How important is the personal statement?


Cambridge Admissions Tutors
Created: 8 months, 2 weeks ago
Last modified: 8 months, 2 weeks ago

We asked Cambridge Admissions Tutors what they're looking for in a personal statement. Here's what they said:

Magdalene

The personal statement is a great opportunity to tell us why you want to study your chosen course. It’s important to remember that admissions decisions at Cambridge are based on academic criteria, so we’re not that concerned with all of your extra-curricular activities (though, of course, recognise that other universities are). We are looking for applicants to:
- Explain their reasons for wanting to study the subject
- Demonstrate their enthusiasm and commitment to their chosen course
- Express any particular interests within the field
- Outline how they have pursued their interest in the subject in their own time

Strong applicants to Cambridge have often engaged with their subject outside of the classroom, be it through work experience, wider reading or volunteering. I’d recommend this handy guide 🔗 🌟 as a place to start. When reflecting on these activities in your personal statement, be specific – don’t just list everything you’ve read. We want to know what you’ve done, what you learnt and how this has impacted your thinking on the course.

Remember, you will have the opportunity to submit a specific Cambridge-focused personal statement through the SAQ. This can be useful if you’re applying for different courses at different universities (e.g. Physics vs Natural Sciences), though you don’t have to do this, and won’t be penalised if you don’t.

Finally, whilst the personal statement is important, it is only one part of the admissions process, and will be considered alongside your academic record, admissions tests and written work (where applicable), teachers references, interview etc.

Newnham

A personal statement is one of the elements that we take into consideration when assessing applications – it is important but it is only one element. When assessing applications, we are looking for students to show a real passion and commitment to the course they’re applying for so the personal statement is a great opportunity to outline super curricular activities that demonstrate this.

Peterhouse

Personal statements are an essential aspect of the application process and may be used directly in selection by some universities. They aren’t privileged in that way at Cambridge, and shouldn’t be written solely with the Cambridge part of any UCAS application in mind. We use them instead to get a feel for the commitment and curiosity of the applicant and as a basis for developing questions that might be asked of a candidate at interview. It is important therefore to be honest in what you write and to be prepared to expand on it if asked. We aren’t looking for anything specific, although in some subjects (for example medicine or engineering) a personal statement is the place to provide information about volunteering or work experience that might have a bearing on demonstrating your suitability for the course.

Homerton

A personal statement (PS) is an important first insight into an application and I personally read closely every one that comes under my notice. I think this is probably typical of most interviewers, not least because it can generate interesting lines of discussion in the interview (though it’s not exceptional for the PS not to be mentioned at all in interview – don’t worry if this happens).

At Cambridge we like a PS that shows the depth of commitment a student has to the subject they are applying for. At open days, I often tell students that what we are really looking for among applicants are nerds – people for whom their subject is not just what they enjoy doing at sixth form and are pretty good at, but an area of interest that their sixth form studies don’t quite satisfy, so they go beyond it in their own time. You might read history books on topics that don’t fall under your curriculum, just because they fascinate you; you might spend hours at weekends writing code to perform a function that interests you; you might take advantage of lecture series to build your knowledge or take it in new directions. Maybe you follow the political news in relation to all that theoretical stuff you do in class, or take time to read publications like Nature, The Times Literary Supplement, The Economist. There are countless ways to demonstrate commitment to what you want to study, though individuality is important as well. If you surprise us like this in some way on your PS, that’s likely to work in your favour. By the way, if you give space to all the things about your subject you can’t wait to study when you get to university, you may be inviting your interviewers to wonder why, if they interest you that much, you haven’t looked at them already. But you can then show off how much you know about them in the interview (provided you do!).

Try not to be tempted to guess what will impress your interviewers most and draw attention to that. If you write something that invites a discussion in interview about Game Theory, or Joyce’s Ulysses, because you think knowledge of these will impress your interviewers, you’re going to have to discuss them with good knowledge and understanding, and be able to think hard about questions you might be asked which extend your thinking about them. If you can do so, then great! But you might be better off with topics that show the full range of your thinking and reasoning than something done superficially in the hope of looking impressive. It may have the opposite effect from what you hoped for.

One thing to remember about a PS is that we, your interviewers, can never be certain about the extent to which an applicant got help with it. We know perfectly well that some schools put a lot of time and energy into reviewing and redrafting their students’ statements, especially for Oxbridge applications. Those schools may even be taking note of what I’ve written here to refine their services accordingly! So a PS gives us a sense of what interests you and what you have done, and some areas for discussion in the interview, but we’ll be alert to the possibility of help and probe for it accordingly. In any event, it’s rarely a deal-maker or breaker.

Oh, and Oxbridge applications aren’t especially interested in your extra-curricular activities. So if you’re applying for engineering and sing in your local choir, or you’re applying for English and are a member of a synchronized swimming team, that’s lovely, but these things aren’t likely to sway your interviewers. Nerds, you see. Super-curricular is more important than extra-curricular.

With thanks to the Admissions Tutors at Magdelene, Newnham, Peterhouse and Homerton