Personal Statements for Further Study

Guidelines given vary from the simple “Provide evidence in support of your application” to the more common “Tell us why you are interested in the course to which you have applied. Describe your academic interests and reasons for applying to XXX”. For some courses there may be a much more prescriptive and structured approach, which you should follow carefully.

If you are applying to more than one university, each statement will need a slightly different emphasis – do not use the same statement for all applications. 

In your statement, you should demonstrate:

  • Motivation, enthusiasm, and a clear understanding of why you are making the application to this particular course, and to this particular institution.
  • How your academic background and other experiences have shaped your decision to apply and how the course contributes to your plans for the future.
  • Evidence that you have the ability, experience, skills and motivation to successfully contribute to the course, and to complete it.

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The opening paragraph sets the framework for the rest of the statement, think of it as your ‘trailer’. This is where you can grab the reader’s attention or lose it… You might start with a powerful anecdote, a brief narrative of your initial inspiration, or a thought-provoking statement linked to your academic interests.

Main body

Within the main body of the essay you should aim to cover:

Why you want to study this topic or field

Is it a natural extension of your current interests? How did you become interested in this area? Why does it continue to fascinate you? What have you done within your degree or outside of your study to fuel this interest? Would the course provide a step towards a longer-term goal?

Why you want to study this topic or field

Is it a natural extension of your current interests? How did you become interested in this area? Why does it continue to fascinate you? What have you done within your degree or outside of your study to fuel this interest? Would the course provide a step towards a longer-term goal?

Why you have chosen this specific course and institution

Are there particular options or modules that interest you? Is there particular expertise in that department? Has access to specific resources such as museum collections, libraries or laboratory equipment been a factor? Has the reputation (through recommendations or other means) of the course inspired you? Are you attracted by opportunities for collaboration or work placements? Have you attended any Open Days or other visits?

How your experience equips you for the course

Consider the subjects you studied at undergraduate level; your relevant skills (technical, language, computing, research methods); independent study or research; prior (relevant) experience; academic awards and other achievements. The focus here is likely to be on your academic suitability for the course, but if you have relevant work experience or extra-curricular activities that provide further evidence of your interest or ability then include them too. Your non-academic achievements might also provide evidence of project management, resilience, effective communication and so on.

Where the course might lead you

You don’t need to have a detailed career plan, but you do need to show how this course fits in with your general aspirations. Are you intending to continue on to a PhD? Do you have a broad interest in contributing to a particular issue or field, e.g. social enterprise, public policy, human rights, sustainability? Or do you have a more specific goal in mind? How will your chosen course help you to achieve your goals?

Closing paragraph

Use your closing paragraph to summarise your application, return to any themes you introduced at the beginning, and to restate your enthusiasm for the course.

  • Writing effective personal statements takes time. Expect to go through several drafts and ask tutors, peers, careers advisers and others to review your statement before you submit it.
  • Good English, grammar and spelling are essential. Avoid jargon and make sure it can be understood by non-experts.
  • Keep the tone positive, fresh and lively in order to convey enthusiasm and make yourself stand out, but remember that this is a document introducing you in a professional capacity.
  • It’s a good idea to mention relevant individuals whose work has truly inspired you, but avoid name-dropping for the sake of it, and excessive and evidence-free flattery of the institution or the course.
  • If you refer to any papers or books then reference these correctly in a bibliography at the end of the statement.
  • Pay attention to any word limits. If none are stated then aim for no more than two sides of A4 or 1000-1500 words.
  • It is usually possible to apply for multiple courses at a single institution. Many (including Oxford) will require you to complete a separate application form for each course that you wish to apply for.

For PhD and some research Masters applications the personal statement is often accompanied by a research proposal – a document that sets out your research interests and proposed area of study. The detail required in this section varies hugely for different disciplines. For some science subjects it may simply be a list, in order of preference, of the named PhD projects you wish to be considered for. However, for most areas – and especially in the arts, humanities and social sciences – you will need to devote a considerable amount of time to developing your ideas, discussing them with potential supervisors and writing a proposal. Your academic tutors should be able to give you some guidance on writing research proposals, and there is some useful advice from Vitae and from Find a PhD.

The information in this handout applies also to applications to American universities. However, there are subtle differences in the style and approach to essays aimed at the US context. A statement written for the US is likely to feel more personal; think of it as your academic biography – setting out your inspiration for the academic path you have followed in the past, the present and into the future. The Careers Service runs a workshop on US applications early each Michaelmas Term. The Fulbright Educational Advisory Service also publishes guidelines on completing US applications. US university career services often provide useful advice on writing graduate school admissions essays. See for example: MIT graduate school essay advice, UC Berkeley advice on writing graduate admissions statements, UNC application essay advice and Yale advice on writing personal statements for graduate school.

The UCAS personal statement for postgraduate teacher training is the key part of your application. The question is quite prescriptive, and your focus should be on your motivation for becoming a teacher: particularly how your teaching and other experiences have contributed. Ideally you should also set out how these have helped you to understand the role, and the sort of teacher you aspire to be. The Careers Service runs a workshop on routes into teaching each Michaelmas Term, which includes advice about the application process. For more information, see the Careers Service information on Teaching in Schools.

Applications to graduate entry medicine courses are submitted via UCAS and include a personal statement. Much of the advice in this document also applies to medicine applications, but you are likely to need to place considerable emphasis on the relevant work experience you have gained prior to your application.

See Careers Service information on Medicine as a Second Degree for further information.

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