Some shockingly good cake provision recently, which I have thus far neglected to record. Many thanks to all involved (and also to Hannah, whose lovely cake was eaten before it could get in front of the lens).
Enjoy till sobriety kicks in and I delete it…
Basic rule: Keep your language formal, but clear – and lean towards simplicity of expression.
EXCESS AND DEFICIENCY
The more common vice in PSs is that of excess. To put matters here in the form of a single rule: Don’t gush – that is to say, do not allow your enthusiasm to spill over into an implausible-sounding or embarrassingly strong display of emotion.
Gushing is complex, however – to the extent that it is very hard to give any comprehensive treatment of what is all right and what is not. A lot of it is a matter of taste and of context – and it is here that your DoS or other advisor can be of real use, in offering a more experienced view as to whether any particular form of words crosses the line.
Here, nonetheless, are a few pointers, divided under two headings – vocabulary and locution:
All of the following and their cognates, and all similarly charged vocabulary, should (in my view) be eliminated from all descriptions of your relations with your current or intended areas of academic study.
Pursuit of my dream
These are banned words and phrases because they are simply too gushing; if you use them in the PS you will unavoidably sound – essentially – as if you are trying too hard. They are for the most part exaggerated metaphors which are most frequently used to characterise romantic love; and they are for that reason of inappropriate register for a document of this kind. You’re making a university application on paper, not taking part in an audition for the leading role in [ ]. So don’t act, and don’t gush. You can (and should) come across as enthusiastic about your subjects while remaining formal.
If you need a simple rule, I would say that love is the limit: it is permissible to say that you ‘love(d)’ one your more of your subjects, or something else that you have done; but that that is the limit: all expression of any more intense emotion than that ought to be edited out. To be picky, I’m inclined to say that you’re really too young and inexperienced, as yet, to declare even love for your subject. But let that pass.
There are really at least two reasons;
The first is that it simply doesn’t ring true, at your age (or even, in fact, at mine (28)) to claim that you have a ‘passion‘ for Philosophy or any other subject. You may love it; but that’s the limit. Anything more than that and it’s actually counter-productive: in trying to assert a greater attachment to whatever it is, you in fact lose a bit of credibility: you will seem to be over-stating things in a way that sows a seed of doubt about your sincerity in the reader’s mind. Even if the reader is persuaded that you are sincere, you risk falling into the trap of seeming either arrogant, or (especially) naïve, if you make claim such emotionally charged statements in addressing a person with far more experience of the subject than you have.
The second is that, even if it is true, you ought to control the register of your language so that it is appropriate for a document of this kind; and that means toning it down.
There are other ways of gushing, besides mere misguided lexical selection; and these are equally to be avoided.
If, for example, you say that something you do or have done was ‘so wonderful’, or ‘so interesting’, or ‘so rewarding’ or ‘so thought-provoking’, then you are bound to be gushing.
I spent three weeks in the summer as an intern at Ernst & Young, which was so interesting
The problem is that these locutions – while fine in ordinary conversation as a way of expressing what may be perfectly sincere enthusiasm for something – are hand-waving gestures rather than categorical statements of an appropriate formality and precision for the kind of document that you are writing.
The point to notice is that the ‘so x’ locution is really an abbreviation of a longer form of expression (called a consecutive clause (because it specifies a consequence)): it’s incomplete: in the complete form, you say something like
the lemon tart was so delicious that I ate it all and immediately ordered another
my French teacher is such a beautiful and intelligent person that I can no longer sleep for thinking about her
That is to say, in formal usage you complete the expression by making explicit the consequence of the thing’s being so delicious, or such a delightful example of the kind of thing in question.
In the informal, conversational, usage, we don’t bother to state the consequence: ‘she’s so lovely’; ‘I feel so lonely’, I say; and thereby do no more than gesture at some unstated consequence of her loveliness or my loneliness. This lack of specificity doesn’t matter in conversation: our interlocutors understand well enough that what we wish to convey is simply that we are overwhelmed by the extent to which the lemon thing was delicious, or the teacher delightful, or whatever it may be. In such usage, the expression is thus equivalent in meaning to saying that the thing was very very lovely, very very delicious, or whatever.
There is a clear difference, then, between the formal and informal usages; and since your PS is a formal, written, document, you shouldn’t use expressions that are appropriate only to conversation.
If gushing is the more common vice of the two, the opposite one – lack of credible enthusiasm – is nonetheless common, and no less to be avoided.
