I am going to teach you how to write a personal statement that will secure you an interview with Oxford University or anything other top university. Warning: This guide is long. I’ve put a PDF version at the bottom so you can download it, print it off, keep it, and refer back to it.
Why am I the best person to do this?
Because the strength of my own personal statement secured my interview at Oxford University. I have also spent a couple of years consulting with individuals to get them into their top university choice. I have helped close to 100 candidates from all over the world and I have a perfect track record.
100% of the students I helped got into the university of their choice.
A perfect track record is incredibly rare. Clearly I was blessed with the opportunity to mentor intelligent students who had a fighting chance at getting into their university. But I like to think that what I taught them gave them an extra push.
The students I have mentored have been admitted into Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, MIT, York, Berkley, Imperial College, Stanford, King’s College, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Columbia, McGill, Warwick, and many more.
Now obviously you need to have your grades in order. I’m going to take it as a given that you are already pulling good grades or are expected to have top marks in your A-levels (if you are from the UK). But don’t underestimate the power of a persuasive and compelling personal statement.
Many universities are ready to admit you based on the strength of your personal statement.
A well written statement, no matter what subject you are doing, can be enough to push you through or at least put you at the top of the pile.
Oxford University place a lot of importance on the interview process. If your grades are in order, they practically decide to give you a place depending on how well they like you in the interview. But how do you get the interview offer in the first place? By having a personal statement that stands out from the crowd.
Why do universities put so much importance on the personal statement? Because it’s going to tell them so much more about who you are than any test results or work experience.
You have 47 lines and 4000 characters (your statement should typically be a little under 800 words) and you have to breathe your soul into every single line.
You have complete control over what you include in your personal statement. But with complete control comes fear. What do I include? How do I write it? What do they want? These are all valid questions and I remember seeing many students break down in tears while writing their personal statements.
Yet fear not. I will help you through. And we’re going to make it fun. Grab a pen/pencil/quill and notepad/printer paper/scroll and your favourite drink (I’m about to make myself an iced matcha latte – delicious) and we shall get started. Are you ready? Good. Let’s go!
Who is your audience?
This is where you begin.
The hardest part truly is beginning so let’s designate this as the start.
Answer that question. Who is your audience? Who are you writing to? Many students don’t think about this once during the writing process.
This is very important. The personal statement, just like all writing, is a form of communication. You are not simply talking to yourself or speaking into a vacuum. You are not writing for a computer to scan data. You are writing to another living, breathing human being who has their own fears and loves.
Let’s get a bit meta on this. Before I sat down to write this guide, the first question I asked myself was ‘who am I writing to?’
If my tone sounds conversational, instructive, and comforting to you, that’s no accident. I have a mental picture of you in my mind right now. It might not be the correct mental image but it helps me to write this.
I am imagining that I am talking to a 17-year-old version of myself. I am also imagining the people who surrounded my 17-year-old self during personal statement writing time. The person I imagine in my mind is someone who needs guidance and is worrying about how best to write their personal statement. I have the answer to this dilemma. I want to tell you this answer and I also want to take some of your stress away. I want you to succeed and I want you to feel calm.
I know you intimately. I know you because I was you. Because I know you, I know how to write to you.
You don’t need to know the person reading your personal statement as intimately as I know you. But you should know something about them. If you know a little bit about them, you will know how to craft your tone.
You don’t talk to everyone the same way do you? Surely you don’t speak the same to an 80-year-old priest as to your 5-year-old sister or your headmaster or your doctor or your best friend who you’ve just had an argument with.
If you really don’t know who you are talking to, don’t worry! I will tell you.
The person reading your personal statement fits the following profile:
- They hold a prestigious position at the university of your choice. They are likely a tutor and have the title of ‘Dr’ before their name.
- They have spent their lives in academia and they love and know their subject. They are likely to be in the top 1% in the entire world in their chosen subject.
- They are tired and bored. They sift through thousands of personal statements every single year and almost all of them sound the same.
Now you know who your audience is, you have another question to answer.
How are you going to speak to your audience?
How would you speak to that person if you were at a fancy dinner party with the chance of being employed by them?
That’s the sort of attitude you need to have in your personal statement.
You are speaking to someone of great intelligence and expertise and you are trying to foster a relationship with them.
