Updated: Jan 13
Nail your Personal Statement to give yourself the best chance of receiving an interview offer.
*Note that we are aware of plans to potentially scrap the Personal Statement, but these changes will not be occurring before 2024. We will upload advice once we know more about the proposed changes and students begin using a different system.*
The below article is split into the following sections:
Format, Deadlines, and What's Expected of You
Demonstrating Enthusiasm for Your Subject
Extra-Curricular Activities vs Super-Curricular Activities
A Note on Guidance Counsellors
The below paragraphs are explained from the perspective of a student in the Leaving Certificate system. However, colleges in both Oxford and Cambridge have some very useful resources on their websites, and I thought I'd include two here and the rest under the paragraph 'Useful Links'. For one, here's a link to Christ's College, Cambridge where they explain the Personal Statement from top to bottom, and what they want to see in applicants. The same is done here by Lincoln College, Oxford.
1. Format, Deadlines, and What's Expected of You
The Personal Statement (PS) is a document of 4,000 characters (maximum). It is here that you have the opportunity to show passion for your chosen subject, and to convey any skills/experiences that make you a good fit for the course. It should be an academic piece of work as Oxbridge applications are not influenced by sporting ability or other extra-curriculars. Extra-curriculars are (for the most part) not relevant, whereas super-curriculars are. This is explored further in paragraph 3.
A document of 4,000 characters is less than one A4 page, and so exclude anything superfluous and which does not strengthen your PS. For example, while some guidance counsellors might recommend including your Junior Certificate results, I would advise against it. This is because the University has already been provided with your results elsewhere in the application and you would be 'wasting' precious characters if you were to add them to the PS as well.
The deadline for the PS (and all other components of your UCAS application) is 15 October for Oxford and Cambridge. Note that this Oxbridge deadline is an earlier deadline than all other universities in the UK, unless you are applying for Medicine, Dentistry, or Veterinary Medicine/Science. Here's a useful page on the UCAS website about the October 15th deadline.
Students should ideally get to grips with their PS over the Summer of their penultimate year at school (i.e. the summer before you enter 6th year). Here you have more time to focus your energy on nailing this part of the application and for reading around your subject.
2. Demonstrating Enthusiasm for Your Subject
The PS is where you can explain how you have pursued your interests relevant to the degree for which you are applying. For example, in my case I applied for Law and was quite interested in the morality of law (this ties into what's called Jurisprudence). I read several books on the topic and made some quick notes throughout my reading on what I found most interesting. Then, in my PS, I mentioned the books I had read and what topics I found particularly stimulating.
The key, however, was explaining why I found these topics interesting. What conclusions I drew from the reading, what other questions emerged, and forming arguments were the most important things. Anyone can read a book and write down a point that the author has raised. What makes you stand out is demonstrating that you have thought about the argument, that you have critically analysed it, and that you have your own opinion. They are not expecting you to have covered everything or to have an unbelievably in-depth knowledge of a point you've raised, but they expect you to be able to defend it should you be asked in interview.
The key to demonstrating enthusiasm and passion is to show, don't tell. Read around your subject, enter competitions related to your subject, set-up a society related to your subject, the list goes on. There are infinite things you can do to demonstrate passion, the key is being proactive.
Examples of what can be done for humanities:
- Enter an essay-writing competitions relevant to your chosen subject (e.g. Robert Walker competition for Law)
- Enter other relevant competitions (e.g. Young Economist)
- Set-up a society relevant to your chosen subject
- Read books and articles relevant to your chosen subject
- Work experiences (you are not at a disadvantage if you do not have any)
Examples of what can be done for STEM subjects:
- Same as above
- Enter the Young Scientist
- Work experience
3. Extra-curricular Activities vs Super-Curricular Activities
Extra-curricular activities are those that are inherently distinct from your academics, e.g. playing football. Super-curricular activities are activities beyond, but related to, your academics. Super-curriculars are important in the PS, whereas extra-curriculars are usually not.
I would recommend involving yourself in some way in super-curriculars if you haven't already. This is an effective way of demonstrating passion for your subject. Extra-curriculars can be included on the PS but they should be left to the end and should nevertheless strengthen the PS. I would recommend demonstrating how these activities have developed your soft skills, such as communication skills and time-management skills. This way they are still in some way connected to the degree for which you are applying.
Keep the PS neat and tidy with an introduction, several paragraphs, and a conclusion. When beginning your first draft, don't be concerned with with word count. Make a list of the things that you'd like to include and create first draft incorporating these ideas, weaving them in throughout. Understand that the first few drafts are never perfect, and while sometimes it can feel disheartening and that you might not be getting anywhere, everybody feels this way. Keep looking for feedback from guidance counsellors and Oxbridge students and incorporate their advice.
The PS is a gradual process that slowly comes together and becomes more streamlined, concise, and clear. It should not be rushed and is a key factor in determining whether you will be offered an interview.
Another tip that is often overlooked but that should not be underestimated is as follows: MAKE YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT PERSONAL. It is all too common, especially with the amount of information available online, that students end up with generic personal statements that could have been written by just about anyone. Make the PS your own, include your own experiences and your own interests. This will stand to you.
5. My Biggest Piece of Advice
My single biggest piece of advice is relevant not only to the PS, but to the Oxbridge application as a whole. It is of such importance that I have dedicated an entire post to it that I have linked here. I would very much recommend that you check it out.
6. A Note on Guidance Counsellors
Please be aware that Irish guidance counsellors - while fantastic in many ways - are often not very familiar with the Oxbridge application process, even if they think they are. This, of course, is not true of all guidance counsellors, and some are very competent in this area, but my point remains that sometimes your guidance counsellor is wrong. If their advice conflicts with a current undergraduate Oxbridge student in your desired degree, I would be inclined to side with the student. They've been through the process very recently, and they were successful.
Don't beat yourself up if you've put a tremendous amount of work into your PS and you're told by your guidance counsellor that lots of it has to be cut. They might be right, but they might also be wrong. It's finding the balance that is key, and this is where getting advice from current students is extremely valuable.
7. Useful links
- UCAS Personal Statement Information (here)
- Cambridge Article on how to write a great Personal Statement (here)
- Video on personal statement advice with Cambridge Students (here)
- Cambridge Student Union Guide to Personal Statements (here)
- Jesus College, Oxford and their Personal Statement advice (here)