Advice on writing and editing your personal statement, directly from those who are tasked with reading hundreds of them!
Do see the official Oxford guidance here 🔗.
The personal statement is just one part of the information we have on each candidate (we also have admissions tests and written work for many subjects prior to shortlisting for interview). This means that the personal statement is important but it’s not everything: it’s just one part of the overall picture.
Ultimately what we are looking for is a passion for the subject, so do include any additional academic work or reading that you have undertaken which will demonstrate this. It is fine for you to include non-academic extra-curricular information (as other universities may be interested in this) but at Oxford we are looking for academic merit and potential. So we don’t mind at all if you have been doing extra-curricular activities but, unless they relate to your course, they won’t be taken into account in our decision-making process. What is important is that you don’t embellish or lie about anything in your personal statement! If you say you have read something or done something, make sure you have, otherwise it will be very awkward for you if you get an interview and get a question related to the claim which you can’t answer.
The personal statement is an opportunity to demonstrate your enthusiasm and exploration of your subject beyond what you have been taught in the classroom. Clear but concise academic discussion of one or two supercurricular activities can provide evidence of academic ability and potential. There is no need to make a personal statement stand out, and in fact striving to do so can detract from the aims discussed above.
The key universal selection criteria that the personal statement might provide relevant evidence for are motivation and suitability for the course. Selectors are looking for evidence of enthusiasm, which means more than just asserting that you like your subject – applicants should be able to point to things they have done or read in pursuit of their interest.
Work experience isn’t universally available, especially during the pandemic, so people shouldn’t be discouraged if they don’t have it (but if you get the opportunity by all means grab it) but everyone has access to reading material, usually online at the moment. In due course, other activities such as museum visits or visits to science department open days should become available in due course. I would suggest, though, that there is never a need for anyone to do something just to bolster their personal statement. People should do and read things because they genuinely find them interesting. If you can’t think of something interesting to do in relation to your intended degree subject, you should seriously ask yourself whether you are applying for the right degree.
The other key criterion that the personal statement could address is suitability for the course. If an applicant can point to achievements that are not captured in the qualifications section of the UCAS application (such as winning an essay prize or achievement in a science Olympiad) then the personal statement is the place to do so.
Really it’s about evidenced enthusiasm. Tell us what you’ve found interesting about your chosen subject and try to critically engage in your subject as best you can. Don’t write about what you think the tutors want to hear – tell us what you personally find engrossing, fascinating, thought-provoking and even frustrating about your subject. What ever makes your cogs turn – explain it to us. There’s no specific books/competitions/work experience/A-level modules etc that you need to tell us about. Just ask yourself honestly “why do you want to do this?”.