The reason I use the dinner party analogy is because you want to highlight your best qualities but you don’t want to be gauche about it. You don’t want to come off as trying too hard or arrogant.
You should already feel confident at this stage. Just thinking about who you are writing to puts you ahead of most of the other candidates.
Before we actually get into the details of writing the personal statement, we need to give it some more thought.
Here comes the mother of all philosophical questions.
Who are you?
We will break this down into two parts.
First we are going to develop a short one-sentence summary of ourselves.
Then we will go brainstorming crazy to develop the meat of the statement.
Let’s return to the dinner party analogy. You are not the only person there. The room is filled with esteemed and ambitious individuals from all over the world. You don’t have long to talk to the tutor you wish to impress. He/she has so many people competing for their attention. Plus they’re tired. And drunk.
How are you going to stand out in a concise and memorable way?
Another analogy is what’s known in the publishing and movie world as the ‘elevator pitch’.
You get into an elevator and, lo and behold, the top executive at the film/publishing company of your dreams is standing there. The doors close and the elevator begins to move up. You look at the buttons as each light gradually goes off and the floor number changes. You have thirty seconds. Tops. What do you say?
What we need to do is to develop our own slogan, something you can fit on a business card, something that you can remember and repeat easily (if you can, they can).
Don’t get overwhelmed. The first stage in crafting a good self-slogan is brainstorming.
You want to involve other people in this stage. Grab your notebook and pen and go talk to the people closest to you (if you are fortunate enough to have such people in your life).
Ask your parents, siblings, friends, teachers (yes, seriously, stay behind after class and ask your favourite teacher for a quick moment of their time) about your qualities.
Ask these people ‘What qualities do I have that stand out?’
Obviously if your teacher says you are an obnoxious sex pest or your dad says you are a layabout thief, don’t write down those qualities. I mean, you could. But let’s try and be selective here. We want good qualities.
Once you’ve got some external input, write down what you think your best qualities are.
Sometimes it’s hard to truly see our own qualities. We either idealise ourselves and summon an image that is grander than actuality or we become our own worst critic and reach the conclusion that there is nothing special about us. That is why we ask other people first before brainstorming ourselves. Our actions are a reflection of our mind. If you are compassionate and altruistic that will manifest itself in doing nice things for other people (it could be a charity fundraiser or it could be buying your mum a chocolate bar when she is ill).
Once you’ve got a few things down we can start to have some real fun. Ever heard of the Myers-Briggs Test?
This is a questionnaire developed by Carl Jung that will give you an extraordinarily accurate reading of your personality.
I love taking questionnaires. Who doesn’t? Most people love to talk about themselves and learn about themselves. The problem I have with most tests, however, is that they are rubbish. They are little better than the astrology readings in The Sun. But the Myers-Briggs is incredibly accurate. You will be astonished at how well the results will reflect who you are.
Take the Myers-Briggs test here.
This will give you a comprehensive report on your qualities and how you interact in your work and family life.
Once you’ve completed the test, you will receive an abbreviation denoting your personality type.
For example, I am an INFJ. This stands for Introversion, Intuition, Feeling, and Judgement. Famous INFJs include Plato, Jung, Gandhi, Dante, Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Lady Gaga, Oprah, Hitler, Martin Luther King Jr, Al Pacino, Osama bin Laden, and Nelson Mandela.
The results of the test tell me that I am an introverted dreamer with an innate sense of idealism and morality and a penchant for taking action towards my dreams. My type is altruistic and concerned with solving problems at their core. The INFJ is soft-spoken with strong opinions and makes for a perfect democratic leader. This type of person prefers to speak to the emotions in people rather than use logical language.
The test gave me a big list of strengths (creative, determined, decisive) and weaknesses (private, prone to burn-out, always needing a cause). In short, the results of the test were scarily accurate and I heartily recommend you take the test yourself in order to help develop your self-slogan.
You want around 5 themes to play with.
Brainstorm some sentences that you think showcase your best qualities.
You aren’t actually going to use this sentence in your personal statement but it will give you direction to expand upon.
When you are writing your slogan sentences, avoid ‘save the world’ generic phrases and emphasise multidimensionality.
When I was writing my personal statement, I heard a lot of stuff about needing lots of extracurricular activities. Apparently if I wasn’t the head of at least 5 charity groups and 3 sports teams and if I didn’t tutor French Sign Language to homeless koalas in my spare time, the universities wouldn’t even look at me. Not true.
