How to write the perfect English personal statement

So you want to study English? As someone who is good at writing and words, you've spent your whole education so far wishing you could be left alone to write about the books you love. It may be true that you have a natural advantage, but it's still important to make sure you write the best personal statement possible.

Author: Zayra Morales

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So, you want to study English?

As someone who’s good at writing and words, you’ve spent your entire education so far wishing you could just be left alone to write about the books you love. So, writing an English personal statement should be easy, right?

Well, it might be true that you have a natural advantage, but it’s still important to make sure you’re writing the best personal statement possible. Of all the courses you could’ve chosen, this is the one that requires the strongest writing skills. And, after all, other students applying for English at university are going to have the same skills. 

Your admissions tutors will have read hundreds of personal statements, but even at this early stage, you can make your way to the top of the pile.

The personal statement is your opportunity to make a good first impression on your future English department. It lets your admissions tutors know exactly who it is they’ll be teaching for the next three years, rather than just reading a bunch of statistics and predicted grades. A good personal statement will tell the university everything they can expect from their students in terms of their academic curiosity, their research interests and, ultimately, who they are as a person, an English student, and a future academic. That’s why it’s essential to get it exactly right.

Given that you’ll basically be almost entirely reading and writing for the next three years, this is the admissions tutors’ first chance to assess your ability to perform these two essential skills. A good English candidate can turn their hand to any form of writing. An English personal statement is a test: of whether or not you can write with concision and flair, prioritise the most important points, perform interesting critical analysis, and make effective use of structure to lead your reader to a logical conclusion – i.e. why they should accept you. All of these are skills that are of paramount importance in an English degree.

As a former Oxford English Language and Literature student and an experienced tutor, who has worked with many students on their personal statements and helped them get into their dream courses at their dream universities, this is my step by step guide to writing the perfect English personal statement.

Phase One: Preparation

 1. Start early

As you’ll see from the following steps, there’s a lot of planning, preparation, and research that goes into crafting the perfect English personal statement. That’s best done by giving yourself several months to gather your thoughts together. 

The best personal statements demonstrate reading that goes well beyond the school syllabus, so if you’re worried that you’re not reading widely enough to impress the university’s English department, it’s never too early to start. 

2. Reflect on what you’ve read

A good English personal statement is basically about books. Reading books is what you’re going to be doing for the next three years and, on being accepted, you’ll immediately receive a reading list several pages long to work your way through for your first term. Therefore it’s of paramount importance to show that you’re capable of this and, more importantly, will enjoy it. 

But you’ve spent the past seventeen years of your life, give or take, reading books. This is the best resource you can possibly draw on. Think about all the literature you’ve read, which works you enjoyed best and which you hated (and anything in-between), which you found most interesting – and why. Which authors capture your interest, and what is it about their writing or their perspective that you like? All of this helps you to build up a picture of what you’d be like to teach.

There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to which books you’ve read, as long as you’ve read widely. It doesn’t matter if you love poetry, prose, or plays. It doesn’t even matter, necessarily, if some of your favourite books are popular literature. That counts too – everything to do with writing is worth studying. What makes a book popular is a question on the minds of many academics, so you could use your interest to start to weigh in on this important question.

I reiterate – the books you’ve read are your best resource to help you here. The only real mistake you can make is failing to demonstrate your enthusiasm for literature

Each week we post a REAL Personal Statement that was submitted to UCAS and critique it, along with showing you how successful it was. Check out Episode 1 by clicking the button below.

3. Do your research about the university or college

Researching the college you’ll be studying at is especially important if you’re applying for English at Oxford or Cambridge, as you can be fairly certain that the tutors at that college are the ones who will interview you and teach you for the next three years. Therefore, it can be a tactical move to apply for a college that has tutors who share your particular research interests, and to ensure that you talk about them intelligently in your personal statement.

However, regardless of which university you’re applying for, take a look at the curriculum and the reading lists for your chosen universities – and contact the department if you can’t find these. See what literature they suggest reading and what they focus on over the course of the three years you’ll be studying English. See what overlap there is with your own interests and dig a bit deeper into the subject by reading some other pieces of relevant literature. Perhaps you already really like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre – in which case, try reading other books by her, or even reading her two sisters’ work (including the lesser-known Brontë sister, Anne), so you can produce a comparative reading of their ideas and styles. Alternatively, try deepening your knowledge of the period by reading some other contemporary female Victorian writers. To strengthen your understanding even further, try selecting a non-fiction book on the reading list that gives you more insight into the cultural norms and ideas that were significant at the time. If you really want to broaden your horizons, select a few texts that particularly appeal to you that offer something new – perhaps you’ve never considered postcolonial literature or psychoanalytic theory before but, now you know that there are courses and modules on them, you’re intrigued to learn about it.

Crucially, universities want you to be someone with motivation and passion for English Literature, and reading deeply and widely is by far the best way to convey this.

4. Make sure you’ve really familiarised yourself with the books in your statement

This is especially important in the case of Oxbridge, because at interview you’ll almost certainly be asked about what you’ve written about in your personal statement, so you must be prepared to answer thoughtfully and perceptively. Admissions tutors will quickly see through anything you’ve lied about or embellished on.

However, it’s important in any application, Oxbridge or not, since you need to stand out to your university – and the best way to do that is to thoroughly know the books you’ve mentioned in order to write genuinely perceptive things about them. It’s not enough to have simply read the books you mention once, because that will only enable you to provide a very cursory and superficial reading of the texts. Even if the books you’ve read so far in your academic career aren’t hugely challenging, a thoughtful and deep reading of The Great Gatsby (or another text you read in school) is much more impressive than a surface reading of Ulysses.

