At the chalkface: Personal statements

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

"All my life I’ve been passionate/obsessed/crazy about something or other. I’m phenomenally interested in early Russian cinema, medieval baroque music, playing the oboe, QPR and making lots of money."

It’s the season of UCAS Personal Statements. For Oxbridge the deadline is this week, for the rest it goes on and on until January. Dear me, what a grim palaver. Pupils have been toiling for so long to perfect this pointless document, it drives them nuts. Some have done a dozen drafts and it’s still useless, worse in many cases.

But there’s no way it can be done. Not well.

Selling, marketing yourself is hard work. You can feel a bit of a twerp. Pupils’ early drafts are often car crashes in crippled prose. It’s not easy finding a happy blend of a unique voice, a quiet confidence and a lucid fluency.

Too often pupils end up with a woeful mix of the prolix, clichéd, banal, smug, conceited – or they just sound mentally ill, unhinged.

They scribble variations on this kind of thing...

“All my life I’ve been passionate/obsessed/crazy about something or other. I’m phenomenally interested in early Russian cinema, medieval baroque music, playing the oboe, QPR and making lots of money. I have a very deep social conscience and am going to do a gap year in most of the war zones of the world. I’m also a very rounded person in a holistic sense. My social skills are astounding. You need me badly...”

So it goes. It’s not their fault.

The middle classes are lucky. They can draft in their academic friends to help. Most working class pupils aren’t so fortunate. I used to help them. I wrote the whole thing for most of them. It levels the playing field. It was still difficult to give them their voice.

Still, it was better than the industry of online outfits that trade in this stuff – for example, Oxbridge Personal Statements.

This lot will, for a fee, furnish you with a “bespoke” statement “full of personality” – though it’s not clear whose.

It “will be crafted by an academic ranked within the top 0.1 per cent of the world’s university system”. Yikes! Are world-class academics that desperate?

As ever it is to philosopher king Nigel Molesworth that we must turn for any trenchant wisdom on the topic. He cracked personal statements long ago with his own sublime Bogus Report, a happy blend of complete lying, louche insouciance and very “bespoke” spelling.

We learn that he “know all his grammar backwards” and that he is “a miracle, a whole scholar, poet, man of action, dilettante, wine-lover, dreamer, beer-drinker, wit, athlete, strongman. He is the LOT.”

Who could reject him? Pupils could a lot worse than simply copy him verbatim. Admissions tutors would have less head-breaking tedium and might actually read it.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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