I’ve done a lot now but my 17-year-old self was worried about how lacking I was in extra-curricular activities. It seemed like all of my peers had spent years purposefully acquiring ‘experience’ to put in their statement and on their CV. There was even a mad scramble around personal statement writing time when lots of students rushed to find extra-curricular experience (people literally pushing and shoving each other to volunteer at elderly care homes).
I didn’t have many extra-curricular activities to boast about but I knew one thing. I was passionate about my subject. I read a lot and I wrote a lot. I loved art. I went to museums and plays and watched good movies and then wrote about the experiences. I told myself that this was good enough.
All I had to do was ensure that my passion burned through the page and Oxford would give me a shot.
I had this confirmed when I arrived at Oxford. My tutors told me such and my peers also told me that they did a similar thing.
You have less than 800 words to play with. Don’t waste them showing off about how you spent 3 months picking up poo at a puppy orphanage. Unless you can directly tie that to your passion for your subject.
Other universities focus a bit more on extra-curricular activities (York and Warwick both told me such) but I know one thing for a fact:
Oxford wants passion. Not ‘well-rounded’.
Seriously. If you are ‘well-rounded’, how much effort have you invested into your subject? Top universities want top students. They want world-class experts. A jack of all trades is a master of none.
The way I ended up marketing myself in my personal statement was as a dedicated writer in training who set up everything in his life to be subservient to his art. I wanted to highlight my appreciation of art in all of its forms, from musicals and poetry to sculpture and acting, and I wanted to show myself as a bit of a budding philosopher.
Once you’ve thought about how you want to position yourself, we can move on to the next stage and start brainstorming the actual body of the personal statement.
Just remember, before we go any further, that everything you present should be sincere, truthful, and aligned with your values. There is no use lying about who you are in any situation in life. It doesn’t pay off. It is always a mistake. For example, many people lie about who they are in order to get into a relationship with another person. This always leads to arguments and a messy break-up down the road. If you lie about who you are and someone accepts you, they are not really accepting you.
If someone is not willing to accept the real you, they are not right for you. Go find someone who is.
Now it’s time to dig deep. I use the word ‘dig’ purposefully because we are going to treat our minds like an archeological excavation site. We are going to pull up some valuable discoveries, dust them off, and put them on display in our personal statement.
Spend a couple of weeks at this stage.
We are going to collect the stories, thoughts, and opinions that mean the most to you.
You do this by collecting absolutely everything.
Even if it seems mundane, put it down on paper. We are not the best judges of what is mundane or not in our lives.
For example, a routine trip to the dentist where you had a filling replaced can be more fascinating than the time you went sky-diving in Peru depending on the thoughts and tension that you bring to the story. That drip to the dentist might have revealed the essence of your true character that you had never known before. It might have made you believe in God. Conversely, that sky-diving trip might have simply scared you so much you kept your eyes closed and learned nothing about yourself other than the fact that you prefer eating ice cream in front of Netflix.
When you first begin brainstorming you’re going to be stiff and reluctant to excavate your mind. That’s perfectly normal. Here are some techniques to get you going:
- Word Association – Start with some values you discovered whilst developing your self-slogan and write down anything and everything that these words trigger. E.g. Analytical — lab experiment — controlled creativity — anything could happen — the future is under the microscope. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else but you at this stage.
- Make a Time Line – What happened last month? The month before that? Keep going back as far as you remember.
- Keep a Journal – Every day write down everything you are thinking and feeling. Pick a time to write and stick to it. I recommend dedicating at least 20 minutes to this (to be honest, it takes me 20 minutes to even begin writing). Themes and patterns will emerge and you will learn about yourself.
- Pick a Word and Write Stream-of-Consciousness – Follow Kerouac’s rules for spontaneous prose and write without a filter. Silence that internal editor who judges everything like a catty X-Factor panelist. Pick a word and just write. For example: Money is… Relationships are… Family is… (fighting, cherishing, holding, latching on, trusting, encouraging, expecting, valuing) Art is… (a concrete rendering of the soul, the heart of a nation distilled, brainwashing us to beauty). Passion is… Hard work is…
- Make Top 10 Lists About Anything – I got this idea from James Altucher who advocates writing top ten lists every day in order to develop creativity and mental flexibility. These lists can and should be about completely random things. For example: 10 Favourite Foods and Why; 10 Things I Learned from Grandpa; 10 Countries I Want to Visit and Why; 10 Ways Dogs Are Better Than Cats. When you do this exercise, you will feel your brain warming up.
