The World's Worst Personal Statement: Why It Fails and How to Fix It
Writing a personal statement is never an easy thing to do, but some students fall so spectacularly short of the mark that their efforts can be a lesson to us all.
Sometimes the easiest way to figure out how to write a personal statement is to look at someone else’s efforts and see how not to write one. In this article, we present to you a superbly bad (fictional) personal statement and show you just how many ways in which it misses the mark. We’ll also explain what our hapless fictional student should have done in order to write a personal statement that stands out for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.
The personal statement:
|“Only the very weak-minded refuse to be influenced by literature and poetry.” – Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel.I feel this quote reflects my own thrist for knowledge and that’s why I’ve had a love of reading from a young age, right from the time I could read The Very Hungry Caterpillar.These days my literary interests are rather more sophisticated, after all there’s nothing like Ulysses to show off one’s superior intelligence when indulging in my favourite activity (reading) in a coffee shop.I’m never happier than when I’m reading, and that’s why I want to study BA English Language and Literature at Oxford – that and the G&D’s ice cream! (Jokes!)
Oddly enough it was actually the film 10 Things I Hate About You that made me decide for sure that I wanted to study English. All my friends kept saying how much I remind them of Julia Stiles in that film with her passion for poetry.Its true, I do adore poetry and I have won quite a few awards for my own poems and everyone says how good they are. Poets I especially admire include John Keats, Sylvia Plath, William Wordsworth, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heany, John Milton and William Blake.I love novels too, my favourites being Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Lord of the Rings.I’m not a one-trick pony though. I also enjoy history, especially the Edwardians, as I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey. Downton has given me an interest in the First World War, as we see its impact on the Crawley family. It seems especially pertinent to be thinking about the First World War in this centenary year.
I am best in my class for all my subjects, so I think I’d fit right in at Oxford. When I’m writing an essay I have a steely determination to get the best grade, not unlike a hunter whose only thought is to catch the biggest, most impressive stag he can set his sights on.
My AS grade in history wasn’t as good as I’d have liked, but my teachers say that was only because I got sidetracked by spending too much time reading and writing poetry!! I’d love to study it at university and it’s my joint favourite subject with English.
When I’m not winning poetry competitions or reading sophisticated books in my local cafe, I enjoy socialising with my mates and going to the cinema.
I’m applying for deferred entry as I’m having a gap year. 🙂
So what was wrong with it?
Let us count the ways!
1. The pretentious quote
The personal statement opens with a pretentious-sounding quote, which, let’s face it, the student probably found from Googling “quotes about English literature”. It doesn’t even come from a great work of literature – it’s from a novel for young adults, which is unlikely to command the respect of the admissions tutors. The student then proceeds to say that this quote reflects their own “thirst for knowledge” (though they mistyped it as “thrist”) – but this doesn’t really relate to the quote at all. What’s more, starting with a quote is a bad idea anyway; it’s pompous, and the admissions tutors want to know what you have to say, not what someone else says.
2. The clichés, the controversial analogy and the Hungry Caterpillar
“Thirst for knowledge”. “From an early age”. The opening of this personal statement is littered with clichés that far too many students use and that admissions tutors have seen countless times before. This student goes a step further down the “loved reading from an early age” route by citing The Very Hungry Caterpillar as an early literary enjoyment. They probably think it sounds cute, but when said children’s book is a picture book with virtually no words, it’s hardly worth taking up valuable characters on a personal statement with.
Later in the statement we hear clichés such as “one-trick pony”, “steely determination”, and even a rather embarrassing comparison between their determination to achieve the best grades in an essay and the determination of a hunter to slay an impressive beast. This singularly fails to impress in the way the student clearly wants it to. What’s more, you never know what the beliefs are of the person reading your statement, and it might turn out that they’re passionately against hunting – in which case this comparison with a hunter is going to go down especially badly.
3. Questionable motives
The student’s mention of James Joyce’s Ulysses reveals a rather questionable motive for wanting to read it: to “show off one’s superior intelligence” in front of other people. This sounds major alarm bells. It’s hardly going to tell the admissions tutor that the student wants to study the subject because they have a deep interest in it; they’ll pick up from this that they want to study English for the wrong reasons.
4. Mentioning texts and writers with no comment on them
The student has name-dropped a few novels and poets, but offers no insight into why they are interested in them or what they’ve got out of reading them. The mention of Ulysses seems calculated to make them appear clever for reading such an advanced text, but the fact that they offer no commentary on it has the opposite effect. The same goes for later in the personal statement with the list of poets – a random jumble of poets, modern and older, with no explanation as to why they appeal (and they misspelt Seamus Heaney’s name!). It comes across as a list of poets whose names the student happened to be able to rattle off, without any thought put into it. As for the novels mentioned, these are three incredibly famous novels that virtually everyone has read and loved. Leaving aside the fact that they haven’t said why they like these novels, it doesn’t show much depth or academic pursuit of knowledge to name-drop three very famous novels rather than demonstrating interest in or knowledge of less well-known literature.
