Many students find writing their Oxford personal statement the most daunting, challenging part of the process. So, to help you, here is an example personal statement – my own, which helped get me a place studying Maths and Philosophy.
I've broken it down into sections so I can explain why I wrote each bit and so, as an applicant for either a humanities subject, a mathematical/scientific subject, or an Oxford joint degree (like me!), you can find the parts relevant to you.
Example Personal Statement Section 1: A unique interest
During a Kent County Youth Orchestra rehearsal, playing Part's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, I was struck by the vast influence and significance of mathematics. This beautifully poignant piece, solely reliant on mathematical ratios and patterns, widened my view of mathematics and its effect on numerous disciplines. Based on a simple divergent series, Part's composition showed me that sometimes the beauty of mathematics lies in simplicity.
An Oxford personal statement has to stand out, so I thought it would make sense to begin mine with something unique to me. I showed my extra-curricalar interests – "a Kent County Youth Orchestra rehearsal" – and showed how, even when engaging with other things, I was always interested in the mathematics behind them.
Example Personal Statement Section 2: How I acted on this
This was reiterated to me when I began investigating proofs, such as the fascinating Euclidean proof of the infinitude of primes and the proof of the irrationality of the square root of two. I was truly amazed to see that such simple and succinct proofs can have such resonances throughout mathematics. Bearing in mind this cross-fertilisation of mathematics into so many disciplines and having been inspired by a masterclass run by RIM on "music and juggling", I have completed my EPQ on "whether music based on a mathematical structure is more satisfying."
I showed here how I developed this personal interest of mine, showing my engagement with the subject and how I didn't simply discover ideas but also developed them. I tried to use specifics in my personal statement, instead of simply saying "proofs," I named which proofs in particular.
This proved fruitful for me, as in one of my Oxford maths interviews I was asked a follow up question regarding the infinitude of the primes. I also showed that I had taken this interest to the next level, by writing an EPQ on it.
Example Personal Statement Section 3: My EPQ:
Looking at more Part music, observing the clean and simple use of symmetry, as well as observing Mozart's subtle use of the Fibonacci sequence, I wrote my own piece, and varied it imitating their techniques, which I then tested on a sample group.
I then simply gave a synopsis of my EPQ, wary of using too many characters and also hoping to leave myself something to talk about in my interviews if they were to ask.
They didn't ask me any questions about my EPQ, but I know that for some of my friends applying to other universities, they had their offers lowered due to their EPQ. Even if it does not affect your offer, if you get the opportunity to do one it is a brilliant process which mimics the independent research crucial to study at university.
Example Personal Statement Section 4: A Mathematical Focus:
However, for me, the most beautiful parts of mathematics lie in the limitless, which has sparked my particular love for the infinitude of numbers. Having been introduced to some basic ideas of the concept of infinity at a lecture, I developed my ideas further through reading Stewart's "From Here to Infinity", which details the laws of the limitless. I then watched an enthralling lecture, showing some powerful Cantorian proofs of infinity.
I continued my investigations through the harmonic series, gaining huge satisfaction from the integral test, which inspired me to further my knowledge of the incomprehensibly-sized elements of mathematics by completing an online course on calculus. This allowed me to begin to use implicit differentiation, the product and chain rules, giving me the tools to start manipulating more complex functions and solve differential equations.
I think it is important to keep your personal statement focused upon the subject you are applying to, especially with Oxbridge applications, where they are less interested in extra-curricular involvement. I thus explored in depth my favourite areas of mathematics, mentioning lectures I'd been to, courses I had done and books I had read.
If you have an interest in Maths and Philosophy at Oxford, I would definitely recommend reading "From Here to Infinity" mentioned above.
Example Personal Statement Section 5: The Link
The only discipline which seems comparable to mathematics in terms of the enormity of scale and its abstract nature is philosophy.
It is difficult, in joint honours personal statements to make a clear link between the two disciplines. I tried to link philosophy into my love of maths throughout the beginning of my personal statement, with the references to infinity, and just used one simple connecting sentence between them.
For another example of a maths joint honours personal statement, see this Oxford maths and computer science personal statement example.
If I were to do my personal statement again, with the knowledge of a second year student, I would consider investigating set theory and logic further, as this is one of the core intersections at play between maths and philosophy.