If (for example) you are talking about something that you have read, or a subject that you have studied, and you say merely that it was ‘interesting’, or ‘impressive’, then you leave the impression that you are the kind of person who isn’t really engaged, or who isn’t affected, by what (s)he does in the intellectual sphere. And that is not what you want to convey in the PS.
Avoiding deficiency of enthusiasm in this area is largely a matter of applying principles that I hope to convey in a different section of this advice, devoted to how you should talk about your reading and other achievements. The main point is that, if you have read something that you mention in the PS, you had better have something to say about it. It is not sufficient merely to be politely affirmative of its worth.
If you characterise (say) your study of (for example) a modern language like French by saying that it ‘helped your precision in the use of language’, then you are liable to come across as both emotionally cold and as having missed a good deal of the benefit to be gained from pursuing the course of study in question.
Why, after all, do people study French? Well, yes, you can do it merely as a narrowly linguistic and entirely intellectual discipline in which you aim to discover the similarities and differences between French vocabulary and modes of expression and those in some other language.
But that is far from being the only reason why people study languages nor (arguably) the most important. And such an approach is so far from my own experience that I scarcely know where to begin, in commenting on such a view.
A large part of what you do in study of a language (ancient or modern) at a relatively high level concerns people: it is a matter of studying culture, and literature, and history, and other similar matters. In any case, a large part of the reason for wanting to study modern languages is (surely?) the desire to communicate and engage with people from a background different from your own…
Why that particular language, anyway? Turning to my own case, I find myself taking yet more exams in French… if I were merely interested in ‘language’ as it affects ‘precision’ then I would surely be equally happy with, say, Finnish, or Hungarian, or Tamil, or Swahili… or (if not being a complete beginner were vital to my interest) Italian, or Greek, or Turkish, or Spanish… But curiously I’m not… Why? (That’s not a question demanding an answer from you; I know why. My point is that there is a reason, and I would be missing out a huge part of my own humanity if I failed to recognise it and pretended that the sole value of French was that it helped me to understand linguistic structures, or that it made me more precise or obedient…!)
The same goes for a whole host of other subjects: there is often no single reason for doing them; and you risk seeming to adopt a cold and utilitarian attitude if you try to summarise the significance that they have for you and your intellectual and other development under a single heading. Be more human.
OTHER ASPECTS OF LANGUAGE
I assemble, here, a few other thoughts that leap to mind of aspects of linguistic usage that commonly invite negative comment in drafts of PSs that I read. There’s probably no hope of being comprehensive; so this amounts to no more than a general warning against showing off, together with a few examples of other things that come to mind and that commonly irritate.
1. SHOW-OFF VOCABULARY
English is a language that is peculiarly rich in synonyms, and it is always tempting in a formal document (especially when you are trying to impress) to use a less familiar, more recherché, word. But it is often a mistake: it can make the prose read unnaturally, and make it look as if you are trying too hard.
The classic example is something like utilise … I find it very hard to think of a context in which the simpler word ‘use’ will not convey the same meaning equally well.
But there are countless similar examples.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with having a wide vocabulary – indeed it is admirable. But do re-read your prose, and ask yourself always whether there isn’t a more natural word that will convey the same meaning without seeming unnecessarily pretentious. The simpler mode of expression is very often to be preferred.
This is a difficult aspect of the PS for you as relatively young people; and it is one on which you should actively seek the opinion of your DoS and other advisor(s).
2. ‘NOT ONLY… BUT ALSO…’
In attempts to convey the extent of what they have achieved, and/or (perhaps) in their attempts to develop complex sentence structures for the sake of seeming ‘learned’, (and/or (perhaps) in a mistaken attempt (see elsewhere) to try to summarise whole subject areas into single sentences), applicants all too frequently resort to saying things like
In my studies in Politics, I have considered not only the importance of the principle of the rule of law as a check on government excesses but also the differences that particular choices of electoral system may make to conceptions of the democratic process.
The thing to remember about this particular locution is that is by far the single most over-used locution of its kind in PSs. As a result, it very rapidly becomes tiresome, if your job is to read thirty or fifty (or more) of these documents at a sitting.
See if you can’t find another way of saying the same thing without using it.
3. ‘THE LIKES OF… ‘
This is a widely-misunderstood expression, in that a lot of people seem to be ignorant of the fact that in standard usage it is nearly always disparaging.
If I say, for example,
This a view that has been defended by the likes of Williams, Jones, and Price
I am implying (roughly) that I think that the three named people are idiots. It is not just another way of saying ‘writers such as’. If you mean the latter, say it, e.g. by writing
This a view that has been defended by, for example, Williams, Jones, and Price
This a view that has been defended by writers such as Williams, Jones, and Price
As an applicant for university, you risk appearing arrogant if you are dismissive of published works in your field anyway, even if you are right. So it is a locution to be avoided.
