One of my most embarrassing moments at university was at the Finalists Dinner. During coffee, the Senior Tutor for English rose clutching some sheets of paper. “Here,” he explained, “Are your UCAS personal statements. Can you guess who described himself as ‘a Renaissance man’?”.
Yes. It was me. And worryingly, everyone looked at me without the tutor saying anything more.
The personal statement is the first step in the process of applying to university and for non-Oxbridge universities it is often the most important part. Despite this, it is often done poorly. Ridden with clichés, spelling mistakes and almost no knowledge of the subject that you are hoping to read, many good candidates fail to get the interviews expected of them.
What not to do
A good rule I like to propose for writing a personal statement is not to write it. You should compose it out loud then get someone else to read it back to you. Most people write very differently from how they speak. This can be a good thing as we tend to use informal register and poor grammar when we speak. The personal statement is a formal document and writing “Basically, law is like interesting, you know?” would see your application put in the bin very quickly.
That said, people also tend to write in a bizarre and often tortured way: long, cumbersome sentences; words used imprecisely; paragraphs with too many ideas. If you want a brilliant guide to writing good English, read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, particularly the last few paragraphs.
The most heinous crime, however, is to write things which, when considered logically, make no sense at all. Take this sentence, for example: “From as long as I can remember, I have been fascinating between the interplay between rights in rem and in personam”. It’s one of the top ten most over-used sentences according to UCAS. It’s not just that it’s a cliché; it’s also ridiculous. Let’s test it. How many three-year-old children know what in personam rights are? If you have been interested in law for a long time then fair enough, but your views on the subject should have matured and changed since then. The reasons for being passionate about law now should be very different from those you had even three or four years ago. The admissions tutor is interested in your views today.
Pour mes vacanes, je suis allé en France
I have a theory. If Martians landed in the UK and went to a local school wishing to learn about French culture, they would come away thinking that all the French were interested in was their holidays, the environment and the film Jules et Jim. Subjects at school, narrow and repetitive in their content, often bear little resemblance to the equivalent one studied at university. This is especially the case with law which applicants have rarely studied at school.
You should ensure that you have researched the course in detail. All law courses are remarkably similar: certain subjects (contract law, tort law, criminal law) are compulsory. Despite this, few applicants mention them explicitly. If you want to read law, you need to show some knowledge of the content of the course you will be studying.
Applicants also often draw tenuous links between subjects they have studied at A-Level and law. “The study of biology has prepared me to study law” is a common phrase but, again, is somewhat illogical. One can create tenuous links between the two subjects: both involve reading; both involve learning facts; both demand hard work to do well… but then, so do most subjects.
Talking about the substance of law is a far better use of the limited space. In any event, the admissions tutor can see your subjects and grades elsewhere on the UCAS form. If you have loads of A*s at GCSE and strong ASs, that itself will show them your strong academic ability better than your own descriptions.
The Duke of Edinburgh Award fallacy
My old tutor at Oxford once told me that as soon as she reaches the part of the personal statement which starts “I have achieved silver in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award…” she stops reading. Her view is that extra-curricular activities, in sports or music or charity, tell her absolutely nothing about students’ capacity to do her subject.
More interesting is to see how an applicant has engaged with a subject outside of the school curriculum. What lectures have you attended? What books have you read? To which magazines do you subscribe? Have you been along to court for the day to watch a trial? Have you done work experience with some lawyers? What are your views on the hot legal topics of today: the Legal Aid cuts; Scottish independence; high-profile celebrity rape allegations?
Showing an in-depth and informed understanding of these issues is more impressive than listing the tries you have scored or the oratorios you have sung. “But,” candidates say, “getting into the first VX shows I am hard-working and committed.” Nope. It shows you like rugby. Having taken the time to research international law and developing views on Abu Hamza’s deportation shows your commitment to reading law and your hard work.
A crime of passion
For Oxford and Cambridge, the personal statement is a gateway which convinces the admissions tutor to give you an interview. At its heart, it needs to show the tutor you are passionate about your subject. But, as UCAS’s clichés list above shows, avoid the word “passion”. Your personal statement should show you’re passionate, not tell the tutor that you are. That is the true sign of a Renaissance man.
“Participating in a Citizenship Foundation Mock Trial Competition during Year 8 initiated my interest in the law. It gave me the opportunity to see how laws, whilst appearing fixed and universal, are open to interpretation, especially when attempts are made to apply them to specific cases. I also learnt how opposing arguments can be furnished using the same legal framework…”
When it comes to vocational subjects like Law, and Oxbridge, it is crucial to demonstrate an understanding of the subject as an academic discipline, and not imply that you see it merely as a means to an end, a route to a career. Otherwise the admissions tutors will be thinking why not study English or History or anything else for that matter, and then convert with the GDL and LPC courses post-university? The author of this personal statement was successful in their application, but can still see room for improvements, now that they have graduated and have all that experience to guide them. Download their Oxbridge Law personal statement to see how they cope with the above problem and traps into which students can fall.
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