People sometimes think that there is a trick to writing a personal statement for Oxford, or that we are looking for some special secret formula, but this is not the case. Writing a personal statement for Oxford is no different from writing a personal statement for any other university. In fact it’s important to remember that the same wording will be seen by all the universities you apply to and should therefore focus on the course you want to study, not the universities themselves. Please read this helpful advice from UCAS about writing your personal statement.
How important is the personal statement?
Universities build a picture of you as a student from all the different information you provide, to help decide whether or not to offer you a place. The picture is made up of several different pieces: your personal statement, academic record, predicted A-level grades (or equivalent), and your teacher's reference. For most courses at Oxford you will also need to take an admissions test or submit written work as well (check the details for your course). If your application is shortlisted, your interview will also be taken in to account. This means that your personal statement is important but it’s not everything: it’s just one part of the overall picture.
What are Oxford tutors looking for?
Tutors at Oxford are only interested in your academic ability and potential. They want to see that you are truly committed to the subject or subjects you want to study at university but it’s not enough just to say that you have a passion for something: you need to show tutors how you have engaged with your subject, above and beyond whatever you have studied at school or college. This can include any relevant extracurricular activities.
Try to avoid writing your personal statement as though you are ticking things off a list. There is no checklist of required achievements, and tutors will not just scan what you have written to look for key words or phrases. Tutors will read your personal statement to try to understand what has motivated you to apply for their course. It’s a good idea to evaluate your experiences, to show what you have learned from them and how they have helped develop your understanding of your subject.
Should I include extracurricular activities?
If you're applying for competitive courses, which includes any course at Oxford, we typically suggest that you focus around 80% of your personal statement on your academic interests, abilities and achievements. This can include discussion of any relevant extracurricular activities. The remaining 20% can then cover any unrelated extracurricular activities.
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.
Do I need experience of work and travel?
We understand that not everyone has the opportunity to do work experience or to go travelling so these activities are not a requirement for any of our courses. Tutors won’t be impressed by your connections, or the stamps in your passport, but they will be impressed by how you’ve engaged with your subject.
For example, some of our applicants for Medicine may have had work experience placements in prestigious hospitals but not be able to evaluate their time there. If you have no more experience than some simple voluntary work, or even just discussing medical matters with your friends and family, you can still write an effective personal statement by reflecting critically on what you have learned and discussed.
To give another example, for the History of Art, tutors will not want to hear about all the galleries and exhibitions that you have visited around the world if you cannot discuss the art that you saw. You can come across more effectively in your personal statement by evaluating art you have seen, even if you’ve only seen it online or in books without ever leaving the school library.
Don’t be put off by any friends who you think have more impressive things to say in their personal statements. Remember that tutors do not have a checklist of achievements that they are looking for: they want to see how you have engaged with your subject.
I’m applying to different courses at different universities – how should I write my personal statement?
If you are thinking of applying for completely different courses at different universities (eg Physics and Accounting, or Biology and Music) we’d encourage you to reconsider. It’s important to choose a subject area that you really want to study, and focus on that one area when making your applications. Also, you can only write one personal statement which will be seen by all the universities to which you apply, so it needs to be relevant for all your courses.
If you are thinking of applying for related courses at different universities then we suggest that you avoid using course titles in your personal statement. We recommend that you write about your interest in the general course themes, and how you have engaged with relevant subject areas, so that your personal statement is equally relevant for each of your course choices.
Does my personal statement need to stand out?
Students sometimes feel that they need to say something dramatic to stand out from the crowd and be really memorable in their personal statement but this is not true. Applying to Oxford is not like a talent show where you may only have a few seconds to make an impression. Tutors consider each application carefully on its individual merits, looking for evidence of your commitment and ability. If you use your personal statement to demonstrate your academic abilities and your engagement with your subject or subjects, then your application will be memorable for all the right reasons.
Where should I start?
Think about talking to your friends about what you want to study at university: what would you tell them? What have you read or watched or seen that has inspired you? (This might have been at school, at home, in a museum, on TV, in a book, on YouTube or a podcast or anywhere else.) Why was it interesting? What do you want to find out next? What did you do?
If you find this difficult, it might be time to think about whether or not you’ve really chosen the right course. If you can’t think of anything that has inspired you, this lack of enthusiasm will probably come across in your personal statement, or it will become clear at interview, and you’re unlikely to gain a place at Oxford. If you find it easy to answer these questions, you will have a long list of ideas to help you write your personal statement.
When you start to write, remember not just to list your achievements but show how they have affected you, how you have benefited, and what you’d like to learn next. Be honest about yourself and what has inspired you, whether that’s been text books, museums and literature, or websites, podcasts and blogs. Be sure to tell the truth, as tutors might check later, so don’t exaggerate and certainly don’t make any false claims. Don’t hold back either – this is no time for modesty.