This may well be the wisest single rule about writing that I was ever taught.
In reviewing your writing, go over it and identify any adverbs; and ask yourself, about each one, whether what you have written wouldn’t actually be more effective if you left it out.
The rationale is that it is overwhelmingly tempting to use adverbs as intensifiers, especially when you are trying to impress. Thus: The scenery wasn’t just beautiful: it was incredibly (or amazingly, or breathtakingly, or heart-stoppingly) beautiful.). Such adverbs are often unnecessary. As was, for example, my use of the word ‘overwhelmingly’ at the start of this paragraph.
Dropping the adverb can often be beneficial in more than one way – and the review of your text that I am recommending can kill two or more birds with one stone:
it can save you words/characters (you have a 4,000-character limit) so that you can include more material elsewhere;
it can reduce the risk of appearing to gush
it can actually make the original statement more forceful. If you say that something is implausible, this often has at least as much power as saying that it is very, or simply, or utterly implausible. And the same goes for positive descriptions. (It may have something to do with the confidence that seems to emerge from the simpler description; I don’t know. All I know is that it works.)
5. WILL AND SHALL
I may as well include this.
There is a popular belief, manifested in a lot of efforts a formal writing in English, that ‘shall’ is simply a posher or more formal variant on the word ‘will’. The belief is mistaken.
What follows is admittedly a traditionalist account of what is undoubtedly a dying distinction; but who’s to say that the person reading your PS won’t be a traditionalist like me? In any case, if you follow my rules, your usage won’t sound odd to any ear; if you ignore them, your prose will sound odd, even to ears less conservative than mine. By listening to me, you have nothing to lose.
The conservative rules
(a) In the first person forms of a verb (I and we), the neutral future tense is expressed with ‘shall’. In calling it a ‘neutral’ usage, I mean that it is a mere statement of what you think will happen. Thus when I say
I shall be absent tomorrow at a conference
I am merely announcing what I expect the future to bring. I say and imply nothing about how I feel about this predicted course of events, or what I mean to do about it.
If you use ‘will’ in the first person (I and we) forms of a verb, then you are not merely predicting the future; you are implying, in addition, that you want the event in question to happen, and/or that you mean to assure your reader that you intend to make sure that it happens. Thus when I say
I know that I have neglected it to date, but I will read your essay before Friday
the special reassurance that I am trying to give to my interlocutor is conveyed by the fact that I use ‘will’ rather than ‘shall’.
(b) In the second and third person forms (you, he/she/it, and they) forms of a verb, the situation is exactly reversed: ‘will’ is the neutral form; ‘shall’ implies an intention or wish on the part of the speaker to ensure the result; or it may even amount (in relevant circumstances) to an order to relevant persons to act in the way that will bring about the result mentioned.
Thus when the fairy godmother assures Cinderella,
You shall go to the ball
the fairy godmother is not merely predicting Cinderella’s presence at the ball; she is implying that she herself means to see to it that Cinderella attends: she is saying that she will take steps to ensure her attendance (as, of course, she duly does, by turning the pumpkin into a carriage, and so on).
By contrast, when I say,
300 delegates will be present to hear my speech at tomorrow’s conference
I say nothing at all about how I feel about this, or about my intentions; the anticipated presence of such a crowd may in fact be my worst nightmare, and it may be that I intend to spend half the night sabotaging public transport infrastructure and/or setting fire to the venue, with the aim of ensuring that no one turns up, or that the event is cancelled.
All staff will attend the parents’ evening
is simply a prediction, or statement about the future. It’s the sort of thing that you would normally say to parents in order to reassure them that they’ll be able to talk to any member of staff on the evening in question.
All staff shall attend the parents’ evening
is an instruction to the staff members to turn up: it is the sort of thing that can only be addressed by management to the staff, rather than to the parents; and it is an imperative, rather than a statement about the future.
I live near a railway line, and accordingly I receive frequent letters from Network Rail’s customer relations department as part of the company’s efforts to remain on good terms with the public by warning them about planned noisy or otherwise disruptive engineering work. Typically, the missives read roughly as follows:
Dear Railway Neighbour [as they address us],
Planned engineering works on the Oxford-Didcot line
Work on the line to minimise flood risk is expected to begin on 18 June and shall last for five days. The work shall involve the use of pile-driving machinery which shall create some noise disturbance during the nights of 20 and 21 June…
In the light of the wisdom above, I hope you can see the comical results that are liable to ensue if you don’t respect the proper usages. Whoever wrote the letter presumably left school with the mistaken notion that ‘shall’ was just a smarter or more formal word for ‘will’; and since this is a formal ‘business-style’ letter (s)he has therefore decided to write ‘shall’ where, in any less formal context – e.g. in conversation, or in an email to a colleague or friend, (s)he would have said ‘will’.
As well as making the letter read very unnaturally, the usage creates the comical implication that Network Rail is actually keen to ensure the occurrence of noise disturbance… which is clearly not what the letter was intended to convey.
WHAT THE ADMISSIONS TUTOR REALLY WANTS
Put yourself, for a moment, in the position of the tutor who is considering your application. What do you really want to know about a candidate?
As to positive qualities, you want, essentially, three things:
you want to choose candidates who have the aptitude and ability to pursue your course and do well in it; and
you want to choose candidates who have the appetite and determination to work hard.
you want people you think you will be able to teach – and that means the two qualities cited above, plus being a relatively normal and nice person… if as an admissions tutor you are lucky enough to have the additional information (e.g. from an open day or interview) that a particular candidate is a nice person (= nothing special: just easy-going, friendly, socially normal) then that is a bonus.
Aptitude and ability are mainly spoken for in the form of your previous results (GCSEs or whatever you have done beforehand), together with A-level predictions, the reference from your DoS and the comments from your subject teachers that more or less invariably form part of it.
Where the PS can help you is principally in persuading the admissions tutor that you really want the place and will work hard if they admit you – so it speaks mainly for the appetite and determination side of things.
But the PS can also support the assessment of ability and aptitude, in that any evidence that you can adduce there that you are tenacious and can pursue a line of inquiry (in a relevant field) helps them to believe that you have the requisite abilities.
The PS can also help them (a bit) to believe that you satisfy the third criterion – of being relatively normal, nice, and teachable.
As to negative qualities to avoid (which are no less important):
you don’t want weirdos (because they’ll be a pain in the classroom/lecture hall)
you don’t want know-alls (ditto plus unteachable)
you don’t want people whose claimed interest in your subject is bogus, or likely to be merely temporary (because they’ll fall behind and thereby be a nuisance and/or switch subject)
you don’t want liars (because they’ll lie about whether they’ve done their work, fall behind and become a nuisance, and because they’re unlikeable)
you don’t want people whose real interest secretly lies in the university’s polo or mountaineering club – so that they are going to spend all their time there instead of in the library (ditto)
you don’t want time-servers (people who are in it just to get the qualification so that they can move on to something else (because they’re boring)
Academic tutors also typically have other preferences that are less widely-advertised, but nonetheless real and understandable, if you start to look at matters from their perspective.
They don’t like being lectured to on their subject by 17-year-olds. Why not? Well, it’s obvious if you think about it: because they’ve got where they are only by a long process of sacrificing themselves to years of research on things that are difficult. If it were possible to master the subject at the age of 17, they’d have to admit that they were thick.
They don’t (usually) like candidates who openly state that they regard university merely as a stepping stone to some lucrative career in the City or elsewhere. Again, think about it: it’s obvious why. These are highly intelligent people who could themselves perfectly well have pursued the same course through life, but have chosen not to do so. It’s not (or not necessarily) that they have no respect at all for the professions outside academia; but given the differential between the typical salary of a respected senior academic and that of a typical investment banker or QC of the same age, it’s little wonder that the academic is subconsciously driven to think of what (s)he does as somehow superior – more noble, or more valuable – than the ‘mere’ pursuit of filthy lucre (which is how (s)he (nine times out of ten) thinks – however unfairly – of the jobs done by the bankers and the lawyers). It’s an entirely natural psychological defence mechanism, in which people rationalise their life choices – because otherwise they’d have to conclude that they were crazy.
The students academics secretly love best are … guess what … those who hang on after university and do graduate work and become academics themselves… obviously. These people confirm the academics’ fondest (but most easily threatened) prejudice: that what they do is worthwhile despite the terrible pay (and, increasingly, conditions) associated with their jobs.
The consequences for you as an applicant are the following:
You are shooting yourself in the foot if you put anything in your PS that says that the university degree is, in your mind, merely a stepping-stone to something else. You’re allowed, of course, to say that you may end up here or there; you might, for example, be doing a Law degree expecting (like the vast majority of Law applicants) to become a barrister or solicitor. … but if you are prudent you will leave open the possibility in the academics’ eyes that, if they do their job well, you might end up among them.
