- Personal Statement Writing
- So you've got an interview at Oxford, now what?
- Oxbridge Interviews: Myth and Reality
It’s that UCAS time of year again… I went through the arduous process myself only a few years ago and am currently watching my sister go through it, so I thought I’d share some pointers:
1. Put course choice first
It’s very easy to get tied up in the reputation of a particular university, how much you like the campus/city or whether your friends are going to be nearby. While all these things are important, courses vary hugely from place to place so it’s crucial to do some thorough research. Good things to consider are:
- How many compulsory modules are there? What are they in?
- What’s the balance of coursework versus exam-based assessment?
- Can you do a year abroad/a year in industry?
- Can you take modules from other subject areas?
- What are the teaching arrangements? Seminars/tutorials/lectures?
- What’s the estimated workload?
Once you’ve found a course you like, then go on to ask yourself the other questions about accommodation, extra-curriculars and the social side. Remember: most students come out of university with in excess of £40k in debt, so make sure you spend (at least some of) your time learning something you enjoy!
Your application decisions depend partly on your (predicted) grades. For those of you applying before actually taking your A Levels or equivalent, it’s important to think strategically. That is, be realistic but don’t underestimate yourself. I would choose 2 unis that are slightly above your prediction, 2 that are on your prediction and 1 that is slightly below. So for example, if your predicted A Level grades are AAB, I would recommend to choose unis with roughly the following offers: AAA, AAA, AAB, AAB, BBB.
This, along with everything written here, should be treated as my opinion only. Obviously if there’s a course you absolutely love that is on/below your predicted grade – go ahead and prioritise that one. The recommendation above assumes the extent to which you want the place correlates with the difficulty of the offer.
3. Open days
There is no need to spend lots of time and money scouring the country to find the perfect uni for you. Before you visit anywhere use all the resources available to you – look thoroughly through the uni’s prospectus and website (including any videos or virtual tours they may have). Often prospective applicants are won over by a course at this stage, in which case visiting is not particularly necessary unless you really fancy it/think it would give you additional motivation.
Open days are most useful for those unis you are undecided upon. If you’ve missed them all/can’t make the date, not to worry – it’s still possible to visit and if you e-mail ahead they might even be kind enough to find a student volunteer to show you around. Open days can also come in useful once you’ve received offers to help you decide on your top two choices.
4. To gap or not to gap?
Gap years can be great, whether it’s to travel, work, think more about what you want to do or even to re-take some exams. If you’re uncertain about it, I would suggest applying with your school year anyway. You can always ask to defer any offers you get or pull out of the process later, but at least you will have had some practice at the process which is likely to improve the quality of your application the next time around.
5. The dreaded personal statement
The most important thing is to make it personal. Don’t just google random books/topics in the subject you’re applying for. Try and think what you have come across during your studies (or life in general) that has caught your particular interest. Use this as a starting point, then look for books that are related. You can also use and mention talks, articles, travelling or even cinema if they have helped to further your interest. However, it’s good to have a core of 2-3 books that have really helped to flesh out your knowledge. This will make your statement unique and more likely to catch the eye of the reader.
When it comes to structure try to organise it logically – using a new paragraph for each new point of interest.
The opening line is always difficult – avoid starting on a quote. I would say the best thing is to write a sentence that reaffirms your enthusiasm for the subject.
Extra-curriculars that are related to your subject can be weaved throughout the statement itself. Others (e.g. sports, music) should be included, towards the end to demonstrate skills such as time management. This is also the case if you are applying to Oxbridge alongside other unis, though perhaps make the paragraph slightly shorter.
The over-riding theme in all of these points is that this process is about you – not your siblings, family or friends. Ultimately you will be studying the course and living at the university (and in most cases paying for it…eventually). Set aside research and thinking time. Ask the advice of your teachers and any family/friends you might know that have been through the process recently. Don’t panic if you don’t feel ready – take a stab at the system and if you don’t succeed in what you’re after, UCAS will be waiting for an older and wiser version of yourself next year.