Example Personal Statement Section 6: Philosophy and Literature
Studying English, I have always had a passion for literature and words and this has fuelled my interest in philosophy. I began to see how philosophy could unlock meanings in various texts, including ontological issues in "Frankenstein", and existential questions in "Hamlet", as well as the way in which Hamlet's soliloquies interrogate the idea of the inner self, a concept mirrored in Hume's later writing. Reading "Sophie's World" I took pleasure in the overt connection between the ludicrous philosopher's tea party and Nagel's theory of the absurd in human life, which I found one of the most memorable extracts from Hanfling's compilation "Life and Meaning".
It is not crucial that you study Philosophy at A-Level if you are applying to do a joint honours with philosophy included at Oxford. However, I wanted to express my capability with words and grasp of literature, so I used English as a lead in to this, and then went on to explore philosophical texts I had enjoyed. If you do any essay-based subject at A-Level, this could form a similar link in your personal statement.
The book I mention above, "Sophie's World", is a humorous guide through all of philosophy, which I highly recommend reading if you want to further your love and understanding of philosophy.
Example Personal Statement Section 7: More about Philosophy
I completed an online philosophy course, with 97%, taking a particular interest in epistemology, which led me to read "The Philosophy of Mind". I am constantly trying to widen my philosophical knowledge; I have been captivated by Plato's "The Republic" and Descartes' "Meditations", as well as listening to podcasts on relativism, beauty and scepticism.
Although I focused predominantly on maths for the most part of my personal statement, due to that being the discipline I was already more familiar with, I detailed some specific areas of philosophy I had enjoyed reading. I was not quizzed on these in my philosophy interview, but did find the reading I had previously done hugely useful when engaging my interviewer in philosophical debate.
The online course I completed was with Coursera, and I would highly recommend their courses, as they look great on an Oxford personal statement and are so interesting and engaged.
Example Personal Statement Section 8: Extra-Curricular
The self-discipline I have learnt through the meticulous nature of solving a mathematical problem I have channelled into being an officer in the CCF, and into the expeditions of my Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award. I recently spent a month in Borneo completing my jungle warfare training, and volunteering, where I taught mathematics in a school, enabling me to see that, when there is no common language, communication is still possible through the medium of numbers.
Although I did not focus much on the extra-curricular side of things, I mentioned shortly at the end some of the other things I enjoy doing. However, I linked it back to mathematics at the end, as ultimately, for your Oxbridge application, they are only interested in your capabilities at the subject. I had no personal or extra-curricular based questions in any of my interviews, and I have not heard of anyone who did.
Example Personal Statement Section 9: The (inevitably cheesy) Conclusion
I feel I have only scraped the surface of these two hugely influential disciplines, and I am keen to pursue mathematics and philosophy further, as I strive for a deeper understanding of the incomprehensible elements of the world.
I spent many a sleepless night debating how to conclude my personal statement. However, I decided on something honest, if a little over-sentimental, that expressed my love of the subject and showed my willingness to further explore it.
I used this youtube video a lot when constructing and formatting my personal statement, as it offers more useful advice, and really helped me with the introduction and conclusion:
One final word: It's not worth the lie
It is very tempting to lie on your personal statement. To pretend you've read what you haven't, understand what you don't and have explored concepts you haven't. But you will just get caught out. Especially applying to Oxbridge, where they can easily catch you out in interview, you're only shooting yourself in the foot.
Why say you understand quantum mechanics, giving them reason to give you interview questions on quantum mechanics, when in reality you're just really good at number theory, and could have aced those questions?
Hopefully from my maths and philosophy personal statement example, you can get some idea of relevant books and resources to explore and include in yours.
- Remember to only include books if you have actually read them and are comfortable talking about them.
- Try to find a niche that you are interested in; for example, mine was the crossover of mathematics and music.
- Do not stress to much about finding the link between your two subjects for a joint honours degree.
- Do not focus too much on extra-curricular stuff for Oxbridge applications, and try to always link it back to your subject.
That said, it can also help to remember that your personal statement is not the be all and end all of everything. Especially for Oxbridge applications, a process which comprises many parts, it is simply one part of the jigsaw puzzle.