Oxbridge Personal Statements: A Complete Teacher’s Guide

As a teacher, you will support students with their UCAS Personal Statements every year, but what about Personal Statements for Oxbridge applications? In this guide, we will explore what makes an Oxbridge Personal Statement different, what your students should and shouldn't do when writing and how you can mark and provide feedback to make their statements good enough for Oxford and Cambridge.

19th April 2024

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The Personal Statement is a major part of any university application, with the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge being no exception. 

You and your school mostly likely have a wealth of support options available for your students, but how equipt are you to effectively support Oxbridge applicants with their statement? In this guide, we will be exploring how  Oxbridge Personal Statements differ from standard universities, what your students should be including in their writing and how you can effectively mark and provide feedback to your cohort. Let’s get started:

What is An Oxbridge Personal Statement

Most of you who are reading this will likely have a lot of experience working with Personal Statements, so we’re sure you don’t need a full guide on what a UCAS Personal Statement is and how the process works. If you need a quick refresher on what they are: 

A UCAS Personal Statement is a concise written document where an applicant highlights their achievements, skills, and aspirations to support their application for higher education.

Every university applicant in the UK has to complete a Personal Statement as a part of their UCAS Application, but why are we singling out Oxford and Cambridge in particular?  

In a technical sense, an Oxbridge Personal Statement is just a Personal Statement. There are no special requirements or different processes that one must take when submitting a Personal Statement. In fact, an Oxbridge Personal Statement will still be sent to every other university option that an applicant has picked. So what do we mean by an Oxbridge Personal Statement? 

The difference comes down to the competitiveness of the Oxbridge application process and the level of quality that is therefore expected of applicants. Oxbridge admissions tutors have very high standards and expect more of their applicants than your average university. They have to be as they receive more applications than most other universities in the world, a problem that comes with being so prestigious and highly-rated.

In 2021, the combined amount of applicants between Oxford and Cambridge was 47,133, with 29,205 being home applicants. Out of 616,360 UK UCAS applicants in that cycle, Oxbridge received applications for nearly 5% of them. (Find more Oxbridge statistics in our Oxbridge Application Data Explained Guide for Teachers)

With figures like that, a standard Personal Statement is going to make it nearly impossible to even be shortlisted, much less accepted by Oxbridge. 

So that leaves applicants with one option; write their Personal Statement to the standards that Oxbridge require. Of course, this is easier said than done, so let’s next look at what an applicant needs to do to make a Personal Statement worthy of Oxford or Cambridge. 

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Blue folder with UniAdmissions logo containing various support documents for teachers and students, Personal Statement Cheat Sheet Document is shown at the front

Writing a Personal Statement for Oxbridge

The process of writing an Oxbridge Personal Statement is not wildly different from a typical UCAS Personal Statement, but there are key things that your students should consider to ensure their Personal Statement is up to the standards of Oxbridge. One thing that both you and your applicants should know is what Oxford and Cambridge are actually looking for from their candidates:

What Do Oxford and Cambridge Look For in Their Applicants?

Oxbridge admissions tutors are obviously looking for a very high calibre of students in their grades, experience and attitude. However, there’s more to it than this, so it is important to study what the universities actually say they are looking for rather than just assuming. The University of Cambridge specifically have an in-depth guide explaining exactly what they expect from their applicants, which will likely be mirrored by Oxford too:  

Academic ability and potential

Of course, Oxbridge needs applicants who can thrive in an academic environment. While this can take various forms, the easiest way to judge this is through grades. Each course already has a grade requirement, so all Oxbridge applicants should already have ticked this box.

Ability to think critically and independently

Oxbridge is looking for applicants who are exceptionally intelligent not just within their chosen subject but in a general sense as well. Critical thinking is a vital skill for many professionals in a wide variety of industries, so being able to think logically in both academic and everyday scenarios is important for a successful applicant. On top of this, the applicant must be able to take initiative and work independently too, a trait that will be essential during the many projects that Oxbridge students must undertake. 

Suitability and enthusiasm for your course

Successful applicants must really care about the subject they are applying for and be able to demonstrate an expanded interest, knowledge and desire to learn more. Places are limited and the admissions tutors know that the students who will perform the best are the ones that are truly engaged in what they are doing, so applicants need to prove that they match that description. They also describe “self-discipline, motivation, commitment and the desire to grow” as essential traits for applicants.

