How Being Too Honest Got Me Into Oxford

Being Too Honest Got Me Into Oxford. Let’s face it, personal statements are a massive pain. It can be extremely difficult to give an account of your achievements and qualifications without descending into dullness and cliché. This is especially true when you’re young, and thus perceived to be lacking in achievements anyway. This was certainly my position, when I was applying to study English at Oxford University. Desperate to stand out, I took a gamble in writing my personal statement, which I strongly suspect was the main reason I managed to get in.

My first sentence was ‘I have not read enough.’

The wisdom of this sentence may seem questionable. In looking back, I have often thought it was massively over-confident. But it was also honest. I was seventeen, and fully aware of the fact that I was not the world’s most well-read person. Importantly, I was also not expected to be. Demonstrating that kind of self-awareness, and being confident enough to say so up front, turned out to be something my future professors were looking for. (Although my statement did go on to detail the things I had read — the important thing was that I showed both honesty and competence).

A few months later, I was invited to interview. I strongly suspect this invite was entirely on the strength of my personal statement. I later found out that I had attained the precise average mark on my entrance exam, and my grades, while good, were far from straight A*s. I had managed to catch their eye, and this gave me a strong starting point for my interviews. Everyone who interviewed me ended up asking me about my personal statement, even at my aptitude test, which ostensibly had nothing to do with it.

When asked about the reasoning behind my statement, I gave the same answer I have given in this article. This answer, while greeted with laughter, was also met with a degree of respect, and a sense of mutual understanding. We both knew that my professors had read thousands of generic personal statements, and that by kicking off with something even slightly different, I had helped to make my application stand out.

And while I was, at that stage, far from being the next Samuel Johnson, I had at least read enough literature to know the importance of a good opening line.

The lesson here, and the one I have tried to apply to every personal statement I have written since, is two-fold. I learned how important it is to be transparent with potential employers. This makes for sensible working practice. If you are not quite up to a particular task, or require help in doing something, it is far more professional to put your hands up and admit you have a problem than it is to waste time attempting it on your own, in silence.

But more importantly, I learned the importance of being memorable, and how useful humour can be in a workplace environment. I’m not suggesting you turn your CV into a stand-up comedy set, but by displaying a sense of humour, and a degree of self-awareness, I was able to make a much stronger case for myself as a candidate.

When writing a personal statement, or any kind of application, never be afraid of your own personality. The process of applying yourself, whether for school, work, or voluntary positions, can be far more of a charm offensive than people realise. Do not be afraid to lean into that; it can give you a vital edge over other, more generic candidates.

Though it may also help to have read a bit, too.



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