Tips and Tricks for the Personal Statement
Welcome back to another blog post in our Oxbridge Resources series! Following our blog post on the non-academic opportunities available, we will now be giving you some advice on how to write an amazing personal statement that will make you stand out. Although Hogwarts doesn’t require a written application, unfortunately for you, Oxbridge alongside other medical schools does in the form of the UCAS application, which includes the daunting personal statement! We will break down the do’s and don’ts of writing your personal statement, as well as directing you towards useful resources and examples. So, without further ado, let’s get started!
Why is the personal statement so important?
Personal statements can differentiate you from other applicants as most have strong GCSE grades and A-Level predictions, alongside stellar references. Therefore, your personal statement is your chance to stand out from the crowd and give an insight into why medical schools should choose you. This does not mean that you need to write a weird and wacky personal statement, but one that is unique and effective in portraying your interest and experiences in medicine so far.
Your personal statement might serve as a great starting point at interview, easing you into a situation which you might initially find nerve-wracking. Your personal statement will both allow you to demonstrate your passion for medicine and discuss some academic subjects you might be interested in, allowing you to come across as an enthusiastic, well-informed applicant.
Ground rules for the personal statement?
You may be surprised to find out that there are no hard and fast rules as to how you should write your personal statement. However, a few key points you should try to answer are:
- Your motivation: what sparked your interest, and why do you want to study medicine?
- How have you gone about gaining a realistic insight into medicine?
- What makes you a suitable candidate to study medicine?
- What skills have you witnessed a healthcare team/professional demonstrate?
- How have you demonstrated these skills yourself?
- You should aim to show your enthusiasm and motivation through detailed examples of how you have explored medicine beyond the A-Level syllabus. For instance, by extra reading, through work experience or attendance on extra-curricular courses.
- How will you be able to cope with the challenges of medicine – i.e. do you have a work-life balance?
- For Oxbridge, they also tend to like a more academic paragraph as they are research-heavy universities that like to teach on a stronger scientific foundation; this by no means that the whole personal statement should be academic however and you should strike a balance!
Finally, although it is not specified anywhere, you must prioritise quality over quantity. Rather than listing activities that you have partaken in, you should think carefully and reflect upon what experiences have been of most value and have provided you with the best insight. You should then expand on these in detail and link the skills you have witnessed from the experience to ones you already have and are currently building.
It also goes without saying that your punctuation and grammar needs to be spot on in your final draft as otherwise, it will look quite sloppy handing in a personal statement that doesn’t read well. Of course, it won’t be perfect the first time around, so don’t worry about this until right at the end after you have got all the content down and are beginning to format!
How to get started?
Getting started might be one of the hardest parts of writing your personal statement as you may feel like there is so much for you to do, and you may not know where to start!
A way that can help you organise your thoughts is by writing a list of experiences and linking them to the skills and qualities of a doctor. You can check these skills and qualities of a doctor on the Good Medical Practice (GMP) to try and see what skills they are looking for and use it as a template, or even use the medical schools’ selection criteria on their websites.
The link to the GMP is as follows: https://www.gmc-uk.org/ethical-guidance/ethical-guidance-for-doctors/good-medical-practice
Once you have done this, we would advise you to start whittling down your list to the experiences you feel are most versatile and show that you have demonstrated many of the skills and qualities of a doctor and this will allow you to go into more detail and provide the most coherent paragraph. You need to bear in mind that you will probably not be able to fit in everything you want into your personal statement, so prioritising the key experiences that you can expand upon easily is helpful.
How to structure your personal statement
Once you have thought about what you want to include in your personal statement and the skills that you have demonstrated and seen in your various experiences, it is crucial to tie these points together and follow a rough structure such that flows well.
We would advise that you write your personal statement in chronological order, starting with what initially drew you into medicine to how you went about gaining a realistic insight and finally talking about how you have demonstrated that you have the skills and qualities required of a doctor/healthcare professional.
Although the thing that “sparked” your interest will probably be personal, typically the main reasons people mention are a personal/family experience involving healthcare teams, a passion for the sciences and/or a desire to help other people. Even though these are typical reasons for people choosing to study medicine, these are by no means the only reasons, so don’t worry if you have something else that ignited your passion for medicine and feel free to mention it if it’s appropriate!
From there, it is important to realise that what you have mentioned in your introduction was only the start of your decision to study medicine and subsequently you have gone onto gain a realistic insight via an accumulation of experiences. This would be an appropriate place to start talking about what you witnessed at work experience and volunteering. Do not only describe what you saw but mainly show how you have reflected upon these experiences and learnt about the skills and qualities a doctor demonstrates.
This could have then gone on to inspire you to further research a particular topic and would be effective to include as it shows how you have taken the initiative to further your initial interest. This will allow you to show your passion for the sciences and research, especially if you link in some super curricular activities you have undertaken that have furthered your interest in medicine. This paragraph can be particularly important as for Oxbridge it is often the paragraph from which questions are asked, if any, regarding the personal statement as the admissions tutors may be interested in how you have demonstrated your passion for the sciences.
