With an international focus on research and academic excellence, entry is exceptionally competitive.
That means your personal statement needs to be exceptional too.
So, how do you write an Oxbridge personal statement?
A well-written Oxbridge personal statement should clearly define your high academic suitability and potential and evidence wider reading and research of an impressive standard. Evidence of transferable skills, academic enquiry, innovation and intellectual flexibility should also be included.
This post breaks the Oxbridge personal statement down into 7 steps, and at the end, I’ll give you my top tips for Oxbridge success…
An Overview of the Oxbridge Application Process
There are lots of reasons why applicants are attracted to Oxbridge institutions. From academic opportunities to reputational benefits, gaining a place can often be of real value.
Yes, there are some significant challenges to gaining a place and completing the course, but applicants, schools and employers highly prize the value of studying at Oxbridge.
Before we get into the details of how to write an impressive Oxbridge personal statement, let’s clarify a few things about the process…
What’s it Like to Study at Oxbridge?
Studying at Oxbridge stretches your academic abilities, organisational capacity, and emotional stamina. It also introduces you to a wealth of educational and inter-personal opportunities, helping you deepen your knowledge and understanding.
Oxford is pretty renowned for the academic intensity of its schedule. Aside from multiple lectures, humanities students will have at least one, if not two, 2,000-word essays to hand in per week, each of which will be discussed in a one-on-one manner with their tutor. At the start of every term, students face Collections, a set of informal assessments testing prior material.Andrea Carlo
The teaching in the Oxbridge collegiate system is known for its exceptional quality, depth and originality. You’ll engage with tutors via lectures and through supervisions or tutorials, 1-1 or in small groups.
Teachers and lecturers are often national or global leaders in their subject, so you can expect the quality (as well as the challenge) to be high.
The facilities you’ll encounter will combine classical architecture and contemporary resources. Check out the University of Oxford’s facilities here, and research the University of Cambridge’s resources here.
There’s no doubt that you’ll be immersed in an academically intensive experience with short semesters.
What’s the Oxbridge Application Process?
The application process for Oxbridge undergraduate courses runs through UCAS. When planning your personal statement, you should bear in mind the early deadline (usually 15 October) and the need to write an application suitable for Oxford or Cambridge, as well as up to three other choices.
You shouldn’t mention Oxbridge colleges directly in your personal statement, as it won’t be relevant to the other universities you’ve applied to.
These institutions will assume you are also applying to Oxford or Cambridge, given your timing and academic profile. However, they won’t be able to see your choices.
What Happens When I Send my Oxbridge Application?
Once you’ve submitted your UCAS application, the individual college(s) you’ve applied to will gain access to your details. Members of relevant departments will review all elements of your application, including your personal statement, reference and test scores, if relevant.
Colleges will then make an interview shortlist, inviting successful applicants to interview in person.
Subsequently, colleges will moderate the interview results and make offers accordingly, usually in early-mid December.
Then you just need to get the results to meet the offer!
How does Oxbridge Assess an Application?
UCAS has published an informative overview of the application process called ‘Making an Application to Oxford and Cambridge’.
This resource was created by Claire Canning, Deputy Student Recruitment Manager at Cambridge, and Catriona Woolhouse, Head of Outreach Delivery at Oxford. It clearly explains the process of applying and the kinds of qualities that both institutions look for in a candidate.
Here’s their infographic summing up the application process…
If you’ve been inspired to begin writing, check out my helpful post here on getting started with your personal statement.
If you’d like a concise, detailed template for exactly how to create the perfect Oxbridge personal statement, along with exclusive supporting materials, then check out my Personal Statement Templates eBook here.
1 Outline the Inspiration Behind Your Application
You’ll find lots of contrary advice online when it comes to writing the opening paragraph of your personal statement.
Some people will suggest that you start your personal statement with a quote, whilst others advocate a chronological approach.
However, Oxbridge applications need to begin very specifically.
You need to remember that your opening paragraph (and perhaps even your opening sentence) should be engineered to have a specific impact on the reader. It should:
- Establish your personality, originality and motivation
- Offer the reader immediate evidence of your suitability
- Impress in academic terms
- Lay the foundation for the rest of the personal statement
Create a Personal Connection to the Subject
Your opening paragraph should contextualise your application with a personal connection to the subject you plan to study.
Some of the best ways to make this connection include:
- Mentioning an experience that has had a relevant and profound impact
- Outlining the benefit or value to you of a particular subject
- Mentioning the impact on your life of an individual or idea related to that subject
- Outlining at the start a personal or professional ambition related to the subject
Be concise with this aspect of your Oxbridge personal statement, and make sure that you talk about how you have responded to this inspirational moment or concept.
