Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 4: Preparing the Personal Statement

In the introduction post, I’ve shared some resource for personal statements – the things to think about, and a structure of a worksheet that might help people get started. There’s a lot of advice and guidance about how to write personal statements around, which I don’t intend to repeat.

In this section, I want to think specifically about how personal statements for Oxbridge candidates differ, and what you need to be aware of in supporting them.

  1. They’re not. Don’t forget that the same personal statement is sent to all five of the candidate’s universities, and they all see it. While they have anonymous levels of detail in the application process, and it’s ‘blind’ to a limited extent, it’s important to recognise that the same statement has to work for all of the applications that the student is making. It needs to be high quality Geography, and not perfectly and individually tailored for Oxbridge – it’s only one application of five.
  2. Generally, the higher quality candidates for Geography at university spend more time talking about Geography than themselves. They have meaningful statements about why they want to study Geography, normally connected to an experience or academic interest, and they explore how they’ve demonstrated their scholarship and engagement over their development and Sixth Form period. While there’s always a need to balance “statement” and the “personal” element in the application, typically a top Geography candidate will prioritise the academic components.
  3. Recognise that for Oxbridge candidates, it is only one part of the application process. For Cambridge, in particular, there’s a Supplementary Application Questionnaire which has further questions and the space to make an additional personal statement. They shouldn’t overlap, and the statements need to be considered in coherence.
  4. All candidates must sign to declare that their application and statement is true to the best of their beliefs, and all personal statements need to be accurate and factually correct. However, unlike most candidates, the personal statement for an Oxbridge candidate can often form the basis of easy questions to be used in an interview. So if a student were to mention a book, or a paper, or a particular concept, it is absolutely fair game for the interviewer to explore and test them in an interview. It’s also critical that you support the student in double checking their references and thinking. Look at the research interests of the likely interviewers at their College choice (if they’ve made one), and check that if their statement overlaps with the research interests of their interviewers, they know it thoroughly!
  5. The phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth” was obviously not designed to refer to Oxbridge personal statements, but it should be. The more ‘high stakes’ the outcome, the more likely you are to have multiple people look at it. This can be amazing, if the advisors are all philosophically and Geographically aligned, but more often than not, it just results in a slightly messy experience for the candidate, where they’re chopping and changing depending on specific advice and guidance. Less is more in this instance – keep a few advisers who know their Geography and, ideally, their Oxbridge statements, and try to limit the spread of the coaching process!

So, let’s revisit the ideas of Geographical scholarship we discussed earlier, and how each of the components can be demonstrated within a personal statement. 

They can demonstrate scholarship and critical engagement

Normally this is demonstrated through clear engagement with books, papers or lectures, and the ideas that they represent. These should be academically well grounded – popular literature has a place (e.g. Tim Marshall’s books), but top level students need to demonstrate their higher reading abilities. It should be well beyond the confines of an A Level syllabus – merely talking about what you’ve been taught won’t demonstrate your ability to engage with the subject beyond what you’re given! It’s important that students write clearly about what they are taking from the reading, and showing their connection and synthesis ability. This should be balanced with some kind of critical reflection – what the student has learned, what they’ve taken away, and how that helps to support their engagement and academic curiosity.

It’s important that this is selectively explored, rather than dumping enormous quantities of quasi-academic research in a statement.

Complexity and range of the discipline

This is where the second component of the scholarship thinking comes in. Encourage students to be specific in what they focus on. They shouldn’t attempt to describe all of Geography, or even all of what they’ve read or studied.

Be critical and selective – pick an idea that is interesting and has come from somewhere (e.g. an unexplained part of the A Level course, a particular experience) and work through it. It’s okay for it to be a fairly narrow and specific focus and exciting aspect of Geography. Show how some of the reading connects the wider A Level study profile, then to other parts of the reading, and how the journey and thought process of development happens. It’s important to be able to clearly explain how one aspect of the engagement leads to another, and ‘show your working’ and how the thinking develops.

This is how the final strand is important for the personal statement. The complexity and development of ideas needs to be well-woven together, and clearly communicated as a story and narrative.

Explaining and exploring the ideas

The interview phase is where students will be pushed hardest to explain their academic thinking and development of ideas. However, students can start to demonstrate their abilities to express themselves clearly in their personal statement and application.

The Geographical content is elsewhere for now – in terms of writing and writing style, my top resources are Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on ‘starting with why’ and great communication is a really good way to shake up the thinking. It’s about explaining intent rather than a litany of factual information – and it’s critical that the candidate is able to link things together to tell the story of why they wanted to study a thing, find out more, and ultimately read Geography. I’ve tried lots of ways to help students “get it” – but this is a short video that’s had quite a bit of success.

Story telling is critical. Assembling that CV of all the things they’ve done feels positive and seductive – like a safety blanket. The brave and difficult decisions are about how you decide what to leave out, and where you spend more time explaining how you learned from something, or how you connected it to something else!

As ever, there’s got to be a balance between “personal” and “statement”. While a more academic applicant will normally have more academic content than their extra curricular or evidencing personal characteristics, that doesn’t mean that it can’t reflect who they are, and what they’re interested in. The statement must help the tutors to understand the person they’re going to offer an interview to, and be interesting and informative for them to read!

As with all personal statements for UCAS applications, remember:

  1. It always takes longer than you think, and;
  2. It always takes more drafts than you think, but;
  3. It’ll never be “done”. At some point, you’ll just stop writing.  

So, getting candidates started early, showing them good examples, good guidance is really helpful. Ideally, get some ideas on paper (even if it’s just the worksheet) before summer, and get some thinking and revision time over summer – so that September is starting with solid ground work.

There’s a lot to do in that month, and it’s important that you’ve got a heads up of the attention to detail and preparation that’s needed for September. The transition in to interview and test prep (if appropriate) will start sooner than the application deadline – so it’s worth ensuring you’ve got a plan to hit the ground running.

2 thoughts on “Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 4: Preparing the Personal Statement

  1. Pingback: Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge: Introduction |

  2. Pingback: Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 5: September & Application Time |

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