I have been helping one of my students with his personal statement, in which he is to outline his ‘passion for engineering’.
The personal statement is an odd document. It is a piece of writing which accompanies your application to university in the UK, and which is sent to all universities to which you apply. In it, you outline, in a personal manner, what qualifies you above others for a place on the course in question. So, if you are applying to study medicine, you would outline your empathy, your interest in human physiology, your voluntary work with the St. John’s Ambulance, your Duke of Edinburgh award (inevitably); you would write of your passion for skeletal abnormalities or your childhood obsession with playing doctor. And so on.
It is meant, I suppose, to soften the world of hard metrics – exam grades, predicted exam grades, SAT tests, IQ tests, IELTS tests, and so on – which would otherwise determine your fate. It adds a bit of personal flavour. By no means all universities now interview for places, so for many it will represent your only chance to put a human face on your percentile performance.
Only it probably makes no difference to anyone’s application. Some universities explicitly state that they will only seriously look at the personal statement if grades are borderline. Thus, if you are having a hard time meeting requirements for medicine at Cambridge because you are devoting your off hours to voluntary work with Medicines sans frontieres in sub-saharan Africa, you might get a second look. But the fact is, universities will look at your academic record, and that will determine where you finish.
Those universities which routinely interview, Cambridge among them, will naturally enough be looking for something a bit different from good exam performance. As a Colonel in the Italian army once put it to me, colonels get promoted to generals based on their performance as colonels, not on their potential to be generals, and these are two different things. Similarly, good students at school might do poorly when the parental whip stops cracking at university, and poor students at school will frequently flourish in the more liberal atmosphere of a university.
The personal statement is an attempt to bridge that gap. If it fails, it fails not least because human beings are quick learners and even quicker mimics. By now, everyone knows what is expected. A university admissions officer will be faced with hundred of identikit blurbs, and will, consciously or unconsciously, filter them all out as you might filter out spam advertising.
On the TV cookery show, Masterchef, they once experimented with a segment called ‘The Passion Test’, wherein contestants had to talk for one minute about ‘how badly they wanted