If your student can demonstrate every quality listed there, then they are ready to begin work on their Personal Statement. Firstly, the structure and basic planning stage of their statement will be roughly the same. We have a complete guide to UCAS Personal Statements designed for applicants, so we recommend your students check it out to get them started in their Personal Statement planning.  

Once the base of their Personal Statement is formed, including their story, academics, subject-specific experience, extra-curricular activities and more, it’s time for them to take a look at what they have written and reflect on whether their work is really going to be appealing to admissions tutors at Oxford and Cambridge. The chances are that the answer is no, as very few applicants get their statement right in their first draft.

So how can they improve their first draft? There are various writing techniques and requirements for their content that will elevate their work beyond that of a standard Personal Statement:

While all applicants should be doing this, it is incredibly important for Oxbridge applicants to link everything they have discussed back to their application. Every experience and achievement mentioned needs to have relevance to the course they are applying for, otherwise, it is just wasted space. Essentially, applicants need to reflect on what they mentioned and explain how the experience helped them grow and why it has made them better as an Oxbridge applicant.

The landscape of Oxbridge admissions is extremely competitive, so applicants need to ensure that every sentence is utilised as efficiently as possible in presenting their strongest attributes. Some applicants may have a wealth of experience that they want to talk about, but the quantity of examples given does not offer nearly as much value as an in-depth explanation of one highly relevant example, complete with a reflection of how these events helped them grow as an academic and a person.

Oxford and Cambridge are very interested in applicants that lead their own research and education, so discussing research projects and wider reading is one of the best things your student can include in their statement. This could be about anything relevant to their subject, as long as they are able to demonstrate initiative, inquisitiveness and the ability to push the boundaries of their own understanding and capabilities. You can learn more about how to guide your students through this additional work in our Teacher’s Enrichment Guide

Oxbridge admissions tutors are looking for a mutually beneficial relationship with their new students, so your applicants should be able to present themselves as an asset to the university through their statement. Beyond the enrichment we just discussed, this can include experience in volunteering, both at school and with charities, as well as other extra-curricular activities that would be desirable to Oxford and Cambridge. These are all extra’s rather than core elements of a Personal Statement, but they are still very important to include for Oxbridge applicants. 

We should stress that all of these things will be beneficial for any student’s Personal Statement, but writing of this quality is more or less required for Oxbridge applicants. In each subject, your student will be facing off against potentially thousands of other viable candidates, so their Personal Statement needs to be as fine-tuned as possible. 

This advice is also very general, so you will need to be able to provide tailored support to each student so they can utilise their strengths and experiences when creating a high-quality Personal Statement. We will soon learn about how you can approach marking an Oxbridge Personal Statement, but let’s first take a look at some common mistakes that Oxbridge applicants tend to make.

Common Personal Statement Mistakes Your Students Should Avoid

No Personal Statement will ever be truly perfect, but there are a variety of mistakes that applicants make each year that could be easily avoided. Here are some errors to be aware of when marking Personal Statements: 

Lying and Over-Exaggerating

These are two different things but both can cause big problems if your student gets found out.

Lying is obviously the more serious matter here and should never be done in a Personal Statement. We’re not saying that applicants commonly lie about their grades or achievements, but it can be tempting to add “small innocent lies” to improve their writing. 

Some applicants will have the idea to include a little extra tidbit that would likely not be questioned, such as referencing a book they haven’t read or mentioning a task that they did not actually perform during a work placement. However, when it comes to a Personal Statement, no detail is safe from scrutiny in the interviews, so it’s not worth them risking an encounter with a question that they cannot accurately and truthfully answer. 

As for over-exaggeration, it can actually be good for applicants to do this within limits. They want to sell themselves as the best candidate for their course, so it won’t hurt to make their biggest achievements seem even more impressive. However, they need to be able to back up what they claim or risk looking cocky, unprepared or dishonest in their interview.

As a teacher, you may not be able to initially identify a lie in their statement, so always be sure to question (not necessarily accuse) a student if something seems off. The best place to weed out any potential misrepresentation is during mock interviews, so try to hold one before statements are submitted if possible. Learn more about this in our Oxbridge Interviews Teacher’s Guide.

