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How to write a great personal statement for Oxbridge applications

The personal statement is one of the first chances you will have to impress Oxbridge admissions tutors. Our guide will help you craft your personal statement to get your application for Oxford or Cambridge University off to the best possible start.

Please note that the format for the UCAS Personal Statements will change in 2024 for admissions in 2025. Although the format will be different (a series of structured questions and answers rather than a free-form essay), the preparation required and content to include will be very similar.

When to start preparing for your Personal Statement

Oxbridge applications typically have a deadline of 15th October.

Our Oxbridge admissions consultants recommend that the summer of your Lower Sixth Year is a good time to begin thinking about your personal statement. You will need multiple rewrites and plenty of time to think over your work. We see a direct correlation between the number of drafts and the time allowed for a personal statement and its effectiveness. The Personal Statement really is meant to be about your passions and experience and it takes time to to develop. 

How to start

SLT Oxbridge coach Anil recommends: “A good place to start is to find your university courses’ reading list for first or second year.” These can be found either online at your university course website, student forums or Oxford University’s suggested subject resources page.

“If you pick a few titles that genuinely spark your interest and read them over summer, then you will already be ahead of the game when it comes to writing your personal statement. “

This is a useful practice as not only will it be directly relevant to your course and subject, but will also be crucial preparation for your interview. It will show a level of proactive, academic curiosity which is key when applying to Oxbridge.

When it comes to summer reading, it is important to remember not to sacrifice quality for quantity. The aim is to expand the depth of your understanding about a particular subject you are interested in, not to read as many titles as possible in a short space of time.

A good exercise to perform when reading  is to take your time to think and engage with its content. If there is something that really interests you, then research further by following up with some academic articles on the same subject. These seeds of interest will begin to form the basis of your personal statement.

What to include in your personal statement

When writing your personal statement, that key word is ‘personal’. It is an opportunity to exhibit your academic potential through achievements, character and sustained academic interest beyond your school knowledge. It is important to remember to interlace what you have written with how it fits into your academic career – e.g. if you are writing about things you have read, listened to, visited or watched, you must weave it into how they support your chosen academic subject. Why did you choose these activities? What impact did they have on you? What did you do next? Use them as evidence for your commitment to your interests and chosen subject. 

Phrases that help you achieve this include: 

  • “My interest in international relations led me to read/watch/attend…” 
  • “Through reading/watching/attending X I became curious to learn more about Y. In turn, this led me to consider how that affects Z, which is how I came to read/watch/attend…”

Through these interlacing methods you can begin to draw links and themes that run throughout your interests. You can then offer your opinion on these themes and expand on why you feel they are important and interesting. 

Oxford University recommends that 80% of your personal statement should focus on your academic activities, both at school and beyond school.

Recommended Structure:

  • An opening paragraph explaining why you have chosen your subject and why you want to take that particular course…
  • Followed by 3-4 paragraphs displaying your academic skills, interests and activities both in school and beyond school…
  • Concluding with a short closing paragraph about your extra-curricular interests, not necessarily academically focused, which shows transferable skills/character and future ambitions.

What not to mention in your personal statement

As previously mentioned, personal is the key word in a personal statement. With this in mind, you want to portray yourself accurately and so it is extremely important not to lie, embellish or try to live up to what you think the ‘ideal’ student would write. In the unlikely event that this does not come across as generic or insincere in your writing, it will soon become apparent when it comes to your interview that the work is not original.

Your personal statement must be articulate, well-structured and logically written. This means you must avoid unsupported statements or SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) errors.

One final word of warning: please do avoid trying to be ‘cute’ or funny. Even if you succeed, it will detract from the professional, academic tone you ought to be trying to get across.

Personal Statements, Interviews and Colleges

If your application has been successful, then the last stage of the admissions process is the Oxbridge interview. This usually takes place around December. The interview is held in the college you have named as your first choice (though especially at Oxford, it is common to have further interviews at other colleges).

There are 39 colleges at Oxford and 31 at Cambridge, each of which offer different courses, are in different parts of the city, and have a unique atmosphere and culture. When applying through UCAS, there is an option to submit an ‘open application’ which will place you in any college that offers the course that you will be applying for.

The interview is usually conducted by a panel of 2-3 interviewers. Each interviewer will have read your personal statement and may use it as the basis of some of their questions. With this in mind, it is important that you are very familiar with the content of your personal statement and can be ready to answer any questions relating to it and to offer further insights which complement what you have written.

Our full guide to the Oxbridge interview contains more helpful information and advice.

Subject-specific additional testing 

As a result of the large number of candidates who apply for Oxbridge every year, the admissions process is extremely selective. Most courses at Oxford and Cambridge also require subject-specific assessments as well as the personal statement. Generally, the Oxford tests are pre-interview written aptitude tests that will be used to inform the interviewers of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. 

At Cambridge, however, the tests are usually taken in college on the same day as the interview, and will be used to inform the admissions team and contribute to the overall application. However, it is important to note that for certain subjects at Cambridge (e.g. veterinary medicine, chemical engineering, computer science, economics, law, natural sciences and economics) the tests will be held pre-interview. These are called ‘Pre-Registration Assessments’.

How Simply Learning Tuition can help

Our team have helped hundreds of students secure places at Oxford and Cambridge from a wide range of state and independent schools in the UK and around the world. Our success rate for first choice colleges is an average of 60% compared to the national average of 16%.  We always advise students to apply to a range of Russell Group and other leading universities and our success rate for these is 95% first or second choice institution.

We work with a team of around 30 Oxbridge applications specialists. They are experts at supporting students throughout the journey of crafting the perfect personal statement – from helping with reading lists to honing phrasing and structure. They also have fantastic track records in preparing students for the rigours of subject-specific admissions testing.

Please contact us to see how we could help with your Oxbridge application preparation.

Frequently asked questions

  • What does Oxford University look for in a personal statement?

    Oxford and Cambridge Universities (Oxbridge) are looking for students who will be able to handle a large workload, and can demonstrate genuine passion and intellectual curiosity. They also need to be able to contribute meaningful insights during small tutorial group sessions. With this in mind, Oxbridge are looking for candidates who can particularly exhibit their academic potential through their personal statement. Oxford University has recommended that 80% of your personal statement should be focused on your academic activities, both at school and outside.

  • What does Cambridge University look for in a personal statement?

    Similarly to Oxford, Cambridge are looking for individuals with a high threshold for a challenging workload as well as an ability to contribute meaningful critical analysis or subject insights in small tutorial groups. Your personal statement is an opportunity to showcase your scholarly ability by displaying your achievements and interests, both in school and beyond school, as evidence of your commitment and interest to your subject.

  • How do I start an Oxbridge personal statement?

    It is recommended that around 80% of the content in your personal statement should be focused on showcasing your academic abilities and potential. The opening paragraph should explain why you have chosen your subject and why you want to do that particular course. Are there any specific modules that you are particularly excited about? Are there any lecturers that you are inspired by? Why do you want to study this subject for three/four years?

  • How important is the personal statement for Oxbridge?

    The personal statement is a crucial part of the Oxbridge admissions process. It is the first opportunity for the Oxbridge admissions team to gain an understanding of your academic ability and to decide whether you may be a good fit for life as an Oxbridge student. It is an opportunity to stand out beyond your submitted qualifications to show why you want to study there and how you would be a good addition to their institution.