Personal Statements, Exams & The Value Of Passion
Attend any university open day, from Bristol to Bangor to Birmingham, and you will hear all admissions tutors for Arts and Humanities say the same thing, that, alongside excellent grades, ‘all you need is a real passion for your subject – show us how much you love it’. In that lecture theatre, surrounded by other potential applicants, you will then hear the tutor quickly add something else: ‘And, of course, do remember never to use that word – passion – in your personal statements: everybody uses it, and nobody means it’.
You nod. And think, ‘of course, she’s right! I’m not passionate. I’m enthusiastic, I’m avid, I’m inspired… I’m obsessed?’ But when it comes down to it, I’m not obsessed, really, or simply just any of those things. All I know is that I have a passion for my subject, so much so I would love to study it at university. Isn’t that enough?
The admissions tutor’s words set other questions going in my head: I mean, how can I show them I’m passionate without ever actually telling them so? And why do universities demand this demonstration of passion when all A-Levels want me to do is to fulfil “ASSESSMENT OBJECTIVES” and read set texts and complete syllabuses? This elusive idea of passion implies a freedom that seems all too alien to the reality of exams looming on the horizon.
In English Literature AS (AQA), I remember being stumped by the idea that I needed to tick off all four Assessment Objectives in each essay I wrote to achieve the highest marks. The problem was that these Objectives didn’t seem to fit together to form what I thought was a well-constructed essay. What they came to be were a series of hoops to jump through that the examiners had told me made a good essay. In this kind of writing there appeared little room for passion at all.
But this is an important realisation to undergo. It makes sense to think of your A-Level exams as something different from the sorts of things you might write on your personal statement. This is especially true as one sure-fire way to give evidence that you have passion for English, say, is to talk about your reading outside the call of exam-duty.
One example of this was when an English tutor at university spoke of the time she asked an interview candidate what he thought about the ending of Othello (the interviewee had mentioned his interest for the play in his personal statement). His response was that he didn’t know; they hadn’t got that far in class yet. Now, this is not intended as an example of an interview horror story but to show a mistake you can easily make in the way you relate your interests to your A-Level studies.
This candidate’s mistake was, obviously, that he failed to finish a text he said he was interested in. But there is another mistake in the way he chose a set text as something that would show his interest in studying literature at degree. In reality, if you are not passionate about Othello – or even about Shakespeare – it is far, far more impressive to
put down something for which you have a genuine interest, whatever that may be.
Returning to exams, it is helpful to see them as things that have to be done and may as well be done well. Exams are a challenge you have already accepted by choosing the subject at A-Level. You can either rise to it or choose not to. It is important to remember, however, that doing poorly in an exam will not tell anyone whether you love your
subject. Nor will (and I can’t stress this enough) doing well in an exam show anyone how much you love it.
Being passionate (I know, I’m using that forbidden word again) is not about exam success. Sometimes it may even seem opposed to it. But if you are passionate, you will want to study this subject more and more, and hopefully go on to study it at university. And to get to university, as you well know, you will have to pass exams. This goes some way to explaining the connection between the passion admissions tutors require, on the one hand, and the exams, on the other, which will never speak for your passion. They will only speak for your calculated approach and ability to rise to this challenge.
So, the next time you feel like railing against exams and feel that they are no reflection of
how much you know or care for your subject, think about how right you are for a moment. Think that exams are precisely just Assessment Objectives and syllabuses and set texts. Then take a deep breath and think about what it would mean to pass them: the opportunity to think freely and read as widely as you like at university. A-Levels, it seems, are there to teach you to have to earn your freedom and continue with your passions.