This is a great opportunity to find yourself, find out what you have to offer and what you desire for the future. This is a time of decision and commitment, so it’s vital that you think long and hard. Don’t rush into ill thought-out decisions, as that can prove costly in terms of time and money.
This all about you, and it needs to have a “Wow!” factor. You need to stand out and sell yourself. Remember, whoever reads this is going to be reading many other applications, and they’ve never met you. Apply for the subject that you have a passion for, not one that’s popular or trendy. Now, obviously, many people want to head straight for Oxbridge, but this is a decision you might regret. Find subjects and courses that really fire you up.
Oxford and Cambridge are amazing places and the kudos are undeniable, but if the course isn’t right for you, you’ll have to start all over again. An important consideration is the fact that you can’t apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in any given academic year and, for UCAS purposes, Oxbridge is just one place. Sadly, Oxbridge admissions are a lottery, with too many qualified applicants for the very limited number of places available. If you’re lucky, you might get offered a place by another college, but you’ll feel rejected and downhearted. Yet there are plenty of people living happy and successful lives despite not getting into Oxbridge. Conversely, there are plenty of sad and unsuccessful people who did get in.
If you are going to go for it, there are two things to consider. If you want to do Politics, Philosophy and Economics, these are Oxford subjects, while many believe that Cambridge is the best place in the world to study Mathematics. Secondly, you’ll need to visit both places, since you need to realise that Oxford colleges tend to be smaller, and some would say that Cambridge is more attractive.
Fortunately, universities are no longer restricted in the number of students they accept, so if you’re good enough you’ll be offered a place somewhere. The years of study lead to great experiences and great relationships with tutors and students and, if you dedicate yourself and work hard, you’ll have a fantastic time.
Let’s go back to your personal statement. You’re intending to commit at least three years to studying full-time at a university at great cost, so you’d better be really sure that this is what you want to do. You should be genuinely excited at the prospect of spending all that time studying the subject you’re applying for, and you need to reflect this in your writing.
If you have issues or doubts, or feel that it isn’t the right time, then don’t go ahead, and don’t bow down to pressure from family or friends. This is your time, your big decision that will shape your future.
Of course, it’s easy to get obsessed with the personal statement, and it can take up valuable time that may be better served studying for those A grades. One problem with the personal statement is that admissions tutors don’t know who wrote it. Obviously, it should be the applicant, but maybe they downloaded a template personal statement from the internet, or maybe they paid someone to write it.
Even if you do write it yourself, admissions tutors don’t know what advice you were given. This can work both ways. It might be that, if your personal statement is poor, you may have been given bad advice, and then it doesn’t seem fair for you to be penalised. The University and College Union carried out a survey in 2015 of 2,155 admissions staff. Only around half of them agreed with the statement, “Personal statements are a useful tool to distinguish between students.”
So, personal statements are useful in guiding interviews, but not useful at all as indicators of how good the students are or how well they will do.
The UCAS application form is made of four parts.
Of course, it's easy to fall into the trap of writing overblown prose that borders on fantasy. Stick to plain speaking. By that I don’t mean dumb down or resort to lazy text speak – maintain good grammar, but consider the reader and consider how many statements that person is having to read. This is the time to make yourself appear interesting, so run it past family and friends for feedback — it needs to say, “This is me!”
Now, as well as being beacons of learning, universities are essentially businesses, and they do not want failure. This would be a reflection on them, but also a waste of time and resources. Thus reassurance is key — show that you’ve done your research and that you’re keen to get started. Show that you already spend a lot of time reading independently about your subject outside the curriculum, which will show that you’re serious and passionate about your subject. Talk about other activities you’ve taken part in that show commitment. This may be a team sport, with the relevant achievements, or it may be extra-curricular training like a Duke of Edinburgh award.
Finally, it may well be that you don’t have a clue as to what you want to do post-university, but on the other hand, you may have a particular career in mind. An assessor will respond positively to someone who has at least thought about it, so discuss this — show that you have the beginnings of a life plan. Who knows? You may well stick to it!