Don’t just describe an event that happened to you in the past.
An admissions reader will want to understand the inspiration for your application, but they will immediately want to see how that inspiration has empowered you to take action.
Explain Your Motivation for Study
Another way to think of this opening paragraph is to imagine that you are explaining why you want to study a particular subject.
What’s your motivation?
As long as you are well-informed and realistic, write about what you hope to achieve during and after studying. Don’t make unrealistic or ill-informed claims.
Readers will want to understand how you’ve prepared this application and what you’ve accomplished academically and practically.
How have expert academic achievements in this field inspired you, and what do you hope to achieve by comparison?
If you can write in a way that shows you are informed, engaged, connected and ambitious, you’ll create a strong opening paragraph.
2 Establish Your Academic Suitability & Potential
More than any other factor, an Oxbridge personal statement stands or falls based on the applicant’s academic quality.
Whilst co-curricular achievements and personal qualities will play a part, the foundation of an Oxbridge education is academic depth. Your personal statement must establish that you have studied to a high standard and that you’ll be able to study to an even higher standard in the future.
So, how do you achieve this without writing a list of your achievements?
The answer is to remember to consider the concepts of application and value.
Show that You’ve Applied Your Knowledge and Talent
Rather than simply listing qualifications or experiences, try to write about how you have applied your knowledge and skills.
An admissions team will be far more interested in an applicant who has actively used and explored their knowledge than an applicant who has read a book.
The application of knowledge and innovation are core aspects of an Oxbridge ethos. Your personal statement is a time to show how you have already engaged in this approach rather than describe what you’ve done in the past.
If you look at the graphic below, you’ll see that above all else, Oxbridge colleges are looking for students with academic ability and potential.
Subject knowledge, interest and research all centre around this core aspect, so devote as much time as possible to establishing your credentials.
Ways to Show You’ve Applied Your Knowledge
- Rather than listing a qualification, explain how you’ve used what you learned whilst studying and applied it to a different discipline or problem
- Rather than describing what you did on a residential course, outline the specific knowledge you gained and how you went on to use it to achieve something meaningful
- Rather than outlining a particular viewpoint or theory, explain how you employed this knowledge practically or in discussion
Here’s an example of how not to write about academic suitability and potential:
Instead, show how you’ve applied your knowledge:
You should also use subject-specific terminology to evidence your detailed and relevant subject knowledge.
Don’t fill your personal statement with so much specialist vocabulary that it doesn’t reflect your personality, but do show that you can use relevant terminology accurately.
Outline the Value of Each Academic Strength
Whilst you should write about relevant academic achievements within the taught curriculum, you should also consider their value.
In other words, identify the value to you of that piece of knowledge. What does it enable you to achieve? How does it link with other concepts or disciplines? How does it allow you to move forwards?
Another way to establish the value of your existing subject skills and experience is to remember the ABC method. For each point you want to make in this section, try to follow this pattern:
The last way to communicate to a reader that you’ve gained value from a piece of knowledge or experience is to be able to offer an informed opinion.
Use your personal statement to briefly outline two contrasting pieces of relevant knowledge and then form a judgment or opinion about them. Make sure that it is accurate and that your conclusion is appropriate to the kind of content you expect to encounter on the course.
If a reader can see that you are already capable of synthesising information to develop informed concepts, they’ll know you have a sound academic foundation from which to build.
3 Evidence Your Wider Reading and Research
It’s essential to use part of your Oxbridge personal statement to illustrate your commitment to more extensive reading and research. These are sometimes referred to as super-curricular activities because they are linked but in addition to your taught timetable.
Typically, it is up to you to seek out and engage in super-curricular activities. Ideally, your school or college will provide you with a broad programme that gives you these opportunities.
Here’s a great example of a super-curricular scheme that gives students the chance to engage in teacher-led and independent activities. The activities develop their knowledge and potential and provide opportunities to flourish in an Oxbridge environment.
If these opportunities aren’t immediately available to you, you’ll need to seek them out for yourself.
An Oxbridge admissions tutor will expect you to have the drive and ambition to do precisely that.
What Does Oxbridge Consider Super-Curricular?
Both Oxford and Cambridge share the same view when it comes to super-curricular activities:
- They should be activities that go above and beyond the school curriculum
- They should require independent, academic engagement
- They provide discussion points during the interview
- They are freely available in the community or online and are not prohibitive in cost
- They help students clarify their subject choices
- They demonstrate subject engagement and research skills
- They broaden a student’s subject knowledge
How to Undertake Wider Reading and Research
When it comes to an Oxbridge personal statement, what do wider reading and research look like?
