As is so often the case words are cheap. Anyone can eulogise on the joys of History and their burning desire to steep themselves in a knowledge of the past whilst studying at Oxford, one of the oldest universities of the world. The snag of course, is that when it comes to a personal statement words are the only weapon in your arsenal. It seems one is trying to break down the battlements of a castle and the only tool available is an old, small hammer.
The skill is to treat it as one might treat any essay or argument. When writing an essay it is vitally important to evidence your points, to ensure that any statements you make do not soar, icarus-like, to the dangerous heights of hyperbole. It is important to be grounded, to show your interest in the subject through you engagement with it and clear explanations as to why you want to spend the next three years of your life studying it.
Well I have thus far, yet to follow my own advice. The following are a few points to avoid, and hit:
– Talk about books that you have read, and I do mean read! But be sure to go one step further, don’t just mention, for example E.H. Carr’s What is History and say you thought it was ‘interesting and illuminating’. Engage with it; how did it contrast to the subsequent works on the subject? Were you convinced by his arguments, and if so why, or if not why? Do you think his work has affected the study of History?
– Don’t start with generic platitudes on the joys of History. Think long and hard about why you want to study the subject. What is it that interests you about it? Is it the opportunity for argument? Engaging with different cultures? The opportunity for research, and the breadth of the subject matter? Is there something specific about the course at Oxford that entices you?
– Give opinions or ideas which they may be able to pick up on and challenge you at interview. The personal statement will often form part of the basis for your interview, and they want something to talk about. They want to test you and see how you respond in a tutorial environment. The personal statement is an opportunity to steer them in a direction of conversation in which you are comfortable and knowledgeable – squeeze it for all its worth.
– Oxford tutors are primarily concerned with your academics. They like to see that you are a well rounded person, but that is not their first point of call. If applying to Oxford then don’t festoon your personal statement with extra-curricular achievements. For the majority ground yourself in the subject. A small paragraph at the end, explaining what you do in your free time is often sufficient evidence that you do have a life outside the library.
Writing a personal statement for History at Oxford is often a gruelling and difficult process. One feels a pressure to sell oneself, and that is a difficult task. The approach to take is the same as one might to any other argument or essay. Evidence your points, avoid hyperbole and be clear and concise in explaining why you are right in thinking you should be allocated a place. If you can do this then one won’t need to hammer down the walls as you will have got your foot in the door.