The key here is to have fun. You’re playing. You’re making yourself comfortable with writing, introspection, and creativity.
It is important to spend a lot of time writing in this manner before you actually begin writing your personal statement.
This will build your confidence, let your creativity flow, and give you an abundant pool of resources to draw from.
A lot of students get stressed writing their personal statement because they believe they have to sit down and write it immediately.
No. Good writing is rewriting. Hemingway said that for every page of gold he writes, there are 100 pages of shit.
No one gets it right the first time and everyone needs practice.
You must get used to thinking deeply and learn to connect your mind to your pen before you even jot the first word of your personal statement.
Trust me. Your personal statement will come out so much more easily, fully formed, and insightful if you spend a couple of weeks (at least) writing about anything and everything.
Keep multiple notebooks and fill them up. Bring them with you everywhere.
You don’t turn up to a strongman contest and attempt to press 400 pounds over your head. You need to train first. Get your muscles used to picking up weight.
If I take so much as one day off from writing, it takes me forever to get into the flow of things and I churn out rubbish. I’ve heard many professional writers (all of them, in fact) say the exact same thing.
Once you’ve spent some time writing and you’ve filled up a couple of notebooks, we can move on to actually working out how we are going to translate all this stuff into something that is useful.
Before we move on, I just want to say don’t worry if you look over your scribblings and you are convinced that your life isn’t that exciting.
If I wrote my personal statement now I would be spoilt for choice. I’ve had a lot of cool experiences and I feel like I’ve really lived. But when I was 17, I did not have lots of unique experiences to choose from. I hadn’t bathed elephants in a sanctuary in the mountains of Thailand. I hadn’t been trapped on a motorbike for 8 hours during a heavy monsoon in Vietnam. I hadn’t seen robots battling exotic dancers in the red light district of Tokyo.
What made me even more insecure was that at 17 it seemed as though everyone else around me had lived a full life. I wasn’t sure how I could compete with them. I also didn’t know where any of them had gotten the time to do all the amazing stuff they claimed.
Despite not having a whole host of weird experiences to emphasise how mature and well-travelled I was, I still think that my personal statement at 17 could rival my personal statement now.
I excavated my mind and put everything about my life down on paper. Yet I came to the conclusion that the most interesting elements were all to do with books I had read, philosophies I subscribed to, plays and movies I had seen, and my hopes and ambitions for the future.
Now we’re going to make sense of the mess.
If you’ve followed my instructions (and you absolutely 100% should) you will have a surplus of material to choose from.
You might already know what things you want to include in your statement.
Even doing something as simple as writing a diary entry every day, you might have written something that really speaks to you or really encapsulates who you are. You often don’t reach this decision logically. It’s an intuition of the body. Something just feels right.
Go through your material and try to find a thread.
Making chaos coherent is an art.
Are you able to select 3 stories or 5 ideas and have a pattern running through them?
One technique that many essay writers favour is that of the extended metaphor. You take a metaphor and you apply it all the way through your essay.
A common example is the extended metaphor of a journey. This is a common one because it’s quite simple to create. You state your end goal (be a rocket scientist, a proctologist, a world-class pianist) as being the destination of your journey. Then you select a few stories that show you struggling towards fulfilling that goal. You fit these into the metaphor of a journey by describing them as points on a map or places of rest on the journey or wrong-turns and so on.
You don’t have to use an extended metaphor. If it doesn’t come naturally, it might appear contrived if you try it. Instead, you could try tying everything back to a persona that is important to conveying who you are.
One example of a persona that might work for an international business student is the ‘citizen of the world’ persona. A candidate who is applying to study business in a foreign university might wish to select 3 or 4 stories that show both his or her business potential and their ability to integrate into other cultures. Maybe this person could choose one story from childhood (their businessman grandpa showing them a map and promising that they would travel the world together). Then they could choose a story about how they discovered the solution to a big problem in China whilst speaking with their Chinese classmates. You get the idea.
The persona that worked for me as a candidate applying to study English Language and Literature was that of the ‘storyteller’ and ‘performer’. I talked about my passion for Stanislavsky’s method acting and how actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean used movement and expression in a way that is akin to poetry. My grand central theme was put down in the first line and everything that came after it was linked to it.