Any relevant super-curricular activity can be classed as research if it teaches you something that you didn’t learn in school.
Here are the six elements that sum up my approach to this aspect of your Oxbridge personal statement:
|Illustrate and develop your knowledge of contemporary issues and practitioners within your subject. Learn more about the people that have had a significant impact on your subject and develop informed opinions about their contributions.||Offer an informed opinion on academic ideas, issues or theories within your subject. Show that not only do you understand some of the concepts or advances in your proposed field but that you can use this knowledge to develop an informed, defendable opinion.||Evidence independent research and learning skills and a broad base of study skills suitable for higher education. Show that you have used online and IRL libraries, can reference academic work and that your approach to learning is motivated.|
|Identify books, records, videos, lectures, conferences, trade magazines, websites or podcasts you have used. Don’t simply list them but give an example of what you’ve learned and how you’ve applied that knowledge in your own academic work.||Show evidence of wider reading (outside of the formal curriculum) but also draw your own conclusions regarding what you have learned. Instead of listing your wider reading (or super-curricular achievements), write about the links between your reading and your goals.||Evidence a sense of personal enquiry, engagement and ability. Your personal statement should prove, through the vocabulary and references you use, that you have the skills to both recognise the gaps in your knowledge and the ability to fill those gaps through independent study.|
Your personal statement must ensure that you demonstrate a reasonable understanding of your subject and field and show that you can offer original arguments and opinions reinforced by outstanding study methodology.
Here’s a generalised idea of how that might look…
4 Evidence Additional Experiences & Qualifications
One of the core elements that sets an Oxbridge application apart from others is the depth and range of your additional experiences and qualifications.
Remember, admissions teams at Oxford and Cambridge are looking for exceptional students with significant academic potential.
The only way for them to know if that potential exists is to see examples of how some applicants have achieved more than others.
That means you must include evidence of academic activities that set you apart from your peers.
This could take the form of additional courses outside of the school curriculum, masterclasses and workshops or lectures you have attended. It could be trips to venues or museums, residential opportunities, EPQs, debating and competition entry or relevant work experiences…
Or anything else that shows that you can manage a higher, more demanding academic workload than most students.
5 Ways to Prove You’re Oxbridge Material
- Connect your skills and knowledge to the demands of the course or subject, making a positive link between your experience and the demands of higher education at Oxbridge
- Use examples to explain how your academic career has prepared you for Oxbridge study
- Outline the dynamic and self-motivated ways in which you have sought to deepen your subject knowledge
- Consider the value of the additional knowledge you have gained concerning your suitability for Oxbridge entry
- Clarify the value of awards, prizes and accolades to your application, and outline the relevant academic skills you used to achieve these
5 Show the Relevance of Your Transferable Skills
Oxford and Cambridge are largely uninterested in learning about the range of your extra-curricular activities.
You may be a great swimmer or passionate about joining the chess club, but those aren’t the aspects of your life that resonate with an admissions team.
That’s why they distinguish between super-curricular activities (academic pursuits beyond the taught curriculum) and extra-curricular activities (cycling or playing in a band).
However, your Oxbridge personal statement will be significantly strengthened if you show the relevance of your transferable skills. You should demonstrate the value of the skills you’ve developed in relation to successfully completing the course.
Here’s an example…
That extract isn’t really about hockey. It evidences the applicant’s relevant transferable skills and reinforces their suitability for the course.
Transferable Skills for Oxbridge Applications
- High-level study skills and research techniques
- Current affairs and informed opinion
- Teamwork and cooperation
- Ambition and motivation
- Timekeeping and responsibility
- Stamina and resilience
- Organisation and meeting deadlines
- Pressure management and wellbeing
Try to demonstrate how you have developed or used a range of these skills whilst outlining your academic strengths.
To find out more, check out my post on how to include skills in your personal statement here.
6 Highlight Your Value to the Institution
As you approach the end of your personal statement, you should outline how you’ll be of value to the institutions you’re applying to.
Remember, you can’t identify a university by name in your personal statement, as up to five different institutions see it. However, you can identify your value and clarify the benefits you’ll bring.
This shouldn’t be a list. It might just be a sentence that outlines a new achievement and suggests ways in which you’ll build on it in the future.