Writing What Tutors Want to See

Surely applicants should be writing what tutors want to see in order to impress them? That’s true, but applicants will often misunderstand what it is that they actually do want to see. 

Some applicants will stuff their Personal Statement with every achievement they have ever accomplished, thinking tutors are expecting them to have done a hundred different things. Others will add extra details that may not be strictly true (see the previous point) simply because it will sound impressive.  

Admissions tutors are able to very easily see through these tactics; they have read through hundreds of Personal Statements in their careers after all! So what do they want to see? While competency and experience are important to them, they are also judging an applicant’s character. Those that are humble, inquisitive and able to reflect on why their achievements are important are the most appealing candidates, especially at Oxbridge. 

As a teacher, you too must learn to identify these positive characteristics when reading, as well as be able to call out when a student is pandering to the reader in one way or another. It’s an easy mistake for applicants to make, so helping to course correct in a gentle and constructive way is the best approach. 

Spelling and Grammatical Errors

This is an easy one that you likely already look out for. However, it’s safe to assume that the majority of your students will submit drafts to you that have spelling or grammatical errors. 

This does happen, unfortunately, as spending hours looking at one piece of work will blind even the most observant of us to simple, easy-to-miss mistakes. One small mistake will potentially be forgivable depending on the leniency of the admissions tutor, but it really is better for them to put in the extra work to ensure there are no mistakes at all. 

If you are marking their drafts and spot any errors, you should always make a note of them as it would be irresponsible to let them submit their statement with a fixable error. If you don’t want to directly tell them the mistakes they have made, you could present them with a brief summary explaining how many errors you found and give them the task of identifying them. They will likely be more careful to double-check and avoid them in the next draft. 

UniAdmissions' Teacher Tips

These are all fairly common mistakes that you should keep an eye out for when marking. But speaking of marking, let’s next see how you should approach providing feedback for an Oxbridge Personal Statement: 

How to Mark and Oxbridge Personal Statement

The best way you can support your applicants in their Oxbridge Personal Statements is to provide detailed, actionable feedback to the drafts that they present to you. Therefore, we’re now going to take a look at an example Personal Statement, complete with some example teacher feedback. The statement that has been written is not of the highest quality and certainly not up to the standards required by Oxbridge. 

You’ll have marked plenty of Personal Statements before, perhaps even a few Oxbridge ones, so this example focuses on how the applicant can get their statement suitable for Oxford or Cambridge (although this style of feedback would be great for any university applicant). 

Example Personal Statement: Oxford Economics & Management

As an aspiring student at the University of Oxford, I am driven by a profound passion for knowledge and a relentless pursuit of academic excellence. It is with great enthusiasm and commitment that I present my application to study Economics & Management at one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world.

This opening is very generic and does not reflect any specific qualities about yourself. The introduction should be an intro to you as a person and as an applicant, telling the story of why you want to study E&M and why you deserve your offer. Too much space is wasted stating the purpose of the statement (the entire second sentence), which is already known to the reader.

On the other hand, this paragraph is also too specific, as you have referenced one specific university when this statement will be sent to all of your choices. Focus on the subject rather than the university to ensure that it is applicable to each of your choices. 

My fascination with E&M was sparked during my early years of secondary education. As I delved into the subject, I was captivated by its intricate complexities and its profound impact on various aspects of society. This initial curiosity has only grown stronger over time, as I have actively sought opportunities to expand my understanding and engage with the subject on a deeper level.

Once again, this paragraph is too generic. Here, you should reference a specific event that triggered the interest you described, discussing how it made you feel and what it inspired you to do. The second sentence is a good lead into your discussion of research but needs to be shorter as it is currently using up characters unnecessarily. 

One of my most significant academic achievements has been the completion of an extended research project on the government’s budget in 2021. Through this endeavor, I was able to develop critical thinking skills, conduct thorough research, and present my findings in a concise and articulate manner. This experience not only solidified my passion for academic inquiry but also demonstrated my ability to engage with complex ideas independently.

This project is a good discussion point, but you do not offer a deeper insight into the work you did. Offer an example of what you had to do during the research and what you learnt from it. You must have undertaken some pretty challenging tasks here so make brief references to them. 