My first line (we’ll get into how to write one soon) was something like this:
‘The Nietzschean philosophy of aesthetics posits that there is a duality in art between the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses.’
We don’t need to analyse what this means or whether it was any good. It must have been good enough for Oxford. My personal opinion of it when I wrote it was that it was a bit pretentious.
I chose to use it nonetheless for two reasons. Firstly, I was confident that no one else would be starting their essay that way. There’s some big Greek words and few 17 year olds are reading Nietzsche. Secondly, I was truly passionate about the subject. I had read The Birth of Tragedy and was fascinated by the idea that art could either be Apollonian (relating to form, like sculpture) or Dionysian (formless, like music and drunkenness). I also came to the conclusion that if Nietzsche had been alive to see the direction that cinema took, he might think film to be the highest art form because it blends both the Apollonian and Dionysian conditions. It was important to me to think about film because, at 17, I wanted to improve my understanding about the English language and literature because I wanted to write for film.
So my theme was art in its many manifestations, but particularly film. Throughout my personal statement I focused on choosing anecdotes that showed my love of acting and writing. Everything I wrote was chosen to work on its own and as a whole. There has to be a unity to the whole work.
My suggestion is to put a unique spin on passion.
How does your passion set you apart from all the other passionate individuals?
If you are an aspiring medic, you might chose to begin with a story about how a footnote in Gray’s Anatomy about the tibia bone is what inflamed your passion to become a doctor. Then you might progress to a tender story about how you watched your aunt’s mental health deteriorate due to dementia and how a nutritional suggestion that you made improved her condition. You might then lighten the mood by detailing how, when all of your friends were playing football, you were picking apart medical inaccuracies in Scrubs and researching everything they said on the internet. You know, get creative.
When you’ve selected some anecdotes or stories that speak to you, about you, and are connected, let’s move on to the next stage. Don’t worry if your stories aren’t perfect. You can always swap them for different ones later.
You don’t have a lot of words at your disposal so you can’t just wing it and hope something coherent and connected with gush out.
This is how you outline. Nail this and your structure will begin to fall into place:
- Introduction – Your opening paragraph will typically consist of 3-4 sentences. Be careful writing many more than that. You want your opening to launch you into the main body and make your theme clear. You have no room to waffle on.
- Main Paragraphs – Typically you will have 5-7 paragraphs and each of them will be 5-8 sentences long (depending on word count and so on). You construct your paragraphs by following this often cited but little used acronym: PEE. This stands for Point, Example, Explanation. Your main paragraphs should be like a mini-essay in themselves. Each paragraph should have an introduction sentence, a body, and a conclusion. Each paragraph should also link in some way to what came before and what will come after it.
- Conclusion – This will be the same length of your introduction and it needs to tie everything together and end with a powerful punch.
Once you’ve got an outline, you can begin the first draft.
You can begin the first draft even when you are not totally sure about everything you are going to say. You might not know your exact introduction or conclusion but that’s fine.
You should write your first draft fast.
Get it down in a day or two. It will be rough but that’s how every good one starts. Get comfortable with the fact that you will have to rewrite many times. If you’ve already been writing for a couple of weeks, you should be okay with that idea. Many students will only do one draft. Their first draft is their final draft. They turn it in and it looks sloppy.
Let’s look at how to actually write.
How To Write An Introduction
There are a lot of things going on in a good introduction.
It can be complicated to discuss and think about without any concrete examples.
So I will first supply you with an example that I have just written for a fictional candidate. Then we will analyse what is going on. This example follows formulas and prescriptions that I have used when instructing and helping others write their statements and every student who took these ideas on board was admitted into the top university of their choice.
This following opening is for a candidate who fits the example I used earlier. He is a business student applying to study abroad and wishes to put forth the ‘citizen of the world’ persona.
“Multiple experiences in my developing years blessed me with the discovery that I am a world citizen. The core belief of Buddhism is that the whole ocean is contained in one drop. I believe this with all of my heart. Identifying as one particular race, creed, or colour impedes the development of human civilization. It is my ambition to see what unites humanity and provide solutions to problems that plague mankind as a whole.”
Let’s analyse what’s going on here.
The first sentence gets right to the point.