What Kind of Value is Oxbridge Looking For?
|Academic Value||Inspirational Value|
|Oxbridge colleges are looking for candidates who are exceptionally academically gifted. Your value is embodied by your academic potential when contributing to research projects and driving challenge and change. Your academic profile is likely to enhance the academic profile of the institution.||Oxbridge colleges are keen to work with candidates who have the potential to be leaders in their field. They need to see evidence of inspiration and the generation of new ideas and concepts. Your value is in your ability to use inspiration and creativity to come up with solutions to problems.|
|Dynamic Value||Lasting Value|
|Oxbridge colleges are particularly interested in individuals who can demonstrate a dynamic and proactive approach to academia. Your value can be proven by your ability to apply energy and vision when bringing projects to life. Your academic strengths combine with an entrepreneurial attitude.||Oxbridge colleges expect commitment from the first day of undergraduate study onwards. They want connections between colleges and alumni to last decades and be mutually beneficial. Your value is in your ability to commit to a course of study or project and remain engaged when challenged.|
You might not fit into all these categories, but you should be able to identify one or two that connect with your academic achievements.
Make sure that you use your previous experiences to illustrate the value of your future accomplishments.
Don’t just list the things you’ve already done!
7 Connect the Course with Your Goals & Ambitions
The last critical element of your Oxbridge personal statement is to link your immediate and long-term goals with the opportunities provided by the institutions you’re applying to.
This is so vital because it illustrates to the reader that you understand the content and demands of the course. It also connects your ambitions with what the university offers, demonstrating that you’re an ideal fit.
Outlining your goals also reassures the reader that you understand the field you intend to enter and can see how your skills and potential relate to it. That’s another excellent way of demonstrating your knowledge level.
You’ll need to be ready to defend these ambitions at the interview!
5 Quick Tips for Writing About Your Academic Goals
- Link your goals with the published ethos or mission statement of the college you most want to study at
- Connect your research or publication ambitions with those of faculty staff or alumni
- Link the stated course outcomes or modules with your ambitions upon completion, creating a logical through-line
- Identify the next round(s) of innovation in your field and explain why you want to lead these
- Within reason, make use of the vocabulary and terminology used by the college to reflect the level of your connection
If you’ve left things a little late and are up against a deadline, check out my super-helpful post on writing a last-minute personal statement here.
Top Tips for Oxbridge Success
What Makes a Successful Oxbridge Student?
A successful Oxbridge student shows a high level of subject knowledge and interest and can fluently identify and argue core concepts within their specialism. They are enthusiastic about engaging with new ideas and can readily apply existing knowledge to new situations.
A successful applicant can also assimilate and apply new concepts, show flexibility of thought, and respond to new information. They can demonstrate clarity of thought and reasoning and the ability to think analytically and critically.
When Should I Start Writing a Personal Statement?
Oxbridge applications typically need to be submitted by mid-October of the year before entry. However, you should begin planning your personal statement far in advance.
Remember that there are several unique elements that you need to include in an Oxbridge personal statement. In some cases, these require you to act at least two years before your submission.
You’ll need time to set up work placements and undertake additional research, reading and courses.
How do I Know When my Statement is Finished?
It’s always sensible to get some guidance before submitting your personal statement. That might be from peers, parents, teachers, counsellors or professionals, but having help to get your personal statement right is vital.
Once you’ve edited your Oxbridge personal statement down to under 4000 characters, you should double-check each paragraph to ensure that you have covered each of the headings above.
Make sure that you’ve got the balance between the sections right. My Personal Statement Template eBook has guides for getting each section to precisely the right length.
Make sure you have written your application in an accurate, concise and compelling way.
One of the best tools for this is Grammarly. It’s a powerful browser add-on that checks your spelling, punction, and grammar and offers you options for rephrasing and developing your content. I recommend it to the applicants I work with, and you can check out the free version of Grammarly here or hit the banner below.
One last thing you can do is work through my free guide on how to check a personal statement. It’s packed full of helpful strategies to ensure your application is perfect.
What Should I Expect at an Oxbridge Interview?
An Oxbridge interview is academically and intellectually demanding. It assesses knowledge, understanding and flexibility of thought by posing challenging questions related to current areas of study. The ability to apply knowledge in new contexts and develop existing ideas is also tested.
Interviewers look for depth of knowledge, flexibility of thought and a motivated attitude.
Oxbridge interviews aren’t designed to trip you up or catch you out, but they are designed to stretch your intellectual ability and to better understand your level of self-knowledge. They’ll also test your awareness of current affairs.
Good luck with your Oxbridge personal statement, and don’t forget to contact me if you’d like some 1-1 support.
You’ve got this! D
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