Deconstructing the Personal Statement

DisclaimerThis is meant as an illustration of what a personal statement could look like as well as a few do’s and dont’s to consider in the process. This is by no means an exhaustive or authoritative account of writing the personal statement. For your own sake, please don’t copy this statement and don’t recycle phrases you like. UCAS use software to check for plagiarism and do it well: A BBC article from 2007(!) reveals that many applicants try to cheat and are easily caught.

I have thought about the concept of “freedom” for some time now and studied it up close via the triumvirate of philosophy, politics and economics.

There are many ways to start a statement. Usually, you want to avoid the clichés:

  • Opening with a quote (interestingly, Oscar Wilde is apparently the most quoted person in these statements)
  • “I have always been fascinated with X” (which is almost surely false – I have never seen a toddler fascinated with mechanical engineering)

This example is quite innocent. It could be more bold. It also mentions philosophy, politics, and economics, which makes it a lot harder to apply to similar degrees at other universities (e.g. philosophy and economics), but this is more a matter of preference than style.

For instance, I attended a Quran lesson out of interest and became involved in a discussion with the Imam about “free will”. Having read Simon Blackburn’s “Think” and Nigel Warburton’s “Philosophy: The Classics”, I knew philosophy offered many interpretations of the nature of the mind and, in particular, I remembered the Locke vs. Leibniz dispute on Cartesian Dualism. According to the Imam, however, “God alone knows our destiny”. In other words: We suffer from the delusion that our will is free, when really it is not. Although his “argument” was only a conclusion, I found it intriguing nevertheless. Chaos theory stipulates that any complex iterative model is no better than a wild guess. Given the intricacy of the human brain, free will may just be illusory, albeit persuasive. Could the Imam be right, I wonder?

In the first paragraph, this example jumps straight to discussing an aspect of their interest in this subject. That’s a key point throughout the statement: You want to demonstrate your interest rather than just state it. It’s the difference between saying “I have always been fascinated with mechanical engineering” to telling a story about how you once took apart a car engine, because you were curious.

This paragraph does not use too many “big words”, although words like “intruiging” stick out (on the other hand, it’s role in this sentence could be defended). If you can find a simpler word, use it. The tutors who read the statement are not impressed with flowery language.

Philosophical inquiries did not, however, satisfy my desire to comprehend the concept of freedom. Therefore, I began to look at freedom as a type of currency: something to be stored, borrowed and traded. Reflecting on my wider readings from this perspective, I discovered that, for instance, Orwell’s “1984” exemplifies communism where freedom is centralized and only parcelled out to the population in small, equal amounts. Hobbes’ “Leviathan” warns of anarchy and the “state of nature” in which, ironically, the pursuit for total freedom would deplenish our “freedom purse” entirely. In “The Undercover Economist”, Tim Harford analyses Cameroon, a country in which income distribution is highly skewed. I realised that increasing the freedom of the wealthiest – economically, politically or socially – would not serve the interest of the greater good. Nor would it noticeably impact the aggregate freedom of the country, because income follows a Pareto distribution, rather than a Gaussian distribution. All of this tell me that freedom is multifaceted, slippery and heavily contextual. Yet, I hope to model it as a currency and subject it to the rigours of mathematics.

A criticism of this paragraph is the tendency to name-drop as many titles as possible (in this case: Orwell, Hobbes, and Harford). As mentioned before, you want to demonstrate your knowledge and drawing on material you’ve studied outside school is excellent for this purpose. As a rule of thumb, you want to mention at least two items. This could be books, article, podcasts, TED talks, movies, or documentaries. This paragraph could do better by focusing more on each item and mentioning fewer.

During a case study of Enron in English class, I discovered Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Open Secrets”. It made think about how lack of transparency and imperfect markets limit the freedom of the many, who are then left out or disadvantaged. From Enron to Lehman Brothers, I enjoyed reading Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short” and watching “The Inside Job” by Charles Ferguson. They opened my eyes to the prospect of bad incentives and overly complex financial schemes conspiring to derail the economy. This led me to write my Specialised Study Project on the reliability of economic models. Writing this paper intensified my interests, specifically the application of mathematics in economics, but it also made me consider the links between economics, politics and mathematics. The processes of researching for my paper, reading books in my spare time and reflecting on my findings supplemented each other. Likewise, I have also realised that philosophy, politics and economics not only overlap, but also fuel one another.

This paragraph also suffers from name-dropping too much. It also uses the verb “intensified” which is heavily over-used (of course, not as much as “passionate”), so try to refrain from this.

The latter half of the paragraph comes of a bit too much as “telling” rather than “showing”.

In my gap year, I have been given the unique opportunity to work full-time in [a large bank] and experience first-hand the world of banking. In my spare time, I own and run a micro-business. I have always managed to find time for leisure activities as I consider myself an efficient time manager. As such I feel well-equipped for university studies and would feel privileged to be able to devote all my time to the subjects about which I truly care: politics, economics and philosophy.

This is the final paragraph which is meant to wrap up and perhaps add some information about the extra-curricular activities of the applicant. As a general rule, admissions officers only care about your academic potential (unlike US universities), so any extra-curricular activities you add will have to support this, which is usually done by saying that doing X has improved your time-management skills. Aim to use maximum 20% of the statement should on extra-curricular activities and a minimum of 80% on demonstrating your academic interests.

Marcus Henglein, 03 Jun 2016