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.
History is the tenth most popular subject to study at degree level in the UK, and with many universities forgoing candidate interviews, your personal statement is the most important way to make yourself stand out. The competition is fierce (the top universities require grades of A*AA), and a muddled or mediocre statement will harm your application.
So how can would-be historians impress application tutors? Dr Elizabeth Tingle, of Plymouth University, wants the statement to reflect the candidate who wrote it. She says: "When we talk about originality in personal statements, we really mean individuality."
Southampton University's Dr McHugh agrees that many applications are "too generic and vague. We want to get a sense of who you are as an individual, and what kind of student you would be."
This individuality should not be achieved through wild or outrageous methods; your statement doesn't need to be written in old English, or abstractly represent the consciousness of Thomas Cromwell. If you do something outrageously different, there's probably a reason why no one's done it before.
Instead, a personal statement should show something of you as a person, and convey your own unique engagement with history. Dr Ryrie, historian of religion at Durham says:
"The kind of personal statement that warms an admissions tutor's heart is the kind which is honest: which describes, in genuinely personal terms, quite why the student loves the subject, and conveys something of their passion for it".
'Passion', however, is a controversial word. UCL's Dr Jason Peacey complained that "it gets a bit tiring reading hundreds of forms where the student proclaims that they have a 'passion' for history".
Dr Ansari, head of history at Royal Holloway, agrees, and wants "genuine expressions of interest in history, but not in terms of 'I am passionate about...'. Simply wanting something strongly is not enough".
You need to convince admissions tutors that you have the intelligence and academic ability needed to successfully undertake a degree in the subject.
Dr Peacey says: "Students don't always do enough to explain what it is about history that interests them, why this interest can only be met by undertaking more study at a higher level, and what should make me think that they have the potential and ability to study at this level".
The same sentiments are also mentioned by Dr McGladdery, admissions officer at St Andrews. "Studying and writing about what happened in the past has little purpose if students cannot develop the skill of critical evaluation. Historiographical awareness is very important, as is the ability to present an opinion supported with evidence and cogent analysis."
Students who show that they have considered the subject in relation to other academic avenues are likely to impress. As Dr Gadja, of Oxford university, says:
"Historians like to take insight from a huge range of perspectives, so we are always delighted when students can demonstrate how their interest and ability at foreign languages, philosophy, or political thought, literature, and so on, might intersect with their historical interests, and be of use in their development as historians".
A clear, competent analysis of the ways in which your different subjects interact, and how this has aided your ability as a history student, can be a valuable inclusion in your personal statement.
Dr Gadja says that it is important to mention extra-curriculur interests. For Gadja, an interest in visiting museums, going to public lectures, and anything that shows an interest in history beyond the demands of one's A-level course, would be relevant.
If you have had any relevant work experience, do mention it, but it must have had a definite impact on your approach to thinking about history. If you haven't managed to gain experience in a historical field, though, don't worry too much.
Gadja says: "we certainly don't look for relevant work experience when making decisions – most applicants will not have had the fortunate opportunity to work in jobs relating to the heritage industry or similar, and that doesn't put them at a disadvantage at all".
Mention of non-academic areas in which you are wonderfully talented should be limited to a couple of sentences at most, and should always be linked back to the ways in which they have contributed to your academic or personal development; such as by improving time-management, or organisational skills.
Dr Simon Smith, of Oxford University, say: "Unlike some US universities or colleges, UK universities are not seeking to admit quotas of musicians, sports people, or thespians."
It is important to write the statement in clear, concise prose, avoiding the use of formulaic words or phrases. Dr Peacey says:
"If I had a pound for every time I had been told that history is important because, as George Santayana said, those who fail to understand the mistakes of the past will merely repeat them... then I would be a rich man indeed."
Try and avoid stilted references to the "eternal value" and "enduring fascination" of the past. Far more impressive is to explain and analyse what it is that makes you so interested in history, and specific areas in particular.
Above all, you should engage with the concepts that you are discussing, rather than just stating them. As Dr Ryrie says:
"Make us feel that you are a person of vision and imagination, for whom your outstanding A-level performance is just the beginning."
Avoid anything bland or dull, and make the personal statement a reflection of your individual talents and interests. You want your statement to be different and engaging, otherwise it will slip through admissions tutors' fingers without leaving a mark.