When you've written a first draft, have a look back at the selection criteria for your course and think about the evidence you've given for each of the criteria. Have you covered everything?
How many versions should I write?
Ask a teacher to read through what you’ve written, listen to their feedback and then make any updates that they suggest. You may need two or three tries to get it right. Don’t keep writing and rewriting your statement though, as it is more important to keep up with your school or college work, and to explore your subject with wider reading. (See suggested reading and resources.)
Some dos and don’ts
- DON’T be tempted to make anything up, as you might be asked about it at interview.
- DON’T copy anyone else’s personal statement. UCAS uses plagiarism detection software.
- DON'T list qualifications like your GCSE grades or anything else that's covered elsewhere on the application.
- DON’T just list your other achievements: you need to evaluate them.
- DON'T feel the need to be dramatic in order to be memorable.
- Apply for a course you really want to study.
- Be yourself: tell the truth about your interests.
- Sell yourself: this is not the time for modesty.
- Reread your personal statement before an interview – the tutors will.
- Read the UCAS guidance on personal statements.
Interested in more than a semester abroad but unsure of how to navigate a foreign admissions system?
For American students considering studying in Britain, be encouraged: the student visa application process has been remarkably simplified in recent years, according to Robert Willis, international admissions officer of the University of Edinburgh.
“The detail and data required have been substantially reduced,” he said on Thursday, speaking on a panel titled “Global Destinations: The Best of British Higher Education,” as part of the annual convention of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
There are about 130 universities in Britain, nearly all of them public and the majority of them within England.
Most undergraduate programs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are three years, Mr. Willis said, and students must specialize from the outset – there are no undecided majors. (In contrast, Scotland, like the United States, has four-year programs that afford flexibility in course selection during a student’s first and second years.)
Students may earn professional degrees at the undergraduate level in Britain, though not all programs are available to students matriculating from outside of the European Union. For example, while law programs (three to four years) and architecture programs (five to seven years) are open to American students, programs in medicine (five to seven years) are restricted to European Union citizens.
All institutions in Britain require the same application, known as the Universities and College Admissions Service application. Students may apply to only five schools each year and, limited by the universal application, they may not tailor their essays or any part of the application to a particular institution.
Another restriction, mentioned by Kate Burn of Oxford University, concerns “Oxbridge,” Oxford and the University of Cambridge: No student may apply to both universities in the same year.
Application fees in Britain are substantially lower than in the United States: 11 pounds (about $17) to apply to only one school, and 22 pounds ($34) to apply to up to five.
SAT and ACT scores are both accepted by institutions in Britain, and application deadlines largely align with those of American colleges, with Jan. 15, 2011, being the main application deadline for most institutions this year. (Oxbridge is an exception; those deadlines fall on Oct. 15.)
Ms. Burn of Oxford stressed that universities in Britain are more interested in academically directed personal statements than they are in reflections on personal memories or demonstrations of character.
Of the essay, she said: “It’s not the place to talk about the time you ate a pot brownie. It’s about what you want to study and why.”
Ms. Burn emphasized that recommendations should be similarly to the point. “This isn’t a time to talk about how charming students are, or how they’re always on time,” she said. “Talk about their academic performance and be specific.”
She also advised that people providing recommendations be wholly truthful and not write anything they would not want a student discovering: by law in Britain, applicants are allowed to read submitted recommendations of them.
Applicant interviews are uncommon in Britain, excluding Oxford and Cambridge, both of which require them, Ms. Burn said. “There are just too many applicants to interview at most schools,” she said. “And the concept of the alumnae interview or student interview doesn’t exist for us.”
Once an application is in, there are three possible admissions outcomes: unconditional acceptance, conditional acceptance, or rejection. Conditional acceptance, a common occurrence, might require, for example, that a student take a particular A.P. course before enrolling.
“Some U.S. students find the conditional offer alarming,” said Rory McDiarmid of the University of Glasgow. “But we don’t just make anyone a conditional offer. As long as they meet what’s been said, admission is absolutely guaranteed.”
Once accepted, an American student must file for a visa, submitting a copy of the completed universal application, the letter of acceptance and proof of financial support.
Each university acts as a visa sponsor to the student. The application must be completed within the three months before matriculation, and the student may enter the country anytime within a month of the start of classes, Mr. Willis said.
Such student visas additionally provide health coverage and allow for part-time work during the school year – up to 20 hours a week – and full-time work during school breaks.
Beyond delivering an overview of the British undergraduate admissions process, the panel delivered statistics on international applications in recent years, specifying that the number of applicants from China has spiked, while the number of applicants from Africa and Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, has fallen.
The Choice at Nacac
The Choice takes readers backstage as nearly 5,000 admissions officers and counselors gather in New Orleans.