How to make your personal statement speak to the heart of Oxbridge

Education, Oxbridge, Specialist Applications, UCAS

28th September 2018

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In previous blogs we’ve covered how to select a college, and the basic steps involved in applications, as well as lots of general writing advice. But what about the actual substance of your statement? Does a statement for Oxbridge differ that significantly from other UCAS applications?

Well, yes and no. In reality, if Oxford or Cambridge constitute just one of your five picks, then the statement you write has to appeal to all five institutions, so it can’t differ that fundamentally. However, the extent to which you take a one-size-fits-all approach depends on how comfortable you are with risk and the idea of gambling. Create a relatively generic statement and Oxford and Cambridge might overlook you, but other universities won’t be alienated by your blatant Oxbridge orientation. Conversely, create a statement that is practically yelling ‘I dream of dreaming spires’ and your other four choices may look on you in a slightly less favourable light. The balancing act is a hard one to manage.

Academic Focus

In terms of content, the slight difference that marks an effective Oxbridge statement is the heavier focus on academia. For other university applications, a statement may have a relatively high degree of reference to extracurricular activities and the life skills these have imbued you with. For an Oxbridge statement, you undoubtedly want to mention these achievements – you’re going up against County Hockey players, Head Boys, Chess Champions and Grade 8 pianists – but you don’t want to devote too much time to dwelling on them. Don’t list them in a boastful way – make sure you extract a key message, for instance ‘I was able to maintain exceptional academic grades in conjunction with a heavy extracurricular workload, which included…’, but don’t waste paragraphs on these things. As we’ll cover in more depth below, this space needs to go to painting you as an academic with a genuine interest in the subject, and a thirst for greater knowledge.

The second ‘space waster’ to avoid is a career focus. Many universities like to see what you want to do with your degree – it can often be a good representation of ‘drive’, but because the focus is much more academic at Oxbridge, they like the idea of an intellectual who values the process of study as a good in and of itself. For instance, reference to the idea of enjoying the ‘dialectic’ process as a mode of investigation is great for making an effective non-direct reference to the unique appeal of the tutorial/supervision system of Oxford and Cambridge. The colleges want to hear about how you relish the idea of engaging with like-minded peers in a exercise of lively discussion and debate, or about how you possess intellectual curiosity and an analytical mind – these are all things that Oxbridge wants to hear more than ‘I want to study law so that I can be a rich lawyer and drive a BMW/Audi/Range Rover/delete as applicable’ (because lets face it, that’s kind of implied…

This means you need to keep the focus of an Oxbridge statement far more academic – but it also means going much further than just saying ‘I have a highly analytical mind’. Don’t just name drop books you’ve read in the field (or, more realistically, are intending to read the summary of on Wikipedia). Instead, extract one or two key texts and apply your analytical ability to it – extract an interesting point, ruminate on the potential wider implications of it in the field, synthesise ideas and show original thought. Though for goodness sake don’t use quotes – that doesn’t show analysis, it shows regurgitation. An effective Oxbridge personal statement doesn’t tell the reader how interested in the subject they are, how clever they are with their grades, or how interesting and versatile they are through their esoteric hobbies and achievements; instead it shows this by engaging in thoughtful consideration and discussion. Show not tell – a key rule in any field of writing.

If you’re not quite sure if your statement is hitting the Oxbridge balance – highlighting your ability and ‘passions’ (don’t you dare use that word…) without becoming a boring list of bragging rights, why not contact us at Oxbridge Personal Statements so that one of our professionals can have a look at your draft and make sure you’re heading in the right direction?

Whether you go it alone or get in contact for some help, all of us here at Oxbridge Personal Statements wish you the very best of luck!