In 2004, I applied to read history at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and was accepted. I was recently digging through my old computer files and found the personal statement I used for my application. This was an especially interesting read for me, as having been involved in undergraduate admissions for history at Oxford for the past two years, I’ve read a fair few personal statements. I’m not sure if students nowadays receive more guidance, but the statements I’ve read seem to fit into a certain format that I certainly haven’t followed with my personal statement, which is distinctly – odd. My comprehensive school gave me no help other than suggesting I mention lots of extracurricular activities (wrong) so this may explain some of it, but I think I was being deliberately maverick as well.
This statement should certainly not be used as an example of anything, even though I was offered a place. It is probably a very good example, in fact, of how not to write a personal statement. Why am I posting it, then? Well, I think it’s easy, as an admissions tutor, to get very impatient with the cliches that many students trot out in these pieces of writing. As I wrote this piece, I know that some of the bits that seem most trite (‘we’re defined by the time we live in and everything that happens to us’) were the most heartfelt. The eighteen-year-old girl who wrote this frankly weird statement felt that she was addressing people who would really understand her academic interests for the first time, after feeling that nothing she cared about was really valued at school, either by her peers or by her teachers (although I had some fantastic teachers who were definitely an exception). I remember being excited about my Cambridge interview because I genuinely believed it would be a chance to talk about the things I loved (like everyone else, I was totally overcome with nerves when the time came, though!). I suppose I’m posting this for those who make the decisions, rather than those who are applying to university themselves, to say: be kind. Don’t judge too harshly.
It is not so much a question of why to choose to study history at university than of how it is possible to avoid it. It dawned on me a year ago that all subjects are history in one form or another, as everything is past unless it has this moment been discovered,[this is the worst part!] and so it seemed the best choice to bite the bullet and do history itself. Of course, it also helped that I love it.
I read so much and so often because I find it fascinating to get inside other people’s heads, and history is about that same thing, why people are the way they are and why they do the things they do. I can’t help having a personal philosophy which says to me that we’re defined by the time we live in and everything that happens to us. We’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives, and history lets us take a few steps away and try to see the influences which work on other people in other times.
I am particularly attracted to studying history at a higher level for the opportunity to examine a wider variety of time periods. My reading outside my A Level syllabus has focused around the role of women in the 19th century. This is partly because I’m two-thirds of the way through writing a novel which centres around a Victorian girl, and obviously want to make it as accurate as possible. However, as well as searching out the pernickety little details I needed, I was also interested by the way society changed over time in this period. I’ve enjoyed researching this in such depth, but now I would like to acquire a breadth of learning as well. I’ve chosen to research the early years of Elizabeth I for my coursework, and I particularly enjoyed studying The Liberal Party: 1899-1918 last year, as it was the first time I’d examined political history in depth.
I’ve always liked the idea of doing my own research, and I was lucky enough to be allowed to visit the Barnardos archives in Barkingside during the summer holidays, to research the Girls’ Village Home, one of Barnardo’s early projects. As I’ve located one of my characters there, I needed to get the details right. This was an amazing experience as it was the first time I’d really worked with primary source material, and I was allowed to look around the site and visit the photographic archives as well as the library.
Creative writing has always been my major hobby since I wrote my first ‘book’ at age six. It was about goblins.[I need to write another book about goblins.] Since then, I have won various competitions, including, most recently, third prize in the Christopher Tower Poetry Prizes, run by Christ Church College, Oxford, for which there were more than 800 entrants. Apart from writing, my other major hobby is drama, and I have been a member of the Theatre Royal Bath youth theatre for nine years. I love putting together productions and working with other enthusiastic people, and we’ve experimented with many different forms of drama in various workshops over the years, including stage fighting, circus skills, mask work, monologues and directing. This summer, I played Mrs Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady, which had audiences of over a thousand in total. This was a particular challenge as the performances were open air and often the weather conditions were rather adverse, but we managed to keep going. [This was obviously going to be extremely relevant for a history degree.] Amongst many other things, I have also taken part in the BT National Connections scheme, which involves productions of new plays by youth theatres throughout the country.
I enjoy debating and joined the debating club at my school for a chance to argue
legitimately. We have debated various topics, although due to uniformity of opinion, I often had to volunteer as devil’s advocate. I have also been known to help in the year seven history class, where I’ve liked observing the way history is taught to that age group and the way the pupils react to different approaches.
I will conclude this by reiterating my statement at the beginning; history is everything, and everything is history. Now, too, is this personal statement. [I honestly think I just got impatient with the concept of the personal statement at this point!]