You have listed off a series of generic skills that you had developed during this task but offer no additional context into how you developed them or why they are useful to you. Through this whole statement, you need to focus not just on the activities you did, but how they shaped you into the person you are today and how you can action your skillset. The final sentence is a better example of this. 

“Endeavor” is spelt in the Americanised way, be sure to proofread your statement and check for spelling and grammatical errors. 

Beyond the classroom, I have actively pursued extracurricular activities that complement my academic interests. For instance, I have been a member of the school debate club, where I have honed my communication and analytical skills. This involvement has taught me the importance of constructing persuasive arguments based on rigorous evidence—a skill that I believe will be invaluable throughout my academic journey.

This is a fairly good paragraph for your statement as you have highlighted a specific skill that you have learnt and referenced how it will aid you during your studies. However, this could be more subject-specific by providing an example of where these skills will be invaluable in your journey. 

Furthermore, I have had the opportunity to participate in a community service project that involved teaching money management to underprivileged teenagers. This experience allowed me to witness the transformative power of education and reinforced my belief in the importance of knowledge-sharing. It also highlighted the need for accessible and inclusive education—a value that I believe Oxford champions.

Again, this is a good foundation for a paragraph, but you need to explore the topic a bit further. Perhaps you could tell a brief story of a specific student you dealt with, explaining something you learnt that will stay with you through your studies. You could also connect your belief in “knowledge-sharing” with Economics specifically to add greater context. 

Your discussion of “accessible and inclusive” education is good but could link more to your own experiences and desire to study economics. You have also specifically mentioned Oxford again, which should be changed to a generic statement like “your university”.

Studying at Oxford represents not only an opportunity for academic growth but also a chance to contribute to the vibrant intellectual community that thrives within its walls. The university’s esteemed faculty, extensive resources, and rich academic traditions provide an environment that is conducive to pushing intellectual boundaries and nurturing a passion for lifelong learning. I am eager to immerse myself in this unique atmosphere and embrace the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

This paragraph is a great way to show the value that you could bring to the university, but you could go into more depth about how. Try to link your reasoning back to the experiences and interests you have already mentioned as you are beginning to conclude your statement. You could also dedicate a bit less space to how great the university is and further discuss how you will be great for the university. 

Once again, remove mentions of Oxford specifically, this paragraph could apply to any of the universities that you apply to. 

In conclusion, my unwavering passion for Economics & Management, coupled with my academic achievements, extracurricular involvement, leadership experiences, and commitment to making a positive impact, make me an ideal candidate for the University of Oxford. I am ready to embark on this transformative educational journey, and I am confident that Oxford’s renowned academic rigor and vibrant intellectual community will provide the perfect foundation for my personal and intellectual growth.

This is a good conclusion but is a bit too long. While both of the points that you are making here are important (why you are suitable for the university and why you want to study at the university), it has all been covered in the statement already so much of this is redundant. This should be condensed into one sentence that briefly summarises each point. 

More references to Oxford need to be removed here. You have also used the Americanised spelling for “rigour” so please change this. 

Of course, you know your own students better than us, so your feedback will be personalised to their needs. However, consider this example as a rough guide to how you can offer line-by-line feedback that is constructive and encourages your student to write a Personal Statement that is more suitable for Oxbridge. 

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Successful Oxbridge Personal Statements

The Personal Statement that we just showed you fell well below the standards of Oxford and Cambridge, so it’s now time to look at some high-quality examples that were written by successful Oxbridge applicants. 

Below you will find our complete library of Successful Personal Statement examples from Oxbridge applicants. Each one features a summary, a star rating and a self-evaluation from the writer that details the positive and negative aspects of their writing. 

Although you will get the most value from the statements relating to your students’ chosen subjects, we recommend reading through as many examples as possible as each has universal and actionable advice that will help both you and your students. 

Successful Humanities Personal Statements

Successful Science Personal Statements

Changes to Oxbridge Personal Statements

Everything we have discussed so far has been in relation to UCAS Personal Statements in their current form. However, if you have been keeping up to date with the current university application landscape, you will know that UCAS is planning a variety of changes throughout its process and services to be implemented over the next two application cycles. 

One of the areas that will be affected is the Personal Statement, which will remain the same for 2024 and 2025 Entry but will be updated in the next admissions cycle. We have written a full guide relating to these changes, but let’s take a brief look at how the process will be changing starting next year. 

