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.
Often the most challenging part of applying to university is writing the personal statement in the UCAS form. It's your opportunity to stand out from the other thousands of applicants that we receive applications from.
We want the statement to tell us about you, and what you want to study and why. The question is, how do you do this successfully and without sounding like everyone else?
We’ve put together some information on this page for those people that are struggling with their personal statement.
What is it?
The personal statement is 47 lines, or 4,000 characters (whichever greater), where you tell us why you want to study what you want to study, and why the universities you have applied to should make you an offer.
Who reads it?
The personal statement is read by someone that is making a decision on whether to:
- Make you a conditional/unconditional offer of a place of study
- Invite you to an interview
- Decline to offer you a place of study
Most statements are read by academics with a role called the 'Admissions Tutor'. These academics are specialists in their subject area. They have normally completed their first degree, Masters degree and their PhD (doctorate) in the subject area; they probably research the subject too.
The Admissions Tutor normally will teach, mark, research and do all the associated work of someone teaching. They have to make hundreds of decisions about who to offer a small number of places to. Making your statement stand out from the pile is really important!
Remember, most universities don’t interview applicants, and those that do base the interview questions, in part, on what you’ve said in the personal statement.
What should it contain?
- As a rule of thumb the personal statement should be exactly what it says – personal to you.
- It should be roughly 75% focused on the subject that you want to study, and 25% about your other skills and experiences.
- It should detail why you're applying to study the course.
- It should demonstrate understanding of the subject applied for and the skills that you’ll need to be able to bring with you, eg analytical skills or communication skills.
- About 25% of it can be about you. What do you do outside of the classroom? What do you enjoy? How does this link to the subject that you want to study, or show your readiness for university?
- The Admissions Tutor will be looking for your potential to succeed. They don't expect you to know everything already but want someone that is prepared to work hard and learn.
What do the people who read it say?
We’ve gathered some quotes from some of our Admissions Tutors who spend a lot of time reading statements.
"I like information in the statement that shows that students understands the subject that they have applied for and what using the degree professionally might entail after university."
"I like to know why the student has got to where they are now. If they have an interesting life story then they should tell it. However, if this has no relevance to the subject then it can put me off."
"I really like a well-structured personal statement; one that's easy to read and understand."
"The best personal statements that get to the point quickly and demonstrate real enthusiasm – I look forward to teaching these students."
Top tips for completing a personal statement
- make it snappy and easy to read – Admissions Tutors have many applications to read through.
- use line breaks in between paragraphs. While you may lose characters doing this, it will make the statement much easier to read.
- reveal your niche; tell us if you have a specific interest area within the subject area that you'd like to develop as part of your studies.
- present your academic reading. Quote or tell us about a favourite author, researcher or academic who shares your interests or inspires you.
- back up your statements with examples and evaluation. How and when have you been organised, motivated and inspired, and how did this help you achieve results?
- discuss your current studies and demonstrate how they are relevant to the degree you're applying for, subject by subject.
- talk about any extra-curricular activities that are related to your chosen subject area. For example, visiting galleries for those applying to history of art/visual cultures.
- check spelling and grammar. A well-presented and grammatically correct statement indicates that you can write for academic purposes.
- embellish the truth. You may get caught out if you're invited to an interview and asked about your statement.
- write lists – unless you’re listing technical specifications of programming languages or equipment that you have to use to complete the course, avoid lists.
- dedicate too much space to non-subject related content. We're interested in your extra-curricular activities that are relevant and because they demonstrate your broader skills.
- tell us you 'like reading' or 'like music' – if you’re not careful you can begin to sound like everyone else. It's better to tell us what you like reading and why, and how this relates to the subject that you’d like to study.