You are likewise shooting yourself in the foot if you say anything that makes you sound like a weirdo or a know-all.
You are likewise shooting yourself in the foot if you say anything that makes you sound as if your real interest lies elsewhere than in the subject for which you are applying – whether it be another subject, or something outside the academic sphere entirely. You ARE allowed to have other interests. But it is best if it is clear that these take second place to your love of the target subject – and better still if in some indirect way they feed into or support it.
Lessons for you (in the abstract)
The facts stated above should give a clear steer to your approach to your PS. The vital (abstract) points to remember are these:
The people who will read your UCAS statement are not fools; they are highly intelligent professionals who have got where they are because they are intelligent and love their subjects. Some are good teachers. All want good students.
You can’t hope to dazzle them into giving you a place. These people have put in years of study to get where they are, and they are critical, cautious, and sceptical. They can’t and won’t believe that you know more about the subject than they do, and you won’t impress them by trying to suggest that you do – quite the reverse. They’ll think that you are arrogant and uncritical, or even just crazy, if you seriously believe that at your stage in life you are already ahead of them.
They don’t want to be blown away by your brilliance anyhow: they want to feel that you are they kind of person whom they can assist towards great things. If you knew it all already, or could do it all alone, they’d have no purpose…
That’s not to say that they are not interested in your past academic achievement: of course they are; but they are interested in it insofar as it is an indication that you are likely to be able to go on to further achievement in the future.
And it is not to say that they do not want you to be independent and motivated: of course they do. The biggest difference between school and university study is perhaps that at university you are expected to be much more independently motivated. You have greater control of your timetable, and more time of your own to manage well or badly. You will be less directly guided in your studies, and you will have more freedom to think for yourself and work as you wish. But with freedom comes responsibility: Will you use the time wisely? Will you be able to be independent and make progress by yourself? Will you be able to use the university system and facilities (your lectures, classes, the library and other resources) intelligently and efficiently so as to make good progress in this different, less structured, environment?
Putting those abstract lessons to concrete use
1. Account for your interest in the target subject-area
There must be some reason why you want to study whatever it is that you are applying for; so tell them what it is. This is vital because it goes to whether you really do want to pursue the course in question, and whether you have thought properly about what it will involve.
What you don’t want to end up saying (or implying) is that you chose Law (or whatever) simply because your Mum told you she thought you’d be good at it. Make it sound as if the choice is yours, and that it is a wisely considered one.
2. Link current achievements to future goals
They are interested in your current and previous intellectual achievements as evidence of what you might go to achieve. So you have to link the subjects that you are currently studying (and your other achievements and interests) to the course of study that you are intending to pursue. If your target course is in one of your A-level subjects, then matters are relatively straightforward. You are brilliant at English, want to read Eng. Lit. at university… So far so good. But even then you will probably want to account for your other A-level subjects – explain how they fit into the picture – otherwise you risk making it seem that there was no real point in your taking those subjects.
Things are bit harder when the target course is not a subject that you have studied at A-level – e.g. you are applying for Law, or PPE but without having done one or more of the elements. Then you have to construct some sort of argument or story that supports the view that your choice of course is well-considered and realistic in the circumstances: you need to show evidence that you have researched what the course involves, and evidence that what you are currently doing feeds well into study of that course – e.g. there are skills (as it might be) that you have acquired in studying Philosophy that are applicable to Legal research (reading, writing, analysis, etc.); and in addition you have done (maybe) debating, or something similar, which has given you a taste for oral presentation and argument – which is again relevant for the target course.
3. Avoid pomposity and arrogance
You can be proud of your achievements without being offensively arrogant about them. There should be an element of modesty in the PS, which is often most easily conveyed by saying something to the effect that, while you’ve done this and that so far, and you’ve loved it, you are excited by the opportunity that you hope university will give you to take things further in the future.
Unless it’s actually and demonstrably true, don’t tell them that you have already proved the theorem that has baffled the finest minds in Mathematics for three centuries; and don’t tell them that your own (unpublished) post-Hegelian critique of the science of anatomy offers the only coherent synthesis of all post-war thinking in the area. They’ll think you’re arrogant, unteachable and weird.
By the same token, don’t try to dazzle them with your prose. Lots of applicants deliberately try too hard to impress with show-off terminology and overly complex language structures; others do it unintentionally, often because they get caught in the trap of trying to summarise whole subject-areas in a couple of sentences. It’s impossible, and the result is often some set of hideously long sentences with bafflingly complex syntax, littered with weighty abstract nouns and other show-off vocabulary.
There won’t be any single sentence that can fully convey just why it is that you love Philosophy, or any other subject, and what you have got out if it. So don’t bother to try to construct one. Think instead of picking out one or two individual aspects or elements of subjects that you have studied as examples of why you love the subject and how it has made you a better person. And try to keep your prose intelligent but simple.
4. Advertise independence of thought and self-motivation
Anything that you have done ‘by yourself’ – as opposed to merely dutifully completing homework and revision and being a good student in class is brilliant evidence of the sort of commitment and diligence that they want. So flag up any such examples. It might be an EPQ; it might be poetry you or a blog that you write in your spare time; it might be further and wider reading that you have done, it might be debating or some other similar activity of a slightly intellectual nature. Most things that people do (with the possible exception of looking at amusing cats on the internet) are susceptible to being spun so as to support the view that they are evidence of at least some relevant determination or talent. Give it some thought; but do put a favourable spin on it. Why merely say (for example) that you enjoy doing your amateur stand-up slot at the comedy club, if you can spin it so that you are pointing out that, even if it sounds unrelated to academic work, it isn’t completely divorced from it: for it requires you to research, organise and present material, confront your stage-fright, etc. and can thereby count as relevant evidence of aptitudes and abilities?
5. Unify your material towards a single conclusion
So far as possible, try to structure the PS so that it makes a unified, coherent case for a single conclusion: that you have researched the target course; that what you’ve done so far shows that you’d be good at it; and that given the opportunity you will do your best to excel at it.
This makes sense, given the simplicity of the admission’s tutors real wishes – they want someone who wants to do the course, who can do it, and who will stick at it even if it’s hard work.
The vast majority of the things that you mention should therefore be brought in as supporting this conclusion. Of course, there may be things that you want to say that have no real bearing on the target course at all; maybe you have a love of in-line skating that you do want to mention because otherwise you have few or no other outside-school pursuits and you think you will come across as too much of a boring bookworm if you don’t mention it. Well, that’s fine. But keep it brief: there’s no harm (of course) in a sentence or two that briefly summarise(s) such outside interests; it can indeed make you seem more likeable and human. Even then, there’s no harm in thinking whether you can link it in to the academic: maybe you find that the rhythm of your skating assists your memorising of French verb forms, or something. The main point is just to keep it brief. Don’t do what one girl did in applying for a place at Oxford a few years ago and devote more than half the PS to descriptions of what she got up to on her polo pony. Oddly enough, we were not persuaded that her heart truly belonged to PPE.
I’m trying to put together a set of pieces of advice for UCAS personal statements – mainly because I catch myself repeating the same points over and over again.
Part 1 (on the use of quotations) follows. The plan is for there to be several more sections, including:
- how to talk about books you’ve read (or not read lol)
- avoidance of pomposity, register of language, and banned words
- what they really want to see
- maybe more if the force is with me…
PART 1 – QUOTATIONS
A truly amazing number of people get seduced by the idea of opening the personal statement with a quotation from the work of some luminary or other.
Perhaps the first thing to realise is that the strategy of opening with a quotation is almost incredibly trite in itself: thousands upon thousands of applicants follow this approach; so if you are hoping that it will help you to stand out from the crowd, this isn’t necessarily the best way to go about doing so.
That, however, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. It merely means that you need to think a little bit about why you are including the quotation, how you are going to use it and what it will help you to achieve.
1. My RULE NUMBER ONE is that you should avoid the inclusion of a quotation merely for the sake of it.
To pick out and use a quotation that is vaguely related to the intended area of study, merely as a way of getting started, nearly always comes across as lame. So if you say something like,
‘As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. My interest in Philosophy stems from the moment when …’
then it looks utterly feeble. You’ve included the quotation (which in this instance also has the vice of being boring: overused, too well known, trite, clichéd, etc. – anyway) merely as a way of including a quotation – as if your Mum had said, ‘I know, darling: why not put in a quotation at the beginning to show how well read and knowledgeable you are…?’ Ghastly.
2. RULE NUMBER TWO is that you should avoid representing the quotation as summing you up.
If you present the quotation as somehow summing up everything that you stand for, then it is doomed to come across badly. There’s a good for reason for this:
- no genuinely intelligent and interesting person can sum up his or her values or attitudes in a single line;
- no independent thinker would wish to represent him/herself as capable of having his/her life or values encapsulated in a single quotation from another person.