You know exactly what this candidate is about to discuss. You also know something about the candidate before reading any further. You know that his past has been instrumental to his development, you know that he has a mindset of gratitude (the word ‘blessed’ gets that across), and you know how he sees himself and how he wishes you to see him (‘a world citizen’). This is perfect for someone who wants to study abroad and, as we read more, we’ll see that this persona is perfect for his ambition. He wants to change the world through his entrepreneurial or business endeavours and to do that he must see the world through the eyes of different cultures.
Notice how the sentence is written. It exudes power. This is because it is written using the active voice. If it was written in the passive voice (‘I was blessed’) it would sound weak.
Most people’s default writing is in the passive voice. This is because they are unsure about what they are saying. They lack conviction. Even if you are not confident in what you are saying, use the active voice. It might feel uncomfortable at first but it will read with power and the more you use it the more it will get into your system and give you confidence from the outside in.
The second sentence works by attaching to a tenet of Buddhism. You can put a direct quote here. I feel that a direct quote works better in the second sentence than the first. Many people want to begin immediately with a quote. They also want to end on a quote. I don’t like this idea because it shows that you are unsure of your own words. If you have to use the words of someone else immediately it suggests that your own words aren’t good enough.
Sure, you should have some quotes throughout if they suit your theme. But don’t put the focus on the quotes and expect them to make up for any quality lacking in your own work.
So the second sentence made use of the Buddhist philosophy and, in doing so, contributed even more to the reader’s understanding of who the writer is. Clearly he is quite spiritual and he’s a thinker. He has also deliberately chosen to focus on a religion renowned for its peacefulness and collectivist mindset. This is a subtle way of telling the reader that you will work well with others and you are conscientious. You wouldn’t believe how many students simply write ‘I work well in teams’ or ‘I always put others first’. Don’t you think this approach is much better?
Don’t tell. Show. Demonstrate. Subtlety carries power.
Notice the length of the sentences. They vary in length, don’t they? Don’t be afraid of short sentences. Short sentences are powerful. But be sure to mix up the pace. Two short sentences followed by a slightly longer one is pleasurable for the reader.
What do you notice about the fourth sentence?
It has a list of three items (‘race, creed, or colour’). The rule of three is the human brain’s most loved pattern. Be sure to include it once or twice in your essay. It’s rhythmic and memorable.
The final sentence ties all of the preceding sentences together. It is a strong sentence and is unafraid to declare itself. It sets up the rest of the essay too. In just five lines, we know a lot about the writer and we also want to find out more. We are left with questions that need answers. What problems plague humanity as a whole? How are you going to solve them?
How To Write A Main Paragraph
This is going to sound like incredibly basic advice (and it is) but I never truly learned the power of this formula until my final year in Oxford.
My mentor drilled the following rule into my head over and over again:
I was told this rule when I first started secondary school. I never listened. I thought it was too basic for me and that I was doing something advanced by not following it. I might have unconsciously followed it a few times, who knows? But I generally disregarded it.
Then my mentor said that mastering the basics is how you become advanced.
If you follow this simple rule well, you will be a good writer. One of the hardest parts of being a writer is simply organising your thoughts. Once you know how to do that, you’re good to go.
Point – This is your first sentence. You can also think of this as your introduction sentence. What is your point? Your first sentence needs to say exactly what you are going to talk about. It also needs to be relevant to what came before it. Let’s look at the example of what the international business candidate might write for the first sentence of his first paragraph:
“The first time I discovered the importance of cultivating a global mindset was when my father let me sit in on one of his international business meetings.”
We know exactly what this writer is going to discuss next. We are going to hear a story about his father and hopefully gain access to the business and life lessons the writer learned. It links in to the introduction because it continues that same thread of internationalism and business. It leaves the reader wanting to know what happens next (remember, we are ultimately telling a story). It has a point. It has direction.
If you ever find yourself wondering if a first sentence is good or not, sit back and ask yourself this question: ‘What’s the point?’
I don’t mean that in a futile, defeatist sense, which results in your screwing up your paper and punching a wall. I mean, is your sentence relevant and is it heading somewhere? If you answer yes immediately, you probably have a good sentence! If you are hesitant to answer, think of a different way to say it or figure out what your point is first (writing comes so much more easily when we know what we want to say).
