Panic and passion in your Oxbridge Application

Personal Statements

11th October 2018

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Uh-oh. You’re down to four days now. I don’t want to worry you, but it really is time to get cracking with your statement, be it for Oxford, Cambridge, Medicine, Veterinary Sciences or Dentistry. The problem is, the more that deadline looms, the more intimidating that blank page becomes. Remember that we’re on the end of the phone if you’re feeling really stuck and in need of a lifeline.

The other big problem with panic is that it can lead to a kind of reckless bashing of the keyboard, in which you figure that anything on the page has got to be better than nothing. This leads to a series of clichés and tired statements tumbling from your brain and through your fingers. We talked in previous posts about how important is that your Oxbridge statement stands out (without crossing the line into ‘wacky’), and using tired tropes and pedestrian platitudes is immediately going to have your Oxbridge admissions tutor crumpling your statement into a ball and hurling it across the library. (Probably not really, I think even the most 19th century of Oxbridge professors now read stuff on computer screens, but you get what I mean…).  

I have one personal statement cliché that I think is unforgivable –Passion.

Passion’s a problem, no doubt about it. You only have to look at Romeo and Juliet to know that thinking with your heart and not your head is usually a bad way to go (you can have that insightful piece of analysis for free, English Lit students). That said, passion does lead us to some pretty good stuff too, hence why universities are so keen for you to be able to demonstrate it in abundance. If that’s the case then, why is it that every university admissions tutor cringes the moment they see the word ‘passion’?

The answer is pretty simple; the tedium of repetition, cliché and a lack of originality, combined with the fact that anybody can say they have a passion for something but the ones to listen to are the ones who can demonstrate it. As a client advisor for Oxbridge Personal Statements, I have two golden rules; don’t use quotes and don’t use the word passion. The first rule can be bent in special circumstances, the latter – never. So how can you go about demonstrating passion without using the dreaded P word in your personal statement?

The first thing to identify is whether ‘passion’ is even the word you really want to use. Certainly, you can have a passion for helping people (heads up all you Medics). But can you really have a passion for trigonometry? No, come on, really!? You may be fascinated by the immutability of numbers, you might even be intellectually invigorated by the challenge of problem solving… but I don’t think you’re actually passionate about maths.

The examples above lead perfectly to the next passion pitfall; saying you’re passionate without explaining why. If somebody were to ask you why you were head over heels in love with your partner, the answer isn’t typically ‘dunno’ (though actually I reckon if you were to ask Romeo or Juliet they might not have a particularly articulate answer, they both always seemed a little flakey to me). Instead, we’re able to cite a hundred things about the person that we find appealing and attractive. Similarly with your application, be prepared to express exactly what it is about the subject that draws you to it. You relish the intellectual challenge? You find it interesting because of its cross-discipline applicability, multifaceted nature or holistic encompassment of diverse areas and issues? It appeals to your innate curiosity? If you are able to express and justify exactly what it is about the subject that you find appealing, you could almost get away with dropping the P bomb (though I’d still caution you against it, personally).

The next thing to consider is not only how you explain your passion, but how you can demonstrate it practically. Returning to the example of Romeo and Juliet, this is one thing they did at least get right. They didn’t spend all their time just scrawling ‘JM and RC 4evr’ on the back of their textbooks, they went out there and drank poison and impaled themselves on pointy sticks. The walked the walk, not just talked the talk. So how can you demonstrate your passion? Seeking out practical work experience in the field is trick numero uno; this demonstrates that you really do love the subject enough to fill your free time with it, as well as having the benefit of demonstrating organisation, self-started motivation, determination, drive and commitment. Any activity or undertaking that shows you going above and beyond your normal academic workload is the only way to convince the admissions tutor that you mean it when you declare that you’re truly turned on by particle science. Or whatever.

Having read all this, don’t be tempted to just go and grab a thesaurus and think you can bung all the synonyms in (I’ve an ardour for HR, an infatuation with Engineering, a longing for Law). Do think carefully about the words you use and the function they perform; people trying to sound clever are usually seen through pretty quickly, and the deployment of three fancy words where one will do merely demonstrates that you’re all style over substance and lacking in the ability to prioritise or be concise.

So, by all means be passionate. Be zealous, vehement, messianic, tumultuous, perfervid, torrid and feverish. Just don’t write it in your personal statement.