How to write a Cambridge Personal Statement (Interview with the Admissions Tutor of Newnham College, Cambridge)

What should you put in your opening sentence?

Do your AS grades matter?

Do you need to have relevant work experience?

How important is your further reading?

These are all questions I'm asked all the time about personal statements. So, I thought the best thing to do would be to go directly to an Admissions Tutor and ask for their answers. I asked Sam Lucy, the Admissions Tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge to answer them. Newnham was the college I went to at Cambridge and I loved EVERY SINGLE SECOND of it! I was so delighted when Sam said yes to answering these questions. Most of the readers of my blog are female, and Newnham is an all female college (one of the things I loved about it, despite having my doubts before I arrived).

In the interview, all the questions listed above (and more) are answered. I can't say whether other admissions tutors at other universities would give the same answers. However, these answers give you a very good idea of the place that your personal statement plays in your university application. If you're applying to Cambridge, Oxford or other elite universities this is particularly helpful to you. If you're applying to other universities in the UK then it's still worth a read so you understand more about the admissions process and how an admissions tutor's mind works!

How to write a Cambridge Personal Statement: Interview with Sam Lucy

How to write a Cambridge personal statement

Sam Lucy in the gardens of Newnham College, Cambridge

Could you tell us a bit about the job you do and what it involves?

I’m Newnham’s Admissions Tutor, which means that I oversee admittance to our undergraduate degrees within the College (at Cambridge, unlike most universities, admission is done by colleges rather than departments). I’m the person who gets to see the whole field of applicants, making recommendations to our interview teams about who should be called to interview, based on their paper application. We then discuss who we would like to make offers to (after consulation with colleagues in other colleges). As well as overseeing the application process itself (although our Admissions Co-odinator does most of the actual organising), I also do a lot of access and outreach work, giving talks in schools and hosting open days and subject taster days. There is also a surprising amount of committee work at University level, which helps to ensure that all colleges are operating a level playing field for applicants. I’m also an academic archaeologist, and I do research whenever I can find the time.

Could you tell us about the admissions process at Newnham so we can get some insight into the ‘inner workings’? Also, what part does the personal statement play in your decision making process? How important is it?

Once an application is submitted to UCAS, it enters our computer system. We take information from that, and add it to information that candidates put on their SAQ (Supplementary Application Questionnaire – an extra online form that is an essential part of our process), creating a document known as the CAPO (Cambridge Applicant Print Out). Once the application deadline has passed, I start to read through all the CAPOs subject by subject, drawing up my lists of who I think Newnham should interview, which I then talk to our Directors of Studies about. We read the personal statements with interest, but don’t mark them or rank them; decisions about whether to interview are based far more on candidates’ academic achievements so far, and whether they look like they are on track to meet the typical Cambridge offer levels, though we do check to make sure that the academic interests mentioned in the personal statement generally match the course being applied for.

Do you look at AS results, predicted grades or both when you’re making decisions about candidates?

For the last few years, Cambridge has been placing quite a lot of weight on performance at AS (the data analysis done by the University strongly suggests this as one of the best indicators for performance once at Cambridge). Because we ask applicants to declare their AS results in detail on the SAQ, we have access to a very detailed breakdown of Year 12 performance, which means we can see relative strengths and weaknesses within everyone’s profile (it also gives us a very good idea of whether teachers’ predictions are optimistic or pessimistic). It’s relied on heavily when deciding whether or not to invite to interview (although we also consider extenuating circumstances sympathetically), but it also comes into later decisions about whether to offer a place or not, when set alongside interview performance and any at-interview test results.

To what extent does the personal statement form the basis of the interview at Cambridge?

That depends very much on the subject. Typically science and maths interviews will make very little reference to it, while subjects that applicants usually haven’t taken at A-level might refer to it more. So someone applying to HSPS (Human, Social and Political Sciences), with a strong interest in Anthropology and Archaeology could expect to be asked about the interests they have talked about in their personal statement, for example. It’s generally a good idea for everyone to have read over their personal statement before the interviews, and ideal if they have further thoughts about what they wrote there.

Lots of my readers really worry about the opening sentence of their personal statement. How important is the opening sentence? What makes a good opening sentence?

I would always advise that the personal statement should be genuinely personal, and the opening sentence should reflect that, so try to avoid the cliché (‘I have always…’). Don’t obsess over it though – we do read the whole thing! And please don’t succumb to the temptation to copy something a friend has used – UCAS uses very effective plagiarism software to check.

How important is it to write about further reading you have done? How should you write about it?

