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.
Fine tuning the opening sentence of your personal statement is a task most students dread, particularly because so much attention is given to the opening sentence as it should catch the reader’s attention. You’re told that there needs to be a wow factor involved and that your sentence should set the tone and quality of the rest of the personal statement. No pressure, eh?
In fact, writing a strong opening sentence is relevant to more than just university applicants. You'll also need a strong opening statement for applying for an apprenticeship or a school leaver scheme so sorry guys, you’re not off the hook.
We’re not going to lie — the opening sentence is pretty important, but it’s also important that the personal statement doesn’t go downhill from there. Think of your personal statement like a football team — even if you have the best goal scorer in the world, if you have a dodgy defence or mildly-interested midfield, it’s not a great recipe for success.
Overused Opening Sentences
Whatever you do with your opening sentence, make sure you use something different to the most overused statements.
“But how do I know which opening sentences are the most overused?” I hear you cry. Well, we did some research and found an article by UCAS that listed the most overused opening sentences. Here they are:
1. From a young age I have (always) been [interested in/fascinated by]… (used 1,779 times)
2. For as long as I can remember I have… (used 1,451 times)
3. I am applying for this course because… (used 1,370 times)
4. I have always been interested in… (used 927 times)
5. Throughout my life I have always enjoyed… (used 310 times)
6. Reflecting on my educational experiences… (used 257 times)
7. Nursing is a very challenging and demanding [career/profession/course]… (used 211 times)
8. Academically, I have always been… (used 168 times)
9. I have always wanted to pursue a career in… (used 160 times)
10. I have always been passionate about… (used 160 times)
11. Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world… (used 148 times)
The (over)use of the quote from Nelson Mandela about “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” is particularly cringe worthy — if you’re going to include a quote, make sure it’s more than just a popular quote that you once saw on Instagram. Show that you’ve done some reading around the subject and be prepared to properly explain why you like a particular quote.
Writing Your Opening Sentence
Aside from avoiding overused quotes and words such as ‘passionate’ or ‘deeply fascinated’, we recommend being original and referring to personal experiences as a way to draw attention.
For example, if you were writing a personal statement for a History course, you could open with something like, “Making an evacuation suitcase at the age of nine made me realise for the first time how historical events had affected real people.”
Not only does this draw on personal experience and highlight your knowledge of a certain area of history, it also provides you with an opening to elaborate upon your interest in social history. If you already know what graduate job or scheme you want to pursue after university, then you can further relate your opening anecdote to your future plans.
Don’t sit in front of a blank page for ages and furiously try to come up with the perfect opening sentence. If you’re stuck on your opening sentence, then perhaps try writing it last. After all, writing the rest of your personal statement will allow you to see the finished piece before adding the token opening sentence. The best opening sentences refer to your experiences, so think hard about what stands out in your memories in regards to your relationship with your chosen subject. Jot them down and then make one of these memories attention grabbing for someone who doesn’t know you.
Opening sentences are tricky, but they don’t make or break a personal statement. For more information on how to write a personal statement, check out these articles: