Preparing a Personal Statement

23 November 2018

Shiri Avni

To apply to most Oxford courses, you need to submit a personal statement. In many countries, including mine, students in school don’t write many essays, if at all. At the same time, preparing an engaging personal statement is important, especially since you may be competing against people who have more experience in writing than you do. In the hopes that it will be helpful, my essay is provided below. While it is focused on the computer science MSc, the structure is one that you could adapt for your application.

Introduction

The introduction is your chance to catch the reader’s attention. At this stage in your writing, you want to introduce yourself in a non-boring manner while staying on topic. For instance, I used this section to explain that computer science was not actually the path that I originally had in mind for my higher studies.

Having completed a double BSc cum laude in Physics and Computer Science at the Technion in Israel, I am delighted to be applying for Oxford’s Computer Science MSc. This is not the path that I originally had in mind; on the contrary, my initial motivation for studying computer science was to support my future physics research. As my bachelor’s degree progressed, however, I learnt to appreciate the beauty of theoretical computer science and eventually recognized that despite my love for physics, my research interests had shifted.

Second and Third Paragraphs

In this section, I would recommend providing information which can help you stand out. While I spoke about a previous internship, you could write about a relevant project you completed at university or in your own time. If you don’t have a project to showcase, I would recommend looking at codetriage. Make sure to explain why your project was meaningful, and how it connects to the Master’s degree that you want to pursue. This is what I came up with:

It was my Cornell Tech internship in New York City this summer that solidified my resolve and galvanized me to pursue higher studies rather than apply for an industry position. In partnership with Columbia University, I spent two months developing an iPhone medical app that tracks the daily quality of life in patients suffering from Endometriosis. It was a wake-up call to realize what a limited understanding we have of this disease, and to see how tech and data could help combat it. On a professional level, I learnt to code in teams, prioritise feature development under strict time constraints, and deal with imperfect source libraries. Since I had no previous experience with the iPhone app development environment (Xcode IDE, Swift) when I arrived in New York, I also learnt a valuable lesson in balancing my desire to thoroughly learn new material with the need to quickly start contributing to the team given my limited stay.

While the internship was engaging and emotionally rewarding, I missed the aesthetic pleasure that I used to feel when I came across a theoretical proof. This delight had struck me, for example, when I realized that tedious, complicated integrals in calculus could swiftly be solved using the residue theorem in complex analysis. I also felt this way when I learnt about the existence of computationally unsolvable problems, or when I discovered that despite time constraints of NP problems, clever algorithms had been invented to obtain efficient near-optimal solutions.

Fourth Paragraph

I used this section to show that I had taken the time to read over and understand what was needed in an MSc. You want the application board reader to understand that you did not apply on a whim, but rather made a thoughtful decision after taking time to reflect.

I believe that Oxford’s Computer Science MSc can provide the ideal means and environment for my continued studies in this discipline. For one, it is an opportunity to be enriched with specialised courses under superb tutelage. Furthermore, the project and dissertation will prepare me for a PhD and hone the qualities I need to be a successful researcher. In particular, I would be thrilled to work under Prof. XXX or Prof. YYY, both of whom are involved in Algorithms, Complexity, Game Theory, and Machine Learning (ML). I find these fields very interesting and, as a physicist, I appreciate that the fact that they often aim to solve real-life situations using mathematical models. Both professors offer theoretical MSc projects grounded in practical end goals, and Prof. XXX’s “Imaginary Project A” and Prof. YYY’s “Imaginary Project B” projects have especially captured my interest. I would be delighted to take part in projects of this nature.

Fifth Paragraph

There is a minimum length requirement for the essay, and so, if you still need to add some more words, I would recommend incorporating a section on the value that you specifically would bring to the course. In my case, I discussed why my strong mathematical background would make me a capable student in the MSc.

I feel that I would be a strong candidate in these fields because of my academic background. On the one hand, computer science has given me the skills to convert my paper-and-pen ideas into efficient, runnable programs that produce tangible results. On the other, physics has imparted me with a love for mathematics and a drive to understand and model the core mechanisms and patterns of systems. I have become skilled at approaching a problem and discerning its vital characteristics from the trivial ones, a quality that is particularly important in, for example, ML. Having followed a number of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), I was exposed to this field when I enrolled in Prof. Andrew Ng’s ML online course. His Coursera course provided me with a broad overview of ML, which I supplemented at times with more detailed resources found on his Stanford course website. I was truly astounded when I discovered how easy it is to classify handwritten numbers using neural networks, and I am keen to deepen my understanding of this subject and pursue it further.

Concluding Paragraph

My application also required me to discuss what I would be doing in the year coming up to the MSc. Unless you have some truly spectacular plans for the upcoming year, I would recommend keeping this explanation as short as possible, because it is more significant to discuss things you have already accomplished. Lastly, don’t forget to finish with a strong concluding sentence.

Having recently started my gap year, I plan to gain practical work experience in industry which I can put to use in academic research, and to continue studying theoretical subjects in my free time. I look forward to beginning my higher studies, and it would be an honor and a privilege to do so at Oxford.

A Note on English Grammar

While the application board does not expect your English to be flawless, especially if you are a candidate from a non-English speaking country, I strongly recommend that you find some peers to review your English grammar. If your statement looks like you prepared it the night before submission and is full of careless mistakes, this won’t be looked upon positively.

Write your statement enough time in advance so that you and your peers can look over it calmly. Another benefit of extra eyes on your statement is the opportunity to get feedback on the logical structure and flow of your essay. If you’d like a comparision, I personally had four different friends read through my essay, two of whom are British.

If you have any further questions about writing your own personal statement, please don’t hesitate to ask.

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