Following this, you can also mention other interests you might have, such as your extracurricular activities. You don’t need to go into them in depth unless you think they are relevant to your decision to study medicine. Their primary purpose is to show that you can keep a good work-life balance and have also developed key skills that you have noticed doctors and other healthcare professionals demonstrate, such as leadership, teamwork and communication.
Finally, you can add a brief conclusion that demonstrates you have gained a realistic insight through your experiences and reinforces the idea that you would make a good medical student and doctor. Having a conclusion is not strictly necessary, so it is up to you to decide whether you would like to include one. Both of us wrote a conclusion as we felt that it provided a strong and positive ending note to our personal statements and was effective in affirming our desire to pursue medicine!
Balancing what other medical schools are looking for vs Oxbridge
As you are probably not only applying to Oxbridge, but also to three other medical schools, you want to make sure that you balance what you write in your personal statement so that it appeals to all the medical schools you are applying to and is not too specific for Oxbridge (i.e. don’t make it all academic!).
As both Oxford and Cambridge follow a traditional course, focusing on the science underpinning medicine and research, you should talk about some academic research you may have done into a particular topic of medicine to show your passion for the sciences. We would recommend that you limit this to a single paragraph so that it doesn’t become overwhelming and you are also able to get across the other reasons why the medical schools should choose you. You could show a particular area of medicine you are interested in through super curricular activities you have undertaken. For example, EPQ, online courses, writing an article and research placements – we discussed this in more depth in our previous blog post regarding non-academic opportunities you can be undertaking during this time and the link to that blog is as follows: https://medicmentor.co.uk/oxbridge-non-academic-activities/
Although super-curriculars are important, it is still essential that you strike a balance between your academic and extracurricular activities. This is effective in demonstrating that you have a work-life balance and can also be useful in showing that you have already developed the skills you will be required to demonstrate as a future medic.
At the end of the day, medicine is a demanding career choice, and all medical schools, Oxbridge included, will be looking for someone who has a passion for medicine and is also capable of being resilient. A great way of showing that you have some tools for coping under pressure is by linking in an extracurricular activity that you enjoy which helps you destress. This is an effective way of showing your suitability for the course.
SAQ (Cambridge specific)
As you may have wanted to balance your personal statement such that it was suitable for all medical schools and not only Oxbridge, you may not have made your personal statement as academic as you may have wanted to. Don’t worry at all, as this is the case for most students.
Once Cambridge has received your application to the university through UCAS, they get back to you and ask you to fill a Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ). This is compulsory to fill out and is often asked to be returned a week after the deadline for your UCAS application to be submitted.
Most of the information is similar to that included in your UCAS application. Still, it also asks for what topics you have learnt as part of your A-Level courses thus far such that interviewers have an idea of what topics they can ask questions on at interview.
Moreover, there is a section where you can write an optional personal statement. It is important to realise that this is optional and there is no obligation whatsoever for you to write it and if you don’t, you won’t be penalised. That being said, if you feel there is something more you want to talk about (often academic) which will further demonstrate your passion for the sciences to the admissions tutors feel free to use this space. There is not too much space in the optional section, but it might be a useful opportunity to go into further detail with regards to your super-curricular activities, research projects etc.
We would definitely not recommend completing this section of the SAQ for the sake of it as the admissions tutors will probably tell if you are writing extra because you feel like you have to. Still, it can also be a useful area to discuss something you maybe couldn’t have gone into as much detail in, in your UCAS personal statement.
Reflection in your personal statement
Reflection is an essential part of medicine as it not only allows you to recognise your own strengths and weaknesses but also to learn much more effectively from your experiences. By reflecting in your personal statement, you can demonstrate that you have obtained a realistic insight into medicine and are aware of the skills you will be required to show as a medical student and doctor.
A way to reflect on your personal statement is using Gibbs reflective cycle, which is a structure that can help you organise and develop upon your learning experiences. This will help you expand on your experiences in a way that is specific to you and can be useful in helping you stand out, showing that you have clearly given some thought into why you would be a suitable applicant to medical school.
Additionally, at interview, it is effective to structure your answer by using the STARR technique. We will expand on this later in a future blog post but for your convenience have given you an idea of what it is by providing an explanation of the abbreviation!
S – Situation
T – Task
A – Action
R – Result
R – Reflection
There are some common mistakes you may make along the way, so we will point them out so that you can avoid them and write a high-quality, balanced personal statement. They are as follows:
- It is important to prioritise quality over quantity and go into detail about what you learnt from the examples you have mentioned.
- We wouldn’t recommend you to focus excessively on your school grades as this is not the point of the personal statement and instead you should discuss why your various experiences show you are a strong applicant. These can instead be mentioned in other areas of your application, such as in your teacher’s reference. We have gone into more detail about this later on in this blog.