UCAS Personal Statements for 2026 Entry

The first thing to note is that these changes are being implemented across the whole UCAS process, so it will not just be Oxbridge applicants that are affected. 

As you know, UCAS Personal Statements are currently required to be submitted as one, free-form piece of written work with a character limit of 4,000. This will need to be written into a textbox included in the UCAS Application Form, although it can be written in a separate programme and pasted in. 

In 2024, Personal Statements will change to a questionnaire-based system within the UCAS Application Form. This means that applicants will now be required to write shorter written answers to a series of questions relating to their application and experience. 

This is being implemented in a way that allows applicants to provide the information from their Personal Statement in a more structured and focused manner that will help universities get the relevant information for their admissions tutors. Essentially, applicants will still need to discuss the same topics, just in a different format. 

As of now, UCAS has stated that these are the topics they intend to ask applicants about: 

Motivation for Course – Why do they want to study these courses? 

Preparedness for Course – How has their learning so far helped them to be ready to succeed on these courses? 

Preparation through other experiences – What else have they done to help them prepare, and why are these experiences useful? 

Extenuating circumstances – Is there anything that the universities and colleges need to know about, to help them put their achievements and experiences so far into context? 

Preparedness for study – What have they done to prepare themself for student life? 

Preferred Learning Styles – Which learning and assessment styles best suit them – how do your course choices match that?

As you can see, these questions cover all of the basic elements that one would expect from a high-quality Personal Statement, including reasons for applying, academic achievements and extracurricular activities. Therefore, nothing about the approach or the quality of the content will be changing significantly, it will primarily be a format change. 

Why are Personal Statements Being Changed?

UCAS has stated that a key concern with Personal Statements in their current form is that the difficulty of writing one from scratch “widens the gap” for applicants of certain backgrounds. The fear is that applicants who do not have access to a support system that helps them through the writing process will have less of a chance of gaining an offer despite being viable candidates.

Other issues raised state that there is uncertainty amongst some applicants as to how Personal Statements are actually used and that a high percentage of surveyed students found the writing process stressful (83%) and difficult to complete without support (79%).

This new format has therefore been tested by applicants and universities alike to ensure that both parties are happy with the new format. The result is a way for applicants to express themselves without increased stress worrying about superfluous things like the structure and flow of the piece. 

How Does This Affect Oxbridge Applicants?

If you are reading this as a teacher, it is more than likely that your students do have access to high-quality Personal Statement support, meaning they would be considered more “advantaged applicants”. These new changes are designed to even the playing field for all applicants, but this doesn’t mean that you don’t need to worry about supporting your Oxbridge applicants, or any university applicants at your school. 

Although the Personal Statement structure is changing, Oxford and Cambridge’s standards will not be. This means that the quality of the content they write will still be of great importance whether it is present as one document or as multiple answers. Although the structuring will be different, the core of their writing will be the same, which means you need to provide the same level of support that you would have before.

We will be updating this guide, as well as our other Personal Statement guides, once more details emerge about how applicants are expected to answer these questions and once our tutors have had a chance to get to grips with the new system. Advice about structuring a Personal Statement will likely change, but guidance relating to the quality of content should be universal across both formats, so don’t be afraid to continue teaching the lessons that you have already been using. Just be sure that all applicants for 2025 Entry know that their Personal Statement experience will be different. 

That concludes our teacher’s guide to Oxbridge Personal Statements. We hope that you will now be able to take a slightly different approach when supporting Oxbridge applicants with their Personal Statements in order to help them make them as good as they could possibly be.

Be sure to share these resources, as well as our collection of applicant Personal Statement Guides, with your students and encourage them to research further. We have even more great guides for teachers available at our Teacher’s Hub, and you can find out how UniAdmissions can support your school in creating the ultimate support programme for your students. 

Other Helpful Oxbridge Resources

Free CPD-Accredited Oxbridge Counsellor Course

This free online course is designed to equip you with the knowledge and skills needed to help your students secure a place at the world’s top universities. You’ll complete the course as an Oxbridge expert!

Teacher’s Oxbridge Learning Hub

Access all of our highly detailed written guides for teachers, as well as useful resources and information about our school support.