Personal Statement: (noun) def. The UCAS personal statement is a 47 line (or 4000 character) piece of writing that allows you to tell the universities and colleges you are applying to why they should offer you a place on the course.
And by the time I was writing about the “natural ménage à trois between philosophy, the written word and, increasingly, my own inspirations” I’d realised not only that I wasn’t sure I even wanted to do philosophy at university, but that I wasn’t really taking this whole ‘Personal Statement’ thing seriously. In fact, I was pretty smug about it. I was enjoying wrapping my newly extravagant tongue around ‘inexorable’ and ‘zeal’, plundering the Microsoft Word thesaurus so I could sound like an ‘immutably and unreservedly tremendous candidate’ and inwardly laughing at all the poor souls who would have to do this for real…….Oh ‘insert-most-indubitably-eloquent-curse-word-here’. That would be me.
Because if I, if anyone, wants to go to college or university they must do what they’ve been taught should be avoided. They must shimmy into the short-shorts of concise advertising, pull on the skimpy top of over-hyped enthusiasm, slap on the lipstick of twenty-seven-times-perfected-wording, buckle up heels of self-revelling and prepare to strut the crowded pavements of the UCAS (or any other) application process. And I thought a university education was supposed to prevent people from selling themselves on the streets.
Okay, so I might be being just a little overdramatic. But it does seem odd that young people who- as bright, Bambi-eyed receptioners- listened so dutifully to assemblies on the perils of selfishness, gloating and “embellishing the truth” now have to amp up their attributes and flourish their feats. It’s a dance with the devil, in his many forms, for a whole 47 lines. And whilst it might sound fun, being the ringmaster of your own circus: ‘Roll up, roll up. Come and see the greatest Portsmouth/ Warwick/ Bath Spa University candidate on earth’ for many, for me, it’s not easy.
Especially because, on that busy, bustling pavement, applicants don’t just have to sell themselves: they have to sell themselves correctly…From my experience it seems that there are three pillars of good Personal Statement writing. A Personal Statement has to be True, it has to be Baby Bear’s Porridge, and it has to be original. Now…that’s going to be one difficult ménage à trois…
This one seems the easiest. All I have to do is refrain from outright lying and resist how deliciously fun it is to try and sound like I go to boarding school; sip delightful lemon tea; take the yacht out with Ma and Pa during the summer season, Oh! And utterly relish the deliberation of resuming my edification at your establishment…..However ‘truth’ is a tenuous word when it comes to personal statements. Let’s be honest: how many of us really yearn to, above all else, become part of a dynamic community of geologists? How many of us wake up, buzzing and electric, at the cherished thought of historical analysis? How many of us really, truly love, and prioritise, our subjects as much as we’ll claim we do? I know that I for one could never candidly say the study of….well; anything really has taken my breath away. But I could write a great 47 lines about the fizzy, static feeling I get; the moment the lights go down; before a band takes to the stage at a concert.
It’s a little bit like when the young Tributes, in Suzanne Collin’s ‘The Hunger Games’, must present their abilities to the Gamemakers in what’s called a Private Session. Obviously there’s more free choice and less imminent slaughter for the average university applicant, but the point i’m making is that whilst Cato from District 2’s true passion and mastery may be for the subtle art of knitting he’d never dream of showing this off in his PS (acronym for Private Session or Personal Statement; see what I did there?) because, as with much of the UCAS application process; whilst the mantra is ‘show them what you can do’ there’s still a multitude of rules. You still have to play the game. This leads us nicely onto-
Baby Bear’s Porridge
It’s a well known story. Daddy bear’s porridge is too hot. Mummy bear’s porridge is too cold. But good old baby bear’s porridge is Just Right. Likewise, a Personal Statement must be simmered and stirred and tentatively tasted; thrown out and strained out and tweaked with sugar and spices before it has any chance of being declared suitable to pass through Goldilocks’ lips. A writer must enlist the help of: past successes, fellow students, parents, teachers, dinner ladies, spell checks, more reliable spell checks, strangers, librarians. They must have their PS approved, approved and approved again until they are absolutely sure it conforms, exactly, to the correct recipe. But how on earth does that work with-
Philosophy: ‘I’m just sending in a blank page!” Maths: ‘Mine’s all in code!’ English: ‘I wrote it as if I was Tess of the d’Urbervilles!’ Original is, for me, the free-spirited attractive figure; brought down by the two more conservative elements of the relationship. Although I’m sure the three of them spent many happy applications together, intertwined and iridescent in those 4ooo characters there have now been so many Personal Statements, so many little romances, that True and Baby B’s Porridge have started backing Original into a corner. And it’s so much easier, so much ‘safer’, if candidates let them constrain her. If they turn their applications inside out; until any colour is hidden. One m0re for the Tributes out there… Peeta: (writing his Personal Statement) If I’m going to Leeds, I want to still be me. Katniss: I want to go to Oxford….I just can’t afford to think like that.
So, here I am with a slightly rambling post and…Erm…about 47 lines of my Personal Statement still to do. It seems an arduous and fallible process but, to be fair, I can’t see any better way for people to apply to universities. How else are they supposed to know which candidates are the best fit for the course they offer? There simply isn’t time to interview everybody. Still, I worry that the writing of Personal Statements has become a course in itself, some art and science double honours thing in which applicants are tutored, tailored; they study, they stress and I worry that what comes out at the end isn’t passion; but performance.
I want mine to be different. I want mine to be ‘from-the-heart’ and firebrand. But I also want it to be What They’re Looking For. So where do I go from here?
If only we could all fire an arrow at the Gamemakers, yet still score a stunning eleven…