Example – Once you’ve got your point, you need to back it up with an example. We can see in the example used above that the example is built right into the point. Sometimes this happens, sometimes not. So what would happen next in this example statement is the writer would provide a couple of sentences detailing the experience with his father. Maybe something like this:
“My father thought that seven years old was a good age to learn about business. I still remember the tension in the atmosphere. There were ten business partners in the room, each from different parts of the world, each stinking of coffee and cigarettes, and fatigue and frustration clung to every word and movement. The Chinese partners and the Thai partners were pulling out of the business.”
The example should paint a picture. Think of it like a little movie. Make the description clear and appeal to multiple senses. The driving force of every good story is tension. I think that tension is quite evident in this passage. I even included the word ‘tension’. But tension needs resolution.
Explanation – This is where we provide a little bit of relief from the tension set up in the example. The best form for this relief to take is in a lesson learned. What did you learn from the example that made you who you are today? Let’s see what the business candidate might write:
“I sensed, even at that young age, that this was not a disagreement about money. This was a clash of cultures. Insensitivity had led to an unwillingness to collaborate any further. At that moment, I knew that if we are to succeed in today’s global world, we must never assume that our culture’s viewpoint is the correct one. I believe this event to be the catalyst for my desire to understand other cultures.”
This is where the paragraph would end. The writer has learned a lesson and they are also hinting towards the next paragraph. This event is just the ‘catalyst’, which implies that there will be more. The question we are left wondering at the end of this paragraph is ‘what did he do next to understand other cultures’? The paragraph that follows could then detail a time where the writer organised a charity event for a foreign disaster.
How To Write A Conclusion
By the time you get to the conclusion, the reader should feel like they went on a little journey.
A formula that I think works well is to mix different times in the narrative of your story.
Begin by looking to the future and commenting on the present. Then as you progress through your essay, you will work your way up from childhood until the present day. When you reach the conclusion, you can look once again to the future.
A good conclusion wraps everything up but doesn’t simply repeat what was said in the introduction.
Here’s what the example business applicant might finish with:
“As I look back over the formative events in my past, I find myself invigorated and compelled to take action. Many processes were involved in contributing to my decision to study business but ultimately my motivation is always linked to one strong belief. Business is the art of providing value to humanity. If I can help just one person, I will be happy.”
End with a vision.
State what you’ve learned and state where you see yourself going.
Once you’ve gotten something resembling a personal statement down on paper, it is time to begin the revision process.
How To Edit and Revise Your Personal Statement
It’s always good practice to leave your statement alone for a little bit before beginning the editing process.
Let it cool off. You need to take a break. Go do something fun for a day or two. Then come back with a clear head, ready to cut it to pieces.
I will say the obvious but just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s not important. Check for spelling and grammar mistakes. Constantly. Do it many, many times. It is completely within your control to eliminate spelling mistakes but many students do not. This can penalise you quite heavily.
My best piece of advice is twofold:
- Read it aloud.
- Get friends, family, and teachers involved.
Reading it aloud allows you to see the work in a different way. You will be able to see where it flows and where it feels awkward. You will get a sense of if it ‘works’.
Next, ask as many trusted people as possible to go over it. Don’t feel that you have to take all of their advice on board. Sometimes over analysis can lead to paralysis. But it is important to ask other people to honestly critique it because they will be able to see things that you cannot (because you are too close to it).
One further piece of advice is don’t leave the editing process to the last day. It’s not enough time. Give yourself ample time to edit. It’s important. You want time to think about it and constantly return to it. You want time to dream about it. Time brings suggestions. I, and many of my friends, thought of the perfect anecdote or quote just an hour after we submitted our personal statements. It’s the way things go.
Deep breath. Relax.
Once it’s done, it’s done.
This is extremely hard for some people (myself included).
You have to understand that nothing you do will ever be perfect.
Your personal statement won’t be perfect. My personal statement wasn’t perfect. You just have to do the best that you can and then learn to send it off into the world.
If you’ve followed my guide, your personal statement will be close to perfect and you will have a good shot at getting invited to interview. Now it’s time to forget about it and go have fun. Reward yourself for doing such a good job.
P.S. Grab the PDF version for this post so you can refer back to this information offline. Click here to get it: How to write a personal statement for oxford
Still need help with your personal statement?
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any work you have so far.
I offer a two-part service that involves a “deep dive” meeting to uncover your best strengths to put in your personal statement and a re-write of your work.