Writing your personal statement

Advice from Oxford students on how to approach your personal statement for grad applications.

Reading room in Oriel College | Photograph by Vinesh Maguire-Rajpaul (DPhil Astrophysics)

If you’re applying for a grad course that requires a personal statement (sometimes also called a ‘statement of purpose’), it can be difficult to know where to start and what to include (and what to leave out).

Some of our masters’ students talk about their process and what they found helpful.

Our masters’ students talk personal statements, colleges and their Oxford experiences in our video on applying for masters’ courses

1. Before you start

Start by thinking about the skills, knowledge and interests you’ve acquired over time and how the course at Oxford will take them forward. This is the story you want to tell about yourself and your academic work:

“The academic work is the most important reason why we’re here, but that also translates into work experiences, internships, volunteering. I think a big part of the personal statement is crafting that narrative of academic self that fits alongside your professional experiences, to give that greater picture of who you are as an academic.”

Lauren (MSc Modern Middle Eastern Studies)

Most of your application and its supporting documents communicate plain facts about your academic career so far.

Your personal statement is your best opportunity to put these facts into context and show assessors how you’ve progressed and excelled — make sure you highlight evidence of your achievements (a high grade in a relevant area, an award or scholarship, a research internship).

“I think a big part of the personal statement is crafting that narrative of academic self” | Lauren (MSc Modern Middle Eastern Studies)

Presenting yourself

Make it easy for an assessor to see how you meet the selection criteria for the course (you can find these on each course page) — don’t make any assumptions about what Oxford is looking for!

“When I was writing my personal statement, I went onto my course website. I looked at what they emphasised and what kind of students they were looking for, and I wrote about my experiences based on that.”

Kayla (MSc in Clinical Embryology)

Get to know your department

You want to study this particular subject and you want to study at Oxford (you’re applying here, so we know that!) but why is Oxford the right place for you to study this subject? What interests or qualities of the academic department and its staff make it attractive to you?

Use your academic department’s website for an overview of their research, academic staff and course information (there’s a list of links on each course page):

“I said, ‘why do I actually want to be here? What is it about being at Oxford that’s going to get me to what I want to do?’”

Sarah (Bachelor of Civil Law)

Talk it out

Talking to others about your statement can be a great way to gather your ideas and decide how you’d like to approach it.

Sarah even managed to get benefit out of this approach by herself:

“I spent a lot of time talking out loud. My written process was actually very vocal, so I did a lot of talking about myself in my room.”

2. The writing process

A course page for MSt English (1550–1700), with the ‘How to Apply’ tab selected.
A course page for MSt English (1550–1700), with the ‘How to Apply’ tab selected.
If you need a personal statement to apply, you’ll find instructions for this on the ‘How to Apply’ tab of your course page.

Know your format

Make sure you’ve read all the guidance on the ‘How to Apply’ tab of your course page, so you know what’s needed in terms of the length of the final statement and what it should cover.

This should help you to visualise roughly what you want to end up with at the end of the process.

Don’t panic!

When it comes to writing your personal statement, just getting started can be the hardest part:

“I found it really, really difficult to start mine. I think I was really scared that, if I started it, my idea would fall apart. That’s the hardest bit.”

Emma (MSt in British and European History + Access Officer at Trinity College)

One good way to get around writer’s block is to just put it all down on the page:

“First — write down anything and everything. In the first round, I was just dumping everything — whatever I’ve done, anything close to computer science, that was on my personal statement.”

Mayur (MSc Computer Science)

You’ll be editing later anyway so don’t let the blank page intimidate you — try writing a little under each of the following headings to get going:

  • areas of the course at Oxford that are the most interesting to you
  • which areas you’ve already studied or had some experience in
  • what you hope to use your Oxford course experience for afterwards.
Don’t be intimidated by the blank page — look at what your Oxford department wants, to give you a rough length and structure, and then focus on getting some words down | Kayla (MSc Clinical Embryology) and Mayur (MSc Computer Science)

3. Finishing up

Once you’ve got a draft of about the right length, ask for (honest!) feedback on what you’ve written. It might take several drafts to get it right!

Lauren got in touch with her undergrad professors:

“I had them look over it to see if they could find any places to strengthen it, or any cracks that they would want repaired before it got sent in.”

Sarah suggests showing it to people who know you well, like family or friends:

“Because they’re the first people to say, ‘Who is that person?’ You want the people around you to recognise that it really sounds like you. It can be scary telling family and friends you’re applying for Oxford, because it makes it real, but be brave enough to share it and get feedback on it.”

Finally — be yourself (you’re the only one who can)

“Don’t fake it. Be as you as possible, and bring out the best in you.”

Mayur (MSc Computer Science)

Once you’ve taken the requirements for your course into account, make sure your personal statement represents you, not your idea about what Oxford might be looking for. We have thousands of students arriving every year from a huge range of subjects, backgrounds, institutions and countries (you can hear from a few more of them in our My Oxford interviews).

Want more? Listen to our masters’ students talk personal statements, colleges and their Oxford experiences in our video on applying for masters’ courses.

Get moving on your application today

To find out more about supporting documents and everything else you need to apply, read your course page and visit our Application Guide:

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