Wednesday, 27 June 2012

UCAS Personal Statement


I've just spent the day doing Open Day meetings with potential applicants to my college for English, who were quite naturally particularly anxious about what to put on the UCAS Personal Statement. I thought I'd do something constructive and show what I would actually like to see from a sixth-form student applying to read English. So here's a fantasy UCAS form, with a commentary explaining why it is as eye-catching as it is. Just to be clear: I wrote this myself in the style that a VERY good Oxbridge applicant might just about muster. This represents the work of no actual candidate, and is merely one individual don's view of the features which would announce an applicant to be potentially top-drawer.


* * *

Jo Hertford: PERSONAL STATEMENT

Reading literature is my passion, and I'm keen to study English in order to broaden and deepen my knowledge and my engagement with literary cultures.

At school I've been studying Othello, and as an AS psychology student I was particularly struck by the range of emotional and psychic extremes in the play: Othello's induced jealousy and insecurity (very different from that of Leontes in The Winter's Tale), Desdemonda's hero-worship, Iago's terrifying manipulativeness and bleak sociopathy. I've become aware of how intricately these emotional contours are tied to and constituted by the different registers of language: when Othello tells Desdemona about his adventures, the bombastic language echoes Marlowe; as he smothers her, it anticipates Milton in its mixture of learned polysyllables and stern monosyllables. I've not seen Othello on the stage but I have had some exposure to Shakespeare live by visiting the Globe Theatre. Last year I saw The Tempest and I followed this up by reading the play and watching two very different film adaptations of Shakespeare's text: the painterly Prospero's Books by Peter Greenaway, which I found confusing though beautiful, and Julie Taymor's version with Helen Mirren as a gender-switched 'Prospera', which I felt was the less artistically successful of the two.

Beyond Shakespeare, I've tried to increase my exposure to poetry in English. In school I've read Carol Ann Duffy but also some of D. H. Lawrence's poetry, in which I found the mixture of vivid images with a prosy, structureless style fascinating but frustrating. I've also read Derek Walcott's Omeros for A2 and I was interested in the way that it rewrites---indeed, radically reimagines---Homer, and so is itself a kind of epic of Caribbean identity, a recursive transplantation of a great western classic. (I'm aware that critics have also seen The Tempest as an early postcolonial text, with Caliban, who gets the most beautiful verse in the play, as a kind of enslaved native.) I've also read Wuthering Heights, which startled me with its constant violence (child mutilation, casual animal cruelty). I was interested to see that level of turbulence and brutality enclosed, 'nested' really, within a narrative structure of remarkable complexity and overlapping voices. To find out more about the Brontes I read Jane Eyre (and watched the recent adaptation), and then from that I went on to Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea---a novel which makes the (once again) Caribbean postcolonial subtext of Jane Eyre terrifyingly explicit. I'm currently reading Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies, which chimes well with my A2 study of Tudor history though I find the immersive first-person voice difficult to follow at times.

I'm conscious that some of the courses for which I've applied emphasise full period-coverage; I've not had much exposure to medieval English literature yet, so I find this an exciting prospect. Last Christmas (fittingly enough in snowy weather) I read Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the beautiful, ironic perfection of the poem's structure---as well as its vivid picture of slightly callow courtly life---impressed me deeply. I went on to get Jane Draycott's exquisite version of Pearl by the same poet, and though I got a lot from Bernard O'Donoghue's introduction I'm sure I was missing the deeper implications of this mysterious work, so I'd love to study it in the original.

In extracurricular terms I like singing and acting and going to the cinema; I'm an outgoing person and likely to flourish in a friendly and close-knit place. I'd be very grateful if you would consider my application.

* * *

Commentary


Jo Hertford: PERSONAL STATEMENT

Reading literature is my passion, and I'm keen to study English in order to broaden and deepen my knowledge and my engagement with literary cultures.

Completely straightforward, unshowy, and reasonable statement of fact. No artificial attempt to grab the reader's attention or impress, which usually backfires and sounds histrionic or vapid. ('Since I was a foetus I've been filled with a coruscating passion for English literature...')

