Art School Personal Essay Definition

"Fashion is not simply a matter of clothes; fashion is in the air, born upon the wind; one intuits it." That's a quote from Coco Chanel – and it's how not to start a personal statement for a fashion degree.

When applying for a university fashion course, your personal statement won't even be read though if your portfolio is not good enough.

Willie Walters, programme director for fashion at Central St Martins, said the personal statement is "secondary" to portfolio work.

"I don't even read the statements unless the work looks interesting," she says.

Walters advises applicants to make their portfolio work as clear as possible, and to include research and sketchbook work, as well as photographs of design pieces. "We look for originality and something fresh."

When it comes to the written statement, saying you have a "passion for fashion" is an immediate no-no, says Josephine Collins, course leader for fashion journalism at the London College of Fashion.

"It's easy to do and sounds great but we've seen it so many times before," she warns. Similarly, admissions tutors cringe when confronted with yet another tired quote from a fashion icon.

Fashion related courses are notoriously competitive, so avoiding clichés is an important way to make your application stand out, says Andrew Groves, course director for fashion design at the University of Westminster.

"Put yourself in my shoes," says Groves, who reads over 1,000 personal statements each year. "How would you make yours different from all those other applications?"

Although mentioning your favourite designer is a good idea, you should think carefully about who you cite, says Mal Burkinshaw, programme director of fashion at Edinburgh University.

"We always have the same designers quoted. Every now and then someone says they are interested in a more conceptual designer and it makes them stand out. You can tell they are engaging more deeply."

Evidence of engagement with fashion is essential, agree tutors, but make sure you are thinking about it as a serious industry.

"Fashion is the third largest industry in the UK," says Jane Gottelier, programme leader of the fashion department at Falmouth University.

"I steer clear of students who talk mainly about celebrity fashion and TV programmes in their personal statements because it makes me think that they see fashion as something rather fluffy," she says.

As well as explaining why you want to study fashion and listing any relevant work experience, it's also important to show interests outside of fashion, say tutors.

"Some of our fashion courses are really business-orientated," says Liz Barnes, senior lecturer in fashion at Manchester University, "so demonstrating a commercial mind is key."

Outside interests show an engagement with general society that is important for a fashion student, and key to fashion admissions tutors.

It's important to be up to date on current news, to prove an academic interest and to show curiosity about the world and an inquisitive mind. If you have an unusual hobby don't be afraid to mention it as it might help yourself get noticed.

"I've had ice skaters, an Olympic-standard gymnast and stick insect collectors," says Anne Chaisty, principal lecturer in fashion studies at the Arts University Bournemouth.

Fashion may be portrayed as a cut-throat industry, but people who are interested in giving something back interest Chaisty.

"We look for students who want to make a positive difference through what they do as a designer," she says.

Accuracy and a good flow are things all tutors agree on when it comes to a good personal statement, but Barnes says you should also be in tune with the specifics of your course.

"There are lots of courses that are called fashion marketing, for example, but the content of those courses will vary enormously," Barnes explained.

"Understand the course you are applying for and tailor the personal statement to match."

For courses where a portfolio carries a heavier weighting than the personal statement, it is still important to express personality in your written statement.

Tutors say individuality and character are perhaps the most important things to convey.

"Don't contrive something for the sake of it," advises Chaisty, "just be honest, be natural and be yourself."

Just don't quote Coco Chanel.

This article was amended on 19 September to correct an error, changing Willie Walters' job title from course leader to programme director of fashion at Central St Martin's.

People sometimes think that there is a trick to writing a personal statement for Oxford, or that we are looking for some special secret formula, but this is not the case. Writing a personal statement for Oxford is no different from writing a personal statement for any other university. In fact it’s important to remember that the same wording will be seen by all the universities you apply to and should therefore focus on the course you want to study, not the universities themselves. Please read this helpful advice from UCAS about writing your personal statement.

How important is the personal statement?

Universities build a picture of you as a student from all the different information you provide, to help decide whether or not to offer you a place. The picture is made up of several different pieces: your personal statement, academic record, predicted A-level grades (or equivalent), and your teacher's reference. For most courses at Oxford you will also need to take an admissions test or submit written work as well (check the details for your course). If your application is shortlisted, your interview will also be taken in to account. This means that your personal statement is important but it’s not everything: it’s just one part of the overall picture.

What are Oxford tutors looking for?

Tutors at Oxford are only interested in your academic ability and potential. They want to see that you are truly committed to the subject or subjects you want to study at university but it’s not enough just to say that you have a passion for something: you need to show tutors how you have engaged with your subject, above and beyond whatever you have studied at school or college. This can include any relevant extracurricular activities.