So, no matter how much I find myself in accord with such glorious and heart-rending sentiments as
Wedged as we are between two eternities of idleness, there is no excuse for being idle now
Après l’amour, il n’y a plus que le sel des larmes
I would rather be a bicycling postman than no postman at all
there is no way in hell that I would permit any of these to appear on my gravestone, or to be put to any other use that implied that any single one of them (or even the set of them together) was the only principle that I valued, or the only one in accordance with which I wished to be thought of as trying to live my life. The reasons are two-fold:
- they’re other people’s thoughts and words; and I would rather be thought of as having ideas of my own, even if I also want others to think that I am sufficiently well educated to be aware of and interested in the ideas of others, when they’re interesting.
- life is complex and multi-faceted, and it is (accordingly) absurd to suppose that any real person’s attitudes and values can be summarised in any such single thought.
3. RULE NUMBER THREE is that is that you should avoid representing the quotation as summing up the subject.
No single quotation can possibly serve to sum up any area of academic study – or not in any useful way.
The boring Socratic remark about the unexamined life quoted above is probably about as good as any such quotation could be, as an attempt to do so: Philosophy is indeed pretty much all about ‘examining life’; but the problem then is that the quotation says nothing useful or informative. It’s just an instruction to do Philosophy, on pain of having a pointless existence. But from the admissions tutor’s perspective, even if this sounds like good advice, the fact that the candidate quotes it provides no particular reason to be interested in that candidate.
Any more specific quotation is likely to fail even to encapsulate the subject for which you are applying.
Any subject studied at university will be of a broad scope, including a wide variety of very different areas and disciplines; within each of those areas there will be a whole host of differing views and approaches. You will only irritate if you imply (to an admissions tutor who may well have been working in the subject area for half a lifetime) that the whole of what they do and care about can be encapsulated in a single sentence. It’s not true; it actually insults their choice of career and their beliefs; and so it alienates the admissions tutor as well as making you look stupid.
4. The very worst examples are the ones where the quotation is a misquotation, or wrongly attributed. So RULE NUMBER FOUR is check your facts.
I was at a prize-giving ceremony last year at which the guest speaker said, in the course of what was meant to be an uplifting speech encouraging (albeit absurdly) the students to believe that they could achieve anything if only they set their minds to it, ‘It took Isaac Newton a thousand failures before he finally invented the light bulb’.
Okay, that’s not a quotation at all, but just an appallingly embarrassing factual error – but it creates the same impression. (Slightly interestingly, there is. in fact, a potentially more fruitful quotation in the same area. Thomas Edison (for it was he…) is reported (or so I have been told, but I would check my facts before including this in a university or any other application!) as saying something like, ‘I didn’t fail a thousand times… rather, I succeeded in demonstrating a thousand ways of not making a light bulb’. Now that’s something that you could work with: it’s nice, because it speaks of an attitude that is valuable in academia and in life – that of putting a positive spin on set-backs, and learning from them…)
5. RULE NUMBER FIVE: avoid unnecessary dogmatism on matters that may be more complex and controversial than you imagine.
You may think that some quotation that you have come across encapsulates something that you fervently believe. But do think, before you ally yourself wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed, about whether it is the only view in the area, and whether it is wise to imply that you’ve made your mind up already.
Remember that you are lucky enough to be young: you are just beginning the voyage. In academia there are all sorts of different views on all sorts of topics, and as a university applicant you have merely begun to scratch the surface, if you have even done that. Part of what you will be doing in studying at university will be exploring the huge range of different approaches that will exist within a wide field of topics in whatever subject area it is that you study. You want to come across as someone who is ready and willing to start that process of exploration; not as someone who thinks (s)he knows it all already.
None of this means, however, that you should dismiss the quotation out of hand as a possible way of kicking off (or concluding, or filling out) your PS. It merely means that there are good and bad ways of using them.
One simple thought is this: why not stand out from the crowd by using a quotation, but not putting the thing at the start the way all the other candidates do? Maybe you can structure your PS so that you can build up to it as a nice way of closing the piece. Maybe you can drop it in somewhere in the middle as an apt remark on something that you are discussing? That, after all, is how quotations are typically used in real life to enrich intelligent discussion. The near-formulaic UCAS-form usage in which the candidate slings the quotation out in front of the text and then has to say something about it is in fact pretty unnatural, as well as trite.
Another: One excellent way of using a quotation is to take issue with it. That is, instead of plonking it into the PS for no reason other than as a way of getting started, or as somehow encapsulating all that matters about you and/or the subject, represent it as something that you came across that sparked your interest by striking you as being controversial or questionable, or in some other way thought-provoking. Then you can go on from there to say what that made you do; for example:
- what you read,
- how you got started in your investigation of the subject,
- how you set about thinking about it and other related issues…
All of this can then lead into a story that you can tell about how you formed the desire to engage in further study at university of whatever subject it is.
