal statements every single year…

…so what is going to make you stand out, be remembered and ultimately made an offer?

In this article, we’re going to look specifically at how to write an exceptional personal statement when applying to Oxford and Cambridge. However, the advice in this blog post is still applicable to writing a personal statement for any other university you might be applying to.

It’s worth noting that the main difference between this type of personal statement and any other, is that Oxford and Cambridge do not care all too much about your extracurricular activities! All they care about is why you are passionate, dedicated and competent enough to study the specific subject you’ve applied for.

So, here are 10 tips on how to make your 4,000 characters worthy of receiving an offer.

1. Make sure you know what you want to study

It sounds obvious, but this is something you can’t afford to get wrong. Not only for your personal statement – but for your life!

Whatever subject and course you decide to apply for, you are going to be studying day in, day out, for 3 or more years. It won’t be an enjoyable time if you don’t like the subject you’ve decided to apply for.

The subject you choose should be one that you genuinely enjoy studying at school, and it should be one that you’re quite good at.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’ve made the right choice, perhaps ask yourself the following questions:

a) Do you enjoy going to lessons at school for this subject?

b) Are you often curious to read ahead of the class material?

c) Do you read books outside of school on the subject matter?

d) Have you done anything else outside of school related to the subject, like taking part in societies, entering competitions or doing work experience?

e) Can you see yourself studying the subject for the next 3 years and becoming an expert in it?

If the answer to at least 3 of these questions is “no” then it may be time to reconsider your options and probe what it is you’re genuinely curious and passionate about.

Now, when it comes to the personal statement, your passion for your chosen subject needs to shine through. This will be really hard to do if you’re not authentically interested in the subject. You will have little to talk about and there will be little substance of past examples that you can use to expand on.

Conversely, if you’re genuinely driven by the subject, then you will likely have plenty of examples, experiences and achievements to demonstrate your enthusiasm.

So, without labouring the point – ensure that you are sure about what it is you want to study before starting your personal statement.

Undergraduate student looking confused

2. Read other successful personal statements before starting your own

Writing a personal statement without having looked at any real examples is like trying to find a light switch in a dark room – it’s hard to know what you’re aiming at!

It’s therefore wise to look at examples of personal statements that other successful students have written in the past. Ideally, you will be able to find personal statements for the same subject, course and university you’re applying to.

If you’re not sure where to look, try doing a generic Google search on “Examples of personal statements [Course Name] [University name]” or try these links below:

Oxford university personal statement examples
Cambridge university personal statement examples
General personal statement examples by subject

When you’re reading these examples, bear in mind that every student and therefore every personal statement can differ quite substantially – whether it is the structure, tone of voice or language used. Personal statements are of also of course personal and so they draw up on examples and experiences that are unique to the individual writing it.

However, you will start to notice some common themes amongst successful personal statements. We’ll explore what these themes are throughout this post, but before you read on, try to decipher what these are for yourself! You might want to investigate why you think these personal statements were successful, and what you could apply to your own personal statement in order to be equally as effective.

3. Do not plagiarise

Plagiarism can be defined as:
“the submission of material (written, visual or oral) originally produced by another person or persons, without correct acknowledgement, in such a way that the work could be assumed to be the student’s own.”

Plagiarism may involve the unattributed use of another person’s work, ideas, opinions, theory, statistics, graphs, models, paintings, performance, computer code, drawings, quotations of another person’s actual spoken or written words, or paraphrases of another person’s spoken or written words.

Whilst it is a good idea to explore examples of personal statements before writing your own, it’s imperative that you do not copy from them.

UCAS have a system which is proficient at detecting plagiarism. If you are caught, it will flag up on the system and may result in you being rejected from your university choices.

4. Write a list of everything you’ve done in the past 3 years

Before you go about writing the first draft of your personal statement, you might find it useful to write up a list of everything you’ve done in the last 3 years.

This can be anything from:

  • The subjects and topics you have studied
  • The books you have read
  • Work experience
  • Societies you’ve joined
  • School positions you’ve held, such as prefect or Head Boy/Girl
  • Awards you’ve won both inside and outside of school
  • Competitions you have entered
  • Podcasts you have listened to
  • Instruments you’ve played
  • Projects you’ve taken part in
  • Lectures you’ve attended
  • Additional qualifications such as the EPQ

Once you’ve written up this list, you can also rank order each example so that those you are most proud, or those that are most relevant to your course, are at the top.

This list essentially enables you to pick and choose the most relevant examples as you are writing, in order to make your personal statement more comprehensive and concrete.

Importantly: be selective. This exercise isn’t to overload your personal statement with everything you have accomplished in the last 3 years, but more to incorporate the most impressive and relevant examples.

5. Demonstrate your passion and enthusiasm about the course you’re applying for

This is arguably one of the most important tips on the list and it can’t be overstated enough.

Universities want to see that you are genuinely interested in your subject – rather than simply applying because of the university’s prestige, sporting societies or because your friends are also going there.