5. Naming the course and university
The student has committed a huge faux pas in naming the course and university for which they are applying. This reveals that the only university they’re interested in is Oxford. They’re unlikely to be applying for just this university, but they’ve immediately alienated admissions tutors from all the other universities they’ve almost certainly put on their UCAS form.
6. Jokes and slang
The student jokes that they are partly applying for Oxford because of G&D’s ice cream, a famous ice cream parlour in Oxford. Quite apart from the fact that they shouldn’t have mentioned Oxford in the first place, the use of humour in this way does the student no favours. To make matters worse, they then add “Jokes” in brackets. Slang is a big no-no in a personal statement, and when combined with an attempt at humour, it’s frankly disastrous.
7. Hollywood inspiration
The admissions tutors are not going to be impressed that the reason you decided to study English at university because your friends commented on your similarity to a character in a film.
8. Unnamed awards
The student attempts to indicate their talent for poetry, stating that they have “won quite a few awards” for their own poems. However, this claim is too vague to be impressive. Which awards were they? “Everyone says how good” the student’s poems are, but how many people have actually read them, and was it just the student’s parents and grandparents who were impressed by them? These statements would have more weight if the student named the exact awards they’ve won and who has deemed their poetry to be good.
9. Downton Abbey and history
The student goes on to talk about their other academic interest: history. The only problem is, it seems a bit out of place in a personal statement for English, making one wonder whether they might also be applying for an English and History course elsewhere. To make matters worse, they talk about Downton Abbey as the inspiration for their love of history, and in particular their interest in the First World War, commenting on the fact that it’s the centenary of the start of the First World War. The latter is hardly an insightful comment, while the mere mention of Downton Abbey is enough to discredit the student’s supposed interest in history.
What’s more, they go on to say how much they love history, that it’s their joint favourite subject with English, and that they’d love to study it at university. This is inevitably going to make English Literature admissions tutors question the student’s commitment to their subject. What if the student changes their mind and wants to switch to history? It’s a big warning sign against this student.
Nobody likes people who brag. The student claims to be “best in their class” and someone who’d “fit right in at Oxford” (that name again!) – though, judging by the poor quality of their personal statement, one wonders whether this could possibly be true. Later, they casually drop in “when I’m not winning poetry competitions”, a flippant remark that smacks of arrogance.
11. Negativity about one of their grades
The student attempts to explain a less-than-perfect grade by laughing it off with a comment about reading and writing too much poetry. One can see what they were aiming for here: they wanted to show that they’re so enthusiastic about English Literature that they get carried away and can’t stop reading and writing. However, it’s not going to look good to an admissions tutor, who’ll see someone who is unable to juggle their workload or apply themselves to succeed in all their subjects. What’s more, the student doesn’t attempt to explain what they’re doing about the bad grade – for instance, they could be taking on extra history lessons to bring the grade up, but there’s no such reassurance in their statement.
12. Boring interests
The student gives their interests as “socialising with their mates and going to the cinema”, interests that are so universal and boring that they are not worth mentioning at all. The point of mentioning interests in a personal statement is to demonstrate that there’s more to you than your academic interests. Proper hobbies and so on show you to be a well-rounded person with a range of interests, and those interests help develop skills that you can’t learn in the classroom, and that make you a good person to have around.
13. An unexplained gap year
The student ends on a rather dull note by stating that they are taking a gap year. However, there’s no explanation of what activities they have planned for this. This would have been a good place to highlight course-related activities planned for the year out, which would have made them more suitable for the course (such as embarking on a writing workshop).
This was also a lacklustre way to end the statement; a couple of sentences summarising why they want to study the course and why they’re so suitable for it would have been a good closing remark.
14. The smiley face
They’ve tried to look friendly by putting a smiley face at the end. There’s only one word for this: don’t!
15. General shortfallings
In addition to the specific faults outlined above, there were a few general shortfallings worth highlighting.
- Poor grammar – such as “its” when they meant “it’s”, and even an instance of double exclamation marks.
- Typos – “thrist for knowledge”, for example.
- Not long enough – the statement uses 2,289 characters out of an available 4,000. If you have that many characters to play with, it makes sense to use them by demonstrating even more reasons why you should be given a place.
- Odd spacing – mostly with one sentence per paragraph, perhaps to make it look longer than it really is.
- Very little focus on why they want to study English – which is, after all, the entire point of the statement.
Overall, it felt that very little effort had gone into writing this personal statement, leaving one questioning the student’s commitment to the course. Now that you’ve seen a disastrous personal statement first-hand, you’ll have a better idea of how not to write yours. Good luck!