At school I've been studying Othello, and as an AS psychology student I was particularly struck by the range of emotional and psychic extremes in the play: Othello's induced jealousy and insecurity (very different from that of Leontes in The Winter's Tale), Desdemonda's hero-worship, Iago's terrifying manipulativeness and bleak sociopathy.

Gets straight on with it. Attractively written, alerts us to other AS/A2s beyond English and shows that the applicant can think about the links between subjects. Unusual Shakespeare play dropped in, and rather sweetly demonstrates in parentheses the crucial ability to make thoughtful comparisons BETWEEN plays. Lots of potential questions here.

 I've become aware of how intricately these emotional contours are tied to and constituted by the different registers of language: when Othello tells Desdemona about his adventures, the bombastic language echoes Marlowe; as he smothers her, it anticipates Milton in its mixture of learned polysyllables and stern monosyllables. 

Ties it down to language and intimate knowledge of the play; the observations come from Harold Bloom, but the candidate has the sense not to mention him.

I've not seen Othello on the stage but I have had some exposure to Shakespeare live by visiting the Globe Theatre. 

Anticipates obvious question.

Last year I saw The Tempest and I followed this up by reading the play and watching two very different film adaptations of Shakespeare's text: the painterly Prospero's Books by Peter Greenaway, which I found confusing though beautiful, and Julie Taymor's version with Helen Mirren as a gender-switched 'Prospera', which I felt was the less artistically successful of the two.

Striking: shows excellent engagement and capacity for extracurricular reading. Lovely to hear about adaptations of Shakespeare and the plays in performance. Nicely directs us to questions the candidate would like to answer. ('Tell us more about why you thought...')

Beyond Shakespeare, 

aware of importance of variety

I've tried to increase my exposure to poetry in English. In school I've read Carol Ann Duffy but also some of D. H. Lawrence's poetry, in which I found the mixture of vivid images with a prosy, structureless style fascinating but frustrating.

Interesting, unusual: gone from Shakespeare to the 20th century: bearing out the earlier comment about breadth.

 I've also read Derek Walcott's Omeros for A2 and I was interested in the way that it rewrites---indeed, radically reimagines---Homer, and so is itself a kind of epic of Caribbean identity, a recursive transplantation of a great western classic. (I'm aware that critics have also seen The Tempest as an early postcolonial text, with Caliban, who gets the most beautiful verse in the play, as a kind of enslaved native.) 

Well written: shows the candidate has read a very unusual text, anticipates obvious question ('How does it adapt Homer and why?'), and also shows that the candidate is capable of reading either the introduction to her Arden text of The Tempest or looking at the wikipedia page. Demonstration of awareness of critical traditions.

I've also read Wuthering Heights, which startled me with its constant violence (child mutilation, casual animal cruelty). I was interested to see that level of turbulence and brutality enclosed, 'nested' really, within a narrative structure of remarkable complexity and overlapping voices. 

Away from drama and poetry to the novel: again, wide-ranging and engaged. Lifts us out of the level of plot-recitation by commenting on narrative structure.

To find out more about the Brontes I read Jane Eyre (and watched the recent adaptation), and then from that I went on to Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea---a novel which makes the (once again) Caribbean postcolonial subtext of Jane Eyre terrifyingly explicit. 

Capable of following own intellectual lead: more novels, awareness of intertextuality. (Also demonstrated in discussion of Omeros.) Evidently a wide reader: excellent.

I'm currently reading Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies, which chimes well with my A2 study of Tudor history though I find the immersive first-person voice difficult to follow at times.

Keeps abreast of contemporary literature; links between subjects studied again.

I'm conscious that some of the courses for which I've applied emphasise full period-coverage; 

capable of reading a website...

I've not had much exposure to medieval English literature yet, 

Sweet! And honest, without great reams of self-promotion...

so I find this an exciting prospect. Last Christmas (fittingly enough in snowy weather) I read Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the beautiful, ironic perfection of the poem's structure---as well as its vivid picture of slightly callow courtly life---

very observant

impressed me deeply. I went on to get Jane Draycott's exquisite version of Pearl by the same poet, and though I got a lot from Bernard O'Donoghue's introduction I'm sure I was missing the deeper implications of this mysterious work, so I'd love to study it in the original.

