Friday, 29 June 2012
UCAS: How NOT to Do It.
The other day I wrote and posted a fictional example of what I would really want to see in the UCAS personal statement of a candidate applying to read English at Oxbridge: the kind that makes us prick up our ears and anticipate an applicant of high quality and obvious talent. The main desiderata are: evidence of wide reading, an inquiring intelligence, critical skills, and curiosity. You can read it here.
I had a quick google and found hundreds of websites purportedly showing you how to put a personal statement together. Dismayingly, the ones for English were uniformly horrible; precious, pretentious, and content-light. Alas, I must report that this accurately reflects a high proportion of the sort of material Oxford receives every year, which fairly often are poorly spelled, ill-punctuated, or simply incoherent. So, again, I've written a wholly fictional example of how NOT to do it. I've probably read several hundred of these things, and a significant minority (a third? half?) actually are just like this. But to repeat: this is impressionistic, entirely authored by me, and not based on the work of any actual applicants. Unfortunately, it's also not in the least exaggerated, and though it makes for depressing reading I hope that someone out there will find it useful.
Miss Sandy Leah Muffett: PERSONAL STATEMENT
Miss Sandy Leah Muffett: PERSONAL STATEMENT
'Miss'? Is it 1809?
Since I became intrigued by the harrowing, callous, almost inconceivable horror of the brutality of the Holocaust when I was a tiny child,
First of all: what?! Second of all: WHAAAT?! Are we supposed to think Miss Muffett is an aspiring intellectual because of a cheap Holocaust reference? Poor taste. And WTF is the 'tiny child' stuff about? Are we supposed to believe this person was reading Hannah Arendt in her playpen?!
I have been filled with a coruscating passion to study English literature.
Spare us the flowery adjectives.
I read 'The Diary of Anne Frank' and its poignancy has shown me how English literature compells us to advance our morals and those of society.
Does it now...Incidentally, that tragic document wasn't written in English.
Intrigued and fascinated in addition by the broken numbness of poems such as Sylvia Plath's which i have enjoyed unpicking to see what they really mean,
Poems are, and mean, what they say: they are constituted by the language the poet deploys. They aren't a kind of code you have to crack to extract some banality. And which poems of Sylvia Plath?! Do all of them display numb brokenness? What even is that?!
I have become more and more convinced that my destiny is to study English, where I intend to examine all the ramifications of indifference and man's inhumanity to man.
Grandiose, inflated, meaningless...
I would deeply relish the chance to write about and discuss texts with people with similar enthusiasms.
'Relish' is a condiment. Keep it out of your UCAS form.
I am very interested indeed in symbolism and metaphor in Literature,
Wayward capitalisation...pointless 'indeed'...plus the heartsink feeling that the candidate would be unable to answer the question 'what is metaphor, then?' if I asked it in interview.
as in the poems of Carol Ann Duffy. This can likewise be noted in the poems of Jackie Kay, in which she tries to articulate what it was like to be adopted as a Lesbian.
Says NOTHING about Duffy. More wayward caps. Clunky venture into politics and identity. Kay wasn't 'adopted as a lesbian' (or even a 'Lesbian')---she was adopted as a child who grew up to be gay and who occasionally writes about it.
We are forced to empathise with a child's emotions and her perspective on the things which happen to her so that a child's perspective can effectively manipulate the reader's emotions.
A meaningless and convoluted sentence which rereading should have picked up. 'Forced'? And what about the jingling repetition of 'child', 'perspective' and 'emotions'? The applicant is not convincing me that they can pay close attention to language....
To me all literature and especially poetry is an intensely personal thing which is capable of carrying feelings more deeply and conveying them better than any other, which I see especially in Stephen King, whose utilisation of metaphor and imagery impresses me deeply.
Where to begin? Questions I might ask about this gloriously dim statement: 'Does poetry never play a public, political role, if it's so intensely personal?' 'Can prose not convey deep emotion too?' And don't even bother mentioning Stephen King when applying for one of the most intense and challenging English Literature degrees in the world.
I am an enthusiastic actress in my schools' musicals and this year I have written and will direct and star in the sixth form Revue. I also run a creative writing club for younger students and have recently attained my Duke of Edinburgh's Award (Bronze) which required me to work at weekends in an Old People's Home and to orienteer from Huntingdon to Abington.
I found this an immensely rewarding experienced which gave me an insight into the kind of strength of character we see in classic characters like 'Jane Eyre', and other classic characters.
So wandering over a fen with a compass and a soggy cheese sandwich helped you to understand the nineteenth cent...oh, never mind. More poor, repetitive, meaningless phrasing.
In particular Danny Boyle's 'Frankenstein' which drew links with my study of the Gothic.
Not a sentence. Frankenstein is by Mary Shelley: no distinction drawn between the novel and the theatrical adaptation. (Does the applicant realise they are different?) And what does the vague, spongy 'drew links with' mean? No sign of critical acuity here.
My various interests all come together in a love of words---words which are the best way to understand the experience of people living in past eras, and the way I spend much of my time outside of formal Education is in Reading.
For someone who purportedly loves words there is little evidence that the applicant can deploy them. Wayward capitalisation leads to another clanger: Reading has a lovely shopping centre though...
On a personal level I am diligent and highly focussed,
To quote Orlando: 'I find no evidence of that in your conversation'.
witness my Grade 8 ballet and the great deal of knowledge I have gained from my History and Geography AS,
She's clearly never read an article on grade inflation if she thinks an AS imparts a 'great deal' of knowledge...
knowledge which has enthralled me with the 'Otherness' of different Societies.
I bet that if I ask "what do you mean by 'Otherness'?" the applicant won't be able to tell me. Note: I'm not expecting the ability to discuss Lévinas here.
I can think of nothing I would enjoy or benefit from more than being part of a thriving intellectual community in which i could take my study of English to the highest level.
I would cherish the chance to be considered by you.
Sigh. The trouble is we would probably interview this candidate: she would score poorly for this UCAS statement, but the ELAT test and the essay sent in might both do reasonably well, pushing her by force of mathematics above the parapet beneath we we do not summon for interview. (Unless she is the first person in her family to apply for university or if she comes from a 'deprived' school, in which case Oxford interviews automatically.) But, to be frank, this type of statement---simultaneously self-promoting and vapid---is characteristic of white, middle class, goodish-school mediocrities. Dismally, it is entirely possible for the kind of applicant who writes this badly to have 11 A*s at GCSE and to come garlanded with teachers' praises.