One of my most embarrassing moments at university was at the Finalists Dinner. During coffee, the Senior Tutor for English rose clutching some sheets of paper. “Here,” he explained, “Are your UCAS personal statements. Can you guess who described himself as ‘a Renaissance man’?”.
Yes. It was me. And worryingly, everyone looked at me without the tutor saying anything more.
The personal statement is the first step in the process of applying to university and for non-Oxbridge universities it is often the most important part. Despite this, it is often done poorly. Ridden with clichés, spelling mistakes and almost no knowledge of the subject that you are hoping to read, many good candidates fail to get the interviews expected of them.
What not to do
A good rule I like to propose for writing a personal statement is not to write it. You should compose it out loud then get someone else to read it back to you. Most people write very differently from how they speak. This can be a good thing as we tend to use informal register and poor grammar when we speak. The personal statement is a formal document and writing “Basically, law is like interesting, you know?” would see your application put in the bin very quickly.
That said, people also tend to write in a bizarre and often tortured way: long, cumbersome sentences; words used imprecisely; paragraphs with too many ideas. If you want a brilliant guide to writing good English, read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, particularly the last few paragraphs.
The most heinous crime, however, is to write things which, when considered logically, make no sense at all. Take this sentence, for example: “From as long as I can remember, I have been fascinating between the interplay between rights in rem and in personam”. It’s one of the top ten most over-used sentences according to UCAS. It’s not just that it’s a cliché; it’s also ridiculous. Let’s test it. How many three-year-old children know what in personam rights are? If you have been interested in law for a long time then fair enough, but your views on the subject should have matured and changed since then. The reasons for being passionate about law now should be very different from those you had even three or four years ago. The admissions tutor is interested in your views today.
Pour mes vacanes, je suis allé en France
I have a theory. If Martians landed in the UK and went to a local school wishing to learn about French culture, they would come away thinking that all the French were interested in was their holidays, the environment and the film Jules et Jim. Subjects at school, narrow and repetitive in their content, often bear little resemblance to the equivalent one studied at university. This is especially the case with law which applicants have rarely studied at school.
You should ensure that you have researched the course in detail. All law courses are remarkably similar: certain subjects (contract law, tort law, criminal law) are compulsory. Despite this, few applicants mention them explicitly. If you want to read law, you need to show some knowledge of the content of the course you will be studying.
Applicants also often draw tenuous links between subjects they have studied at A-Level and law. “The study of biology has prepared me to study law” is a common phrase but, again, is somewhat illogical. One can create tenuous links between the two subjects: both involve reading; both involve learning facts; both demand hard work to do well… but then, so do most subjects.
Talking about the substance of law is a far better use of the limited space. In any event, the admissions tutor can see your subjects and grades elsewhere on the UCAS form. If you have loads of A*s at GCSE and strong ASs, that itself will show them your strong academic ability better than your own descriptions.
The Duke of Edinburgh Award fallacy
My old tutor at Oxford once told me that as soon as she reaches the part of the personal statement which starts “I have achieved silver in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award…” she stops reading. Her view is that extra-curricular activities, in sports or music or charity, tell her absolutely nothing about students’ capacity to do her subject.
More interesting is to see how an applicant has engaged with a subject outside of the school curriculum. What lectures have you attended? What books have you read? To which magazines do you subscribe? Have you been along to court for the day to watch a trial? Have you done work experience with some lawyers? What are your views on the hot legal topics of today: the Legal Aid cuts; Scottish independence; high-profile celebrity rape allegations?
Showing an in-depth and informed understanding of these issues is more impressive than listing the tries you have scored or the oratorios you have sung. “But,” candidates say, “getting into the first VX shows I am hard-working and committed.” Nope. It shows you like rugby. Having taken the time to research international law and developing views on Abu Hamza’s deportation shows your commitment to reading law and your hard work.
A crime of passion
For Oxford and Cambridge, the personal statement is a gateway which convinces the admissions tutor to give you an interview. At its heart, it needs to show the tutor you are passionate about your subject. But, as UCAS’s clichés list above shows, avoid the word “passion”. Your personal statement should show you’re passionate, not tell the tutor that you are. That is the true sign of a Renaissance man.
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.