Humble, and yet learned and observant. Has now demonstrated reading in four periods, in multiple genres, an ability to write, clear analytical power, and an attention to the way texts reflect or speak to one another. Exemplary.

In extracurricular terms I like singing and acting and going to the cinema; I'm an outgoing person and likely to flourish in a friendly and close-knit place. I'd be very grateful if you would consider my application.

Keeps the non-English stuff to an absolute minimum; sensibly, as it is barely relevant to anything. Clean, adult, straight-up close, without any frothing, fawning, or flummery.

7 comments:

Cerdo said...

I would be worried if Jo was currently reading "Bringing up the Bodies" especially as the title is "Bring up the Bodies", and I have my first edition signed by Ms. Mantel right in front of me to prove my eyes aren't deceiving me. Sorry, couldn't resist, my facetious side took over.

Some of "Jo" writes and claims would make me somewhat skeptical. Do many schools encourage the reading of, say, The Pearl, after reading Armitage's lively translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? But then again, it's been a while since I did my A-levels so...

That said, I do prefer the Armitage translation over the Tolkien one I was made to read, back in the day alongside Orfeo (which I love), Piers Plowman, etc.

Bo said...

whoops! Changed. But it added verisimilitude. No---but an interested 6th former hoping to read English at Oxford could easily find Pearl (and Draycott) via wikipedia.

Anonymous said...

This is great and I am sure it will be very helpful to anxious candidates. One point though: if this is for the UCAS statement then it will be seen by all the institutions to which "Jo" applies. For that reason it is not advisable for the statement to make such specific references to the Oxford syllabus or to Lazarus College. I am sure all will work out well for "Jo" but just in case it doesn't there is no need for her second choice of institution to know that it is the second choice.

Bo said...

yes indeed! I wonder if I should tweak it. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Interesting. At this time of year I get dumped with the task of writing "subject references" for each one of my AS students. It is, by quite a long straw, the most tedious stretch of the academic treamill - and its not surprising that I spent more or less the whole of today writing an impressive but essentially pointless piece of software merely to avoid/postpone this hateful labour.

Some might judge me mean in spirit to not relish the opportunity of singing the praises of students from rooftops. But the terrible truth is that some of my charges are just utterly unexceptional. I'd be happy to make a list of what any given individual can or cannot do. But to produce 500 words of gushing praise ("individualised" and not "generic") for someone whose name you can barely remember is, for me at least, an acutely uncomfortable and tawdry experience.

I especially dislike the whole mealy-mouthed protocol of the personal reference - no negative comments permitted, or (worse still) the understanding that negative comments are to be mediated "between the lines - in what you don't say." Maybe its my auty, literalistic tendencies asserting themselves, but I absolutely despise this sort of thing. I would rather give a sincere reference, or no reference at all - it that too much to ask?

Rather like the weight of expectation that every student must be accorded some kind of "achievement" (what senior management mean here is that they want and expect an 100% pass rate). Sorry, but no. I take the old fashioned view that qualifications represent a form of quality control (the clue is in the name). Part of my job, as well as preparing and nuturing those who are capable of academic and professional progression, is to flag up those who - with the best will in the world - are simply not going to cut the mustard (more often through a want of motivation rather than ability) Employers and universities deserve to know if this is the case.

At the Further Education college where I am employed there only one individual who was awarded no grade whatsoever at the end of the academic year 2010/2011 - and I am proud to say that it was one of my students. Harsh as it may seem to some, I do not hand out qualifications to those who have done nothing but smoke skunk weed and play World of Warcraft for two years. I should perhaps also point out for the record that I also turn out a number of students who leave this place with 400+ UCAS points. The difference is that in their case they have earnt it. Discrimination? Too bloody right. That is my job as an assessor.

Bo said...

Anonymous: hurray for you! This is music to my ears. I must also say that I cannot remember distinctly a single teacher's reference that I've ever read on a UCAS form. Obviously every year we read them but, as you say, the form is alas a generic one.

Dan said...

Besides, he sounds a dish.

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