Admissions tutors reading law applications aren't just looking for the sports captain who works part-time in a solicitor's office. Well-rounded applicants, with a firm grasp of current affairs and a genuine reason for wanting to study the law, are really who they're after.
"Schools of law know that not all candidates have had access to high prestige work experience," says Steve Jones of the University of Manchester, who recently conducted research into personal statements. "Focus on the skills that you do have. Think carefully about why you want a law degree and what you'll do with it. Everyone says they're 'passionate' about their subject – think instead about what makes you different from other applicants.
"Don't talk about your hobbies unless they're directly relevant to your chosen programme. Spend time researching the university departments and degree programmes for which you're applying. There's no big secret to the personal statement: universities just want applicants who are well prepared and have lots of potential."
So make sure you have done your research. Aled Griffiths, deputy head of the law school at Bangor University, says students must show an up-to-date understanding of the legal profession. "It's a bit naïve nowadays to say 'I want to be a barrister' unless you have some idea of how that might happen," he said. It's important to say which areas of law you're interested in, though it's fine for students to be undecided "as long as they understand what confronts them".
Reading newspapers is considered to be more important than reading law texts. "We want to know what turned you on to law, whether it's constitutional issues in Egypt or civil marriage," said Griffiths, adding that students should demonstrate a "knowledge of world events and the applicability of the law".
Griffiths said introductions should be about why you think you'll make a good lawyer or what attracted you to law. "Personal experiences which sparked your interest are great, but don't give us your whole life story," he added.
And it's no longer novel to mention your favourite law drama. The worst thing you can do is list your achievements without exploring their applicability to a law degree – even mentioning a placement at Jones Jones LLC is meaningless unless you say what you thought of it, Griffiths said.
Similarly, Deborah Ives, director of admissions for the University of East Anglia's school of law, recently rejected a 3 A* candidate who said "I want to be a lawyer because my father's a lawyer". Ives said that unless this has led to experiences which have generated a personal interest in law they are not interested "We are looking for an informed decision."
Some of the possible hobbies that relate to a law degree are public speaking, debating, languages and advocacy. Most admissions tutors, however, make it clear that there are many activities which teach transferable skills relevant to law.
Ives said that students underestimate how important sport is – any sport – especially if a student is good, because it shows motivation, diligence and determination. Work experience doesn't have to be directly law related either: "I was most impressed by a lad who was explaining about his interest in criminal law and how that had developed, and how he had gone down to the police station and volunteered to take part in identity parades," Ives said.
Every law school wants different things, however. Claire McGourlay, admissions tutor for the University of Sheffield's school of law, said the best thing to do is ring up the university and ask them what they are looking for. "I don't look for work experience that's just law related," she said, adding that she'd be just as impressed by someone who has got up at six every morning since they were 14 to do a paper round.
"As long as they can demonstrate that they have done something – a bit of an all rounder really," she said. "And they don't have to be an Olympic athlete, just as long as they have done something." Nor do applicants have to be clear on their career aspirations – it's OK if you don't yet know if you want to work in law.
McGourlay says every personal statement is individual. "Some are very creative, some are more concise. I don't mind either way as long as it shows them as a whole person and shows a general interest in the subject.
"The key is to write fluently. No spelling mistakes, no bad grammar, not plagiarised." The worst personal statements are always the ones that haven't been proofread, she said.
Daniel Attenborough, admissions tutor at the University of Leicester, agreed – saying that personal statements are a "sales pitch" and students need to express themselves in an eloquent and elegant way. He advised against simply stating that you like chess. Explain that chess has encouraged your independent thinking and competitive nature, and why this is relevant to a career in law.
If students mention something like enjoying the TV show Suits "it usually just makes me laugh," says Attenborough. "It doesn't necessarily go against the student at all." But he's more impressed by an interest in how the law interacts with broader social issues – how the law is shaped by capitalism, or the impact of UK law on asylum seekers.
And it's important to remember that the personal statement is only one part of the application. Neil Kibble, director of law admissions at Lancaster University, said he is reluctant to set too much store by personal statements as he's very aware that some students get more guidance than others.
"We don't want to privilege two or three types of extracurricular activities at the expense of others," he said. "We would ask students to reflect on whatever experience they have had, whether it's working in a shop or looking after a member of the family, and say what they have learned from it."
Kibble said he tends to pay more attention to personal statements during clearing, when a particularly strong statement can win him over to a candidate who has not achieved the right grades.
People sometimes think that there is a trick to writing a personal statement for Oxford, or that we are looking for some special secret formula, but this is not the case. Writing a personal statement for Oxford is no different from writing a personal statement for any other university. In fact it’s important to remember that the same wording will be seen by all the universities you apply to and should therefore focus on the course you want to study, not the universities themselves. Please read this helpful advice from UCAS about writing your personal statement.
How important is the personal statement?
Universities build a picture of you as a student from all the different information you provide, to help decide whether or not to offer you a place. The picture is made up of several different pieces: your personal statement, academic record, predicted A-level grades (or equivalent), and your teacher's reference. For most courses at Oxford you will also need to take an admissions test or submit written work as well (check the details for your course). If your application is shortlisted, your interview will also be taken in to account. This means that your personal statement is important but it’s not everything: it’s just one part of the overall picture.
