Writing an Oxbridge personal statement can seem like an overwhelmingly difficult undertaking, and it is often hard to know where to start. Despite the fact that it was four years ago now that I applied for my degree in Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, I still vividly remember how daunted I was by this task. Thankfully I was given some great tips and after endless drafts managed to survive the application process. Here are some of the main things I learnt along the way.
Focus on the academics. Other universities usually suggest that your personal statement should be three quarters or even two thirds academically focused, and use the last quarter or third to mention your extracurricular activities and other achievements. The best advice I received when applying for Oxford however was that 90% of your focus should be on your interest in the subject itself, and on your academic achievements, and only the last few lines, 10% or so, on your other interests.
A tutor who visited my secondary school told us ‘academics are all a bunch of geeks, and we are looking for people to work with who are as obsessed with the subject as we are!’ She said that often tutors don’t want to see ‘well rounded students’ who spend half their time on other activities, they want to see that most of your focus and dedication is on your academic work, and most of your extra interest goes into researching your subject. It is still impressive to show you can balance your workload with other things and have other talents, so do include these interests at the end, but don’t let this distract your focus away from the main aim: to get a place on a course that you love.
Be selective with what texts you mention, and make sure to include your own opinions. Rather than writing a long list of all the books you have read, to try and show off your wide range of knowledge, instead focus in on a few key texts and how they relate specifically to your interests in the subject, and what opinions you have formed of them. Tutors want to see not just that you can understand large volumes of material but that you can evaluate what you have read, think for yourself and develop your own ideas. In relation to the Ancient History aspect of my degree I carefully chose a range of texts to mention: primary sources which connected to modules I had greatly enjoyed at A level, and also works of modern scholarship which had taken their own stance on these texts. I mentioned plays of Aristophanes I had particularly enjoyed reading in connection with studying the Athenian democracy, and also several texts on Alexander the Great: ancient sources about his campaign but also modern secondary sources with unusual viewpoints. This careful selection of texts really paid off as I was asked about all of them at interview!
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Don’t just focus on the reading. Everyone can read around the subject and show an interest in key texts, what can be more difficult is showing your interest in the subject has led you to explore the field in more unusual ways. For the Archaeological aspect of my course this wasn’t too difficult; I discovered the British Museum ran occasional free lunchtime tours and talks, and attended some of these, as well as volunteering for a couple of days at a local archaeological society in Canterbury. Acquiring this more unusual experience showed a much broader interest in the subject. It’s therefore definitely worth looking up any talks or seminars you might be able to attend, or anywhere you could visit in connection with your subject, to give you some more unusual points to include.
Don’t worry about your other A levels! I know many people, myself included, who panicked when applying to university because they were worried too many of their A levels were irrelevant to what they were applying for. Although there are some courses which do require a specific set of A levels for many, as long as one of your subjects is directly connected to what you intend to study, you can still establish connections to a huge variety of other subjects. Even if you’re applying for a humanities degree, having maths or sciences at A level can demonstrate your skills in logic, reasoning, working methodically through problems, that can demonstrate you would have a fresh approach to looking at texts and arguments in an analytical and objective way.
Finally, don’t panic and don’t try too hard to impress! It can be hugely daunting when you first sit down to try and write your personal statement, and to differentiate yourself from other candidates, and it can be tempting to try and include unusual quotes or other quirky references to stand out. Often however it is much better to simply write a precise account of how you became interested in the subject, why you are so keen on it now, and why this degree in particular is the perfect course for you. The most important thing is to clearly convey your drive to learn, and your enthusiasm and devotion to your chosen area of study, and it is this emphasis which will hopefully lead to an invitation to interview!
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