This really is the key aspect of your personal statement – how you have furthered your interest in the subject you’re applying for. You need to say not just what you’ve done, but also what you’ve learnt from doing it, and what it has prompted you to do further. So for an applicant for English, this may well involve reflecting on some of the literature you’ve explored outside of school, while for a physics applicant it might involve describing some personal research you’ve carried out. It’s important to critically reflect on your exploration, rather than just list things.

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Do you look for work experience? Is its importance subject dependent or is it necessary for all subjects? What kind of information about work experience do you like to see?

Because Cambridge has very few vocational courses (really only Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and perhaps Architecture), we don’t expect the majority of our applicants to have relevant work experience. For that handful of subjects, we want to see that you have explored that line of work in enough depth that we can be certain of your commitment to it. Although we don’t have a set number of weeks that we expect, it is good if prospective medics and vets can show they have a variety of experience (so big and small animals for vets; perhaps some care home or hospice work for medics).

What balance do you like to see between information about why candidates want to study their chosen course and extra-curricular activities?

At Cambridge, we don’t actually place any weight on extra-curricular activities when assessing you (though we do like to see subject-related interests). However, lots of other universities do place weight on this, and you are not just applying to Cambridge, so make sure you mention these. The final paragraph is often used for this, and a 75% to 25% split between academic and non-academic interests is quite a good balance.

If someone doesn’t have any extra-curricular activities to write about does it matter?

This is absolutely fine – many applicants will just talk about their academic and subject-related interests.

What makes a great closing paragraph?

There is no recipe – as I’ve said, the closing paragraph is often the one devoted to non-academic interests. We are more interested in the content of the preceding paragraphs.

What about a personal statement immediately makes you want to offer an interview?

Although the personal statement only plays a small role in our interviewing decisions, genuine subject enthusiasm is something we always appreciate.

What’s a complete turn-off in a personal statement? What do you dislike the most in personal statements?

I don’t often come across personal statements that I actively dislike, but it’s always disappointing to find that the person you’re interviewing didn’t actually get around to reading the book they’ve discussed, or that they’ve exaggerated things (a holiday to Iceland isn’t geographical fieldwork, for example).

If a candidate is applying to Cambridge and they’ve been to a subject-specific conference or event at another university would you hold this against them?

Absolutely not! There are many really excellent outreach events organised by universities across the country, and enthusiastic sixth-form students should make the most of anything on offer.

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A few questions about Newnham….

What, in your opinion, makes Newnham different from other Cambridge (and Oxford) colleges?

Our clear difference is that we’re an all-female college (and all-female fellowship); everything is set up to specficially support female students, and we are a very friendly, unpretentious and democratic community. Our architecture is also different from traditional Cambridge colleges – light and beautiful Queen Anne-style buildings surrounding idyllic and extensive gardens whose use is actively encouraged.

What would make a candidate a good fit for Newnham?

Like all colleges, we select purely on academic grounds, but our applicants often choose Newnham because of the opportunities on offer, and the college atmosphere of mutual support and respect. There is no single ‘Newnham type’ – just lots of diversity and women from different backgrounds, but they all want to do well at Cambridge, and Newnham can be an excellent base for making the most of what the University has to offer. Newnham does attract women who like to think for themselves!

Can you tell us about the academic, pastoral and financial support available at Newnham?

The support available is excellent – every Newnham student has a Director of Studies who oversees their academic progress and a Tutor who looks after their general welfare. Newnham also has a dedicated Financial Tutor who oversees bursary and other financial provision (much of it generously funded by our former students, who also offer career development advice).

What is the social side of Newnham like?

Very outward-looking – our students say that they tend to have much broader friendship groups and social networks than is usual for Cambridge, and our students are involved in all aspects of University life. Although we do have sporting and social events within college (and a dedicated performing arts space, The Old Labs), and Newnham is viewed very much as ‘home’ and where your strongest friendships typically are, the rest of the University is also there to explore. (And if you’re wondering, guests are welcome – we’re absolutely not a girls’ school!)

What would you say to someone on the fence about applying to Newnham?

I would say come and visit, and talk to our current students. Many women are apprehensive about applying to Newnham, but our students usually dispel any misconceptions pretty quickly!

I would like to extend my thanks to Sam for sharing this very detailed information about the admissions process at Cambridge University and Newnham in particular.

If this interview has piqued your interest in Cambridge University or Newnham College itself I would encourage you to visit their websites to find out more.

If you would like more help with personal statements check out my ‘How to write a personal statement' resource page as well as the ways in which I offer one-to-one personal statement help.

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