What are Oxford tutors looking for?
Tutors at Oxford are only interested in your academic ability and potential. They want to see that you are truly committed to the subject or subjects you want to study at university but it’s not enough just to say that you have a passion for something: you need to show tutors how you have engaged with your subject, above and beyond whatever you have studied at school or college. This can include any relevant extracurricular activities.
Try to avoid writing your personal statement as though you are ticking things off a list. There is no checklist of required achievements, and tutors will not just scan what you have written to look for key words or phrases. Tutors will read your personal statement to try to understand what has motivated you to apply for their course. It’s a good idea to evaluate your experiences, to show what you have learned from them and how they have helped develop your understanding of your subject.
Should I include extracurricular activities?
If you're applying for competitive courses, which includes any course at Oxford, we typically suggest that you focus around 80% of your personal statement on your academic interests, abilities and achievements. This can include discussion of any relevant extracurricular activities. The remaining 20% can then cover any unrelated extracurricular activities.
There’s a myth that Oxford is looking for the most well-rounded applicants, and that you will only be offered a place if you have a long list of varied extracurricular activities. In fact, extracurricular activities are only helpful in so far as they demonstrate the selection criteria for your course.
Do I need experience of work and travel?
We understand that not everyone has the opportunity to do work experience or to go travelling so these activities are not a requirement for any of our courses. Tutors won’t be impressed by your connections, or the stamps in your passport, but they will be impressed by how you’ve engaged with your subject.
For example, some of our applicants for Medicine may have had work experience placements in prestigious hospitals but not be able to evaluate their time there. If you have no more experience than some simple voluntary work, or even just discussing medical matters with your friends and family, you can still write an effective personal statement by reflecting critically on what you have learned and discussed.
To give another example, for the History of Art, tutors will not want to hear about all the galleries and exhibitions that you have visited around the world if you cannot discuss the art that you saw. You can come across more effectively in your personal statement by evaluating art you have seen, even if you’ve only seen it online or in books without ever leaving the school library.
Don’t be put off by any friends who you think have more impressive things to say in their personal statements. Remember that tutors do not have a checklist of achievements that they are looking for: they want to see how you have engaged with your subject.
I’m applying to different courses at different universities – how should I write my personal statement?
If you are thinking of applying for completely different courses at different universities (eg Physics and Accounting, or Biology and Music) we’d encourage you to reconsider. It’s important to choose a subject area that you really want to study, and focus on that one area when making your applications. Also, you can only write one personal statement which will be seen by all the universities to which you apply, so it needs to be relevant for all your courses.
If you are thinking of applying for related courses at different universities then we suggest that you avoid using course titles in your personal statement. We recommend that you write about your interest in the general course themes, and how you have engaged with relevant subject areas, so that your personal statement is equally relevant for each of your course choices.
Does my personal statement need to stand out?
Students sometimes feel that they need to say something dramatic to stand out from the crowd and be really memorable in their personal statement but this is not true. Applying to Oxford is not like a talent show where you may only have a few seconds to make an impression. Tutors consider each application carefully on its individual merits, looking for evidence of your commitment and ability. If you use your personal statement to demonstrate your academic abilities and your engagement with your subject or subjects, then your application will be memorable for all the right reasons.
Where should I start?
Think about talking to your friends about what you want to study at university: what would you tell them? What have you read or watched or seen that has inspired you? (This might have been at school, at home, in a museum, on TV, in a book, on YouTube or a podcast or anywhere else.) Why was it interesting? What do you want to find out next? What did you do?
If you find this difficult, it might be time to think about whether or not you’ve really chosen the right course. If you can’t think of anything that has inspired you, this lack of enthusiasm will probably come across in your personal statement, or it will become clear at interview, and you’re unlikely to gain a place at Oxford. If you find it easy to answer these questions, you will have a long list of ideas to help you write your personal statement.
When you start to write, remember not just to list your achievements but show how they have affected you, how you have benefited, and what you’d like to learn next. Be honest about yourself and what has inspired you, whether that’s been text books, museums and literature, or websites, podcasts and blogs. Be sure to tell the truth, as tutors might check later, so don’t exaggerate and certainly don’t make any false claims. Don’t hold back either – this is no time for modesty.
When you've written a first draft, have a look back at the selection criteria for your course and think about the evidence you've given for each of the criteria. Have you covered everything?
How many versions should I write?
Ask a teacher to read through what you’ve written, listen to their feedback and then make any updates that they suggest. You may need two or three tries to get it right. Don’t keep writing and rewriting your statement though, as it is more important to keep up with your school or college work, and to explore your subject with wider reading. (See suggested reading and resources.)
Some dos and don’ts
- DON’T be tempted to make anything up, as you might be asked about it at interview.
- DON’T copy anyone else’s personal statement. UCAS uses plagiarism detection software.
- DON'T list qualifications like your GCSE grades or anything else that's covered elsewhere on the application.
- DON’T just list your other achievements: you need to evaluate them.
- DON'T feel the need to be dramatic in order to be memorable.
- Apply for a course you really want to study.
- Be yourself: tell the truth about your interests.
- Sell yourself: this is not the time for modesty.
- Reread your personal statement before an interview – the tutors will.
- Read the UCAS guidance on personal statements.