In particular, Oxford and Cambridge universities are built around the supervision or tutorial system. Every week, you will have many 1-on-1 or 2-on-1 meetings with an expert in the field. In these supervisions (or tutorials as they’re referred to at Oxford) you will be discussing essays, problem solving and generally discussing your subject in great depth.

The university is therefore looking for students who are going to be well-suited to this system, which means you are someone who is clearly:

  • Genuinely interested in your subject
  • Curious to learn and work through the subject matter
  • Motivated to discover more than is taught to you at school

So how do you demonstrate your passion for a subject?

Graduate student looking happy

Well, there’s no one way to show your enthusiasm…but from reading your personal statement in its entirety, it should be clear from all of the examples you’ve used. From the specific moment you became interested in the subject, through to the books you’ve read and projects you’ve undertaken, there should be no doubt that you’re a suitable candidate.

One of the most effective ways to show your passion is to express the specific parts of the subject that have interested you and what you have done to further explore that interest.

Taking an example from my own personal statement:

“Ever since I learned how carbon could turn into nitrogen via radioactive decay, I was hooked. I realised that there is more to the natural world than meets the eye. Driven by a need to discover more about the underlying laws that govern our universe, I read “Why chemical reactions happen” by James Keeler. I liked the elegance of using the attractive force between ions to form the more complex Born-Landé equation. Hence, this book not only built on my physicochemical knowledge but also satisfied my enjoyment for deriving mathematical expressions in their simplest forms.”

This gives insight to the actual moment when I became interested in the physical sciences. From there, it becomes clear that the initial interest drove me to read an academic book and highlight what it was specifically that I learnt from it.

There is a sense of continuity and exploration here that demonstrates: a) I’m interested in the physical sciences, b) I’ve backed that interest up by doing something about it, and c) I got something from it – i.e. I furthered my knowledge and it was enjoyable.

As a last note on this point, I would say that it is far more effective to let your examples speak for themselves, rather than explicitly state “I am very passionate about X”.

Oh, and also try to avoid saying “Ever since I was a child I’ve been passionate about…” – even though it may be true, admissions tutors are definitely fed up of reading it!

6. Keep it academic: use the 80/20 rule

This point is especially important if you are applying to Oxford or Cambridge. A minimum of 80% of your personal statement should be academic and a maximum of 20% should be extra-curricular or information that is not directly related to your subject.

In fact, many successful personal statements have not included any extracurricular content whatsoever – but you may want to keep this section in your personal statements for other universities on your list who might value them.

7. Make sure you’ve actually read the books included in your personal statement

Including relevant books in your personal statement is a useful way to demonstrate your curiosity and interest in the subject. For the humanities, drawing upon insights from different books is more of a necessity.

It may well be the case that you are asked about the books (and even specific passages) that you have referred to during the interview, so don’t be caught out by having not read them.

There are even some stories of applicants who have ended up being interviewed by the author of one of the books they’ve mentioned! It’s not an impossibility – so be sure to stick to the truth and only mention books you have actually read.

8. Use the ABC method

Everything that you write should point towards why it is that you are the most suitable candidate to be accepted onto the course. Therefore, every experience you write about should eventually relate back to why that makes you a good candidate.

The ABC rule is:

a) Action – what is the action that you took?
b) Benefit – what did you gain (skills, qualities, achievements) from taking that action?
c) Course – why is this relevant to the course?

9. Conclude with your “Why”

Why do you want to study the course? Why are you a good fit for the course? What are your future ambitions? Why would studying the course enable you to pursue your future ambitions?

Answering one or all of these questions can be a neat and rounded way to conclude your personal statement.

After all, the conclusion is your opportunity to summarise why the course fits you – in other words, the course encapsulates everything you’ve been working towards, and it will enable you to pursue your ambitions.

After reading the conclusion, there should be no doubt in the admissions tutor’s mind that being accepted onto this course is the natural and fitting next step for you.

10. Ask for constructive feedback

After writing the initial draft of your personal statement, share it with as many people as you possibly can! This can be your family members, friends, fellow students and teachers. To begin with, the more feedback you receive the better…

…and you want as much constructive feedback as you can possibly get.

You can then use this feedback to help create your second or even third draft, before you start landing on something you’re happy with.

As you come on to your later drafts, it is a good idea to share your personal statement with teachers or even undergraduates who are studying the course you’re applying for. They will have a better idea of what makes a successful personal statement and will be able to fine tune your work.

At this later stage, it is worth being more selective with the feedback you receive. There will always be subjective feedback and if you change every element of your personal statement then it will no longer be consistent – and more importantly it will stop being your own work.

Try not to be disillusioned or demotivated when reaching later drafts. Creating a polished personal statement can take just a couple of drafts for some people, and many many more for others (it took me at least 10!). Just keep going – you will get there eventually.

If you would like any further support on writing your personal statement, you can always contact one of our admissions tutors.

And if you would like a free copy of the personal statement I used to apply to Cambridge with, please send an email to [email protected] or send us a message on Instagram @tutorean. Good luck!

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