Try to avoid writing your personal statement as though you are ticking things off a list. There is no checklist of required achievements, and tutors will not just scan what you have written to look for key words or phrases. Tutors will read your personal statement to try to understand what has motivated you to apply for their course. It’s a good idea to evaluate your experiences, to show what you have learned from them and how they have helped develop your understanding of your subject.

Should I include extracurricular activities?

If you're applying for competitive courses, which includes any course at Oxford, we typically suggest that you focus around 80% of your personal statement on your academic interests, abilities and achievements. This can include discussion of any relevant extracurricular activities. The remaining 20% can then cover any unrelated extracurricular activities.

There’s a myth that Oxford is looking for the most well-rounded applicants, and that you will only be offered a place if you have a long list of varied extracurricular activities. In fact, extracurricular activities are only helpful in so far as they demonstrate the selection criteria for your course. 

Do I need experience of work and travel?

We understand that not everyone has the opportunity to do work experience or to go travelling so these activities are not a requirement for any of our courses. Tutors won’t be impressed by your connections, or the stamps in your passport, but they will be impressed by how you’ve engaged with your subject.

For example, some of our applicants for Medicine may have had work experience placements in prestigious hospitals but not be able to evaluate their time there. If you have no more experience than some simple voluntary work, or even just discussing medical matters with your friends and family, you can still write an effective personal statement by reflecting critically on what you have learned and discussed. 

To give another example, for the History of Art, tutors will not want to hear about all the galleries and exhibitions that you have visited around the world if you cannot discuss the art that you saw. You can come across more effectively in your personal statement by evaluating art you have seen, even if you’ve only seen it online or in books without ever leaving the school library.

Don’t be put off by any friends who you think have more impressive things to say in their personal statements. Remember that tutors do not have a checklist of achievements that they are looking for: they want to see how you have engaged with your subject.

I’m applying to different courses at different universities – how should I write my personal statement?

If you are thinking of applying for completely different courses at different universities (eg Physics and Accounting, or Biology and Music) we’d encourage you to reconsider. It’s important to choose a subject area that you really want to study, and focus on that one area when making your applications. Also, you can only write one personal statement which will be seen by all the universities to which you apply, so it needs to be relevant for all your courses.

If you are thinking of applying for related courses at different universities then we suggest that you avoid using course titles in your personal statement. We recommend that you write about your interest in the general course themes, and how you have engaged with relevant subject areas, so that your personal statement is equally relevant for each of your course choices. 

Does my personal statement need to stand out?

Students sometimes feel that they need to say something dramatic to stand out from the crowd and be really memorable in their personal statement but this is not true. Applying to Oxford is not like a talent show where you may only have a few seconds to make an impression. Tutors consider each application carefully on its individual merits, looking for evidence of your commitment and ability. If you use your personal statement to demonstrate your academic abilities and your engagement with your subject or subjects, then your application will be memorable for all the right reasons.

Where should I start?

Think about talking to your friends about what you want to study at university: what would you tell them? What have you read or watched or seen that has inspired you? (This might have been at school, at home, in a museum, on TV, in a book, on YouTube or a podcast or anywhere else.) Why was it interesting? What do you want to find out next? What did you do?

If you find this difficult, it might be time to think about whether or not you’ve really chosen the right course. If you can’t think of anything that has inspired you, this lack of enthusiasm will probably come across in your personal statement, or it will become clear at interview, and you’re unlikely to gain a place at Oxford. If you find it easy to answer these questions, you will have a long list of ideas to help you write your personal statement.

When you start to write, remember not just to list your achievements but show how they have affected you, how you have benefited, and what you’d like to learn next. Be honest about yourself and what has inspired you, whether that’s been text books, museums and literature, or websites, podcasts and blogs. Be sure to tell the truth, as tutors might check later, so don’t exaggerate and certainly don’t make any false claims. Don’t hold back either – this is no time for modesty.

When you've written a first draft, have a look back at the selection criteria for your course and think about the evidence you've given for each of the criteria. Have you covered everything?

How many versions should I write?

Ask a teacher to read through what you’ve written, listen to their feedback and then make any updates that they suggest. You may need two or three tries to get it right. Don’t keep writing and rewriting your statement though, as it is more important to keep up with your school or college work, and to explore your subject with wider reading. (See suggested reading and resources.)

Some dos and don’ts

  • DON’T be tempted to make anything up, as you might be asked about it at interview.
  • DON’T copy anyone else’s personal statement. UCAS uses plagiarism detection software.
  • DON'T list qualifications like your GCSE grades or anything else that's covered elsewhere on the application.
  • DON’T just list your other achievements: you need to evaluate them.
  • DON'T feel the need to be dramatic in order to be memorable.

 DO:

  • Apply for a course you really want to study.
  • Be yourself: tell the truth about your interests.
  • Sell yourself: this is not the time for modesty.
  • Reread your personal statement before an interview – the tutors will.
  • Read the UCAS guidance on personal statements.

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