- Don’t make it seem as if you have been lazy when arranging work experience. Instead of stating that someone arranged work experience for you, you should mention that you took the initiative to further your interests.
- Concentrating too much on future career plans. Don’t delve into a specific speciality unless that is something that sparked your interest in medicine in general.
- Saying statements using ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. Even though you might have worked in a team in various activities, you want to make sure that you state your specific involvement and contribution to demonstrate the skill sets you have to offer.
- Not evidencing your claims. If you make a statement about yourself, such as ‘I am a good leader’, you can’t just leave it at that, but should instead explain and provide examples of where you have demonstrated this skill in your life.
- Plagiarising other personal statements or lying about your experiences. It is quite self-explanatory why you shouldn’t do this but honesty and being trustworthy is an important quality of a doctor so if you lie in your personal statement or reproduce work that is not yours this could lead to severe consequences.
- Remember to check your SPAG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar). It is important to do this; otherwise, your personal statement, which is a big chance to let yourself shine, would look sloppy.
- Name dropping. You don’t need to mention the names of the places where you did your work experience or volunteering, as this does not add value to your application and will cost you characters which you could use to say something else.
You may be wondering how the teacher’s reference is relevant to your personal statement. The teacher’s reference is an incredibly useful bit of your application that can often be underestimated and not used to its full potential. Inevitably, you will not be able to include all the points you want to make in your personal statement that you believe will make you stand out. Nevertheless, the teacher’s reference, which is not as limited for words, could be a perfect place for including the things you may have wanted to include but didn’t have the chance to in your personal statement.
We would recommend that you make a list of achievements or experiences that you were unable to include in your personal statement and then give this to the tutor that writes your reference. If you have an achievement for various subjects and different subject teachers contribute to your teacher’s reference, we would recommend that you write a list of accomplishments from across different subjects and give these lists to various subject tutors such that they can include these in their part of the reference.
Finally, the teacher’s reference could be a perfect place to talk about your extracurricular achievements that your teachers may be unaware of as often people don’t have enough space in their personal statement to go into detail about their achievements.
One of the aims of the Medic Mentor summer school is that every student completes their personal statement to a final draft standard. If you attend the summer school, you will have the fantastic opportunity to have medical students and doctors support you throughout 2+ intensive days writing your personal statement from scratch. This is not to say that you will not be writing your own personal statement, but that you will have the chance to receive immediate feedback and support as you go along. On top of this, the support you receive is not only limited to until summer school finishes, but you have the guidance of a mentor who has just been through the process, only an email away, which is very helpful!
As amazing as the summer school is, you shouldn’t worry that if you don’t attend it, your personal statement will not be good enough for the medical schools you are applying to. You will probably have to spend more time on it during the summer, but you can still produce a great personal statement by using some of the advice we have given you and asking for feedback – we will further discuss this below. The Medic Mentor team will still be more than happy to help guide and support you along the way if you remain proactive in asking for feedback.
Asking for feedback on personal statement
We would recommend that you send your personal statement off to as many reliable and helpful sources as possible. This could include anyone related or unrelated to the subject, different teachers from different subjects, medical students, doctors, and your family.
This can be really helpful so they can give you their thoughts on it and you can improve it every time you make a new draft. However, you should make sure to take their comments with a pinch of salt, as everyone will have different views and it’s up to you at the end of the day what you want to keep and want you to change. The most reliable sources to listen to are probably those who work in the medical profession. However, it is still useful to ask for the opinions of others, especially with regards to wording and the flow of what you have written.
How your personal statement is used at interview
Something worth bearing in mind whilst you are writing your personal statement is that anything you mention is fair game at interview, so the interviewers can ask you about it. They tend to do this at the start of the interview to ease you in, as you should know about the topics you have mentioned very well. Therefore, we recommend that you make sure you know your personal statement thoroughly and have read and reviewed any books you may have included beforehand in case they ask you about something from it.
For Oxbridge in particular, it is likely that if you have done a research placement it may be brought up as although the interview is predominantly science-based, it may be used to ease you in and would be an effective way to judge your passion for the sciences. The same is said for what you include in the SAQ in your Cambridge application so to make sure to have a thorough read of both and know them inside out before you go for your interview!
In this blog, we have covered a range of advice from how to get underway with writing your personal statement, to some useful tips on how to make you stand out and to how your personal statement will be used at interview. Writing your personal statement can be one of the hardest aspects of the application process, as you may want to make it perfect, but inevitably, you will always want to change and improve it. Nevertheless, we hope that the tips and tricks that we have discussed above will make this process easier and more straightforward.
As always feel free to comment down below and we will make sure to get back to you as soon as possible! We are planning on having our last Oxbridge Q&A session next week at 7pm BST, so we hope that you will join us then.
Finally, make sure to look out for our next blog post on the BMAT which we will hopefully be publishing sometime next week! We hope this blog has helped! 🙂