Phase Two: Writing

Once you’ve done all the above, it’s time to start writing. The bulk of the work is in the preparation, but once you’ve started writing, there are still important things to do and to avoid.

  • Avoid clichés and platitudes

Phrases such as “I’ve been reading books since before I can remember,” “I have a thirst for knowledge,” and “passionate about English” are all clichés that immediately and automatically bore an English admissions department. It’s essential to set yourself apart – the best English students are the ones who have a very honed sense of how the English language can be used to powerful effect – after all, a good critic of literature can observe this in the texts they read, and therefore should be able to use language effectively themselves. Originality and linguistic flair are crucial in a very strong English personal statement.

  • Demonstrate why you want to study English

At its core, a personal statement should tell the reader two things – why you want to study English and why they should choose you to study English at their university. Again, this is about displaying your enthusiasm and your ability to study that subject higher level. The only real way of convincing your reader of this is by demonstrating them. By showing that you’re someone capable of perceptive thought about literature, you’re showing your enthusiasm for doing it.

It’s not enough to simply say you love English Literature. The adage about creative writing, ‘show, don’t tell’ is just as true here as it is with any piece of fiction. Writing a statement such as ‘My mother was angry’ is much less evocative than a description that demonstrates her anger, such as ‘my mother’s footsteps resounded heavily down the corridor and, when she finally burst in through my bedroom door, her cheeks were beetroot-red with fury.’

In English personal statements, it’s similarly crucial to show rather than tell. Simply name-dropping a list of impressive-sounding authors doesn’t show your university tutors any real level of investment in or enthusiasm for the subject, and is generally the mark of a bad personal statement. Bad statements just say generic things about texts, such as ‘I found [insert book/author/play] interesting.’ It’s not enough to say ‘I really enjoyed reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita last summer;’ instead, really delve into what you enjoyed about it. For example, you could discuss how Nabokov’s rich and dense use of language, derived from the genre of love poetry, seduces the reader into sympathising with the monstrous protagonist and calls our morality into question.

Bad personal statements just name-drop without providing genuine and thoughtful analysis – without which there’s no way for university tutors to really tell if you’re actually invested in the subject or have the capacity to think deeply about it at university level.

  • Quote intelligently – if you quote at all

Many personal statements open with a quote – although by now, this is such a standard that it can also border on cliché. However, if you’re going to quote – and English is one subject for which you can get away with quoting in your personal statement! – make sure it’s something that avoids coming across as clichéd. Make sure it’s something that you genuinely resonate with, and have fully unpacked. Don’t just leave the quote unanalysed, or partially analysed, but see it as an opportunity to show your ability as a literary critic and someone who can handle complex literary ideas.

For instance, a bad use of quotation might be as follows:

C.S. Lewis wrote that ‘Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it.I believe this is true, and I want to study literature because I think what literature adds to the world is important and meaningful.

A better example might be:

C.S. Lewis wrote that ‘Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it.’ Here, Lewis argues that literature has a direct effect on the world, suggesting that to write about reality is to shape it. I think this is true – for example, I believe giving someone access to another person’s psychology through a narrative can help us empathise with other people’s perspectives. Therefore, I am interested in the power that literature has to change the way we see the world and each other– particularly in a context of political unrest.

You can, of course, use quotes in other ways that are effective in an English personal statement. One way of doing so is in a similar way to how you might in an essay. You can embed quotes that describe an idea that’s more efficiently stated in someone else’s words, for instance if you want to discuss poetry, you might refer to Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity.”

Most importantly, don’t quote just because you think it’ll be impressive – only if it makes sense in context and enriches your argument.

  • Keep everything relevant

A lot of students hear ‘personal statement’ and focus on the ‘personal’ part. Or, rather, they focus on the ‘personal’ part in the wrong way. It doesn’t particularly matter to your university if you’ve done your bronze Duke of Edinburgh or if you like playing tennis on the weekend. Universities mainly want to know how you’ll be an asset to them academically.

This is especially the case for English personal statements for Oxbridge and other especially competitive universities, which should be primarily academic in character, and demand around an 80/20 split in terms of the academic versus the personal. Even in terms of the 20%, that personal side of the statement, the more relevant they are to the English courses you’re applying for, the better.

Think which of your hobbies are most directly relevant to the degree you’re studying, and focus on those. This means that creative writing, poetry, drama, watching films, attending book clubs and English societies, going to the theatre, etc, are all absolutely fair game, and can even really enhance a personal statement. Think, for instance, about how certain aspects of a director’s decision to stage Othello in a modern context changes or enhances themes in the play. Consider how your own creative writing teaches you about the challenges that an author faces in creating character or using description to evoke a setting.

Think as well about how your other subjects are relevant, if at all. For example, reading Huis Clos in your French class might have provided you with an understanding of existentialism that you can apply to other texts you’ve read.

Other extracurricular activities may be worth mentioning too, but think carefully about which are the most relevant in terms of skills. For example, if you’ve been holding down a job while still getting great grades, this might be an impressive demonstration of your ability to multitask, prioritise, and take responsibility – essential skills for a university degree.

 

  • Redraft

A good personal statement isn’t done in an evening. Take the time to really craft and hone it before you submit the statement to UCAS – the adage that practice makes perfect is true. Even when you’ve finished the very final draft, reread it and go through it with a fine-toothed comb to make sure that all the expression and grammar is as good as possible. This is important for all subjects, but absolutely essential for English!

To help you even further, we’ve created an online personal statement course, consisting of an hour’s lecture by top personal statement tutors and our bestselling Ultimate UCAS Personal Statement Guide which contains tips, strategies, and worked sample statements to help you craft your English personal statement to perfection. 

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