And by the time you have completed that, you have ticked one (or actually two) of the assessor’s most important boxes, because you have given them reason to believe
- that your interest in the subject is genuine; and
- that you are the sort of person who is able and willing to pursue an intellectual interest by undertaking further research.
This, then, is the really FUNDAMENTAL RULE about quotations: MAKE THEM WORK FOR YOU – that is, do something interesting with them that helps to support the conclusion that you are the kind of student who has the aptitudes and commitment for the course of study in question.
No one, after all, ever said of anyone, ‘Oh, (s)he’s just brilliant: (s)he knows so many quotations!’ Indeed, almost the exact reverse is true: a person who is constantly trotting out quotations that are relevant to whatever the area of discussion is rapidly becomes a bore. Even if it were impressive (in a way) to be so well-read as have at one’s disposal a relevant learned quotation for every topic of conversation, everyone knows that there are dictionaries and internet databases of quotations, and so you cannot demonstrate even this slightly superficial impressiveness in a UCAS PS.
The mere inclusion of a quotation, then, cannot even help to suggest that you are well-read, nor that you recall what you read after you’ve read it: for the reader has no way of knowing you didn’t simply pull the quotation off the internet after searching for ‘Philosophy quotes’ or whatever. (If you do get your quotations off the internet, by the way, pay special attention to rule 4 above… there’s a terrific amount attributed to countless famous Philosophers on the internet that they never actually wrote – and similar things must presumably be true in every other subject. Real books are best.)
Thus the fact that you have a relevant quotation tells the reader absolutely nothing – yet – about your relevant intellectual attributes.
The only way to start to influence the reader in the right direction is to show some relevant intellectual quality in the way you talk about the quotation – e.g. questioning it; criticising it; explaining how and why it grabbed your interest; or how it changed or challenged your previous views. (Just for example: I became a Philosopher almost entirely because I came across a single statement that intuitively I thought couldn’t be right, but that seemed to be well supported by argument.) You might be able to say how (perhaps) it made you notice something that you wouldn’t otherwise have spotted, such as an interesting link between two areas of study that you then pursued; how (perhaps) it suggested (a line of research in) an EPQ topic, or led you to further reading or other investigation, or whatever it may be.
This promises to be worth following. Adrian Moore is a fellow of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and knows what he’s on about.
This is just by way of expansion on the closing remarks made on Friday.
The syllabus expectations are a bit idiosyncratic, when it comes to criticisms of indirect realism. It looks as if the examiners have a rather pessimistic view of what 6th form students can be expected to master: the only ‘issues’ with indirect realism that they explicitly mention are (i) scepticism and (ii) solipsism.
These are, admittedly, relevant problems: if we are indirect realists, then we do indeed face the problem of justifying our belief in realism, and in the existence of other minds.
But they are relatively easily resolved: we can use, as we saw, the argument from analogy to provide a reasonably persuasive justification for belief in other minds; and we can use inference to the best explanation to justify our belief in an external world which is (or at least in some way corresponds to) the way it seems to be.
These justifications of belief in realism and in other minds are not, of course, proofs: we have to admit that (since we can’t get beyond the veil of perception – beyond the appearances) we do not know for certain that such a world exists. Accordingly, our belief in realism and in other minds has the status of a well-justified belief rather than a certainly known fact. But we can probably live with that: indeed, it seems to me by far the most plausible position here. There is no reason to think that we must have anything better than that. We are limited beings, in the sense that we have only the tools for finding out about the world that evolution has given us; there’s no earthly reason to go around imagining that we must be able to gain certain knowledge about everything.
It seems, then, that the position that they ‘want’ you to adopt is indirect realism – defined, as they define it, as the view that the immediate objects of perception are internal, mind-dependent representations of external objects, caused by such external objects. This is supposed to represent an intellectual advance on your part from the naive view that they imagine you previously held – namely, that you are in direct (and, in fact, infallible – see the post to which there is a link below) perceptual contact with the properties of external objects.
There are, however, rather more serious objections to indirect realism (so defined) that the syllabus does not mention, and since you are not as thick as the examiners seem to assume, there is no reason why you shouldn’t become aware of them.
Happily, I did a blog post on this a while back, so there is no need for me to bash out the Pulitzer all over again. See here.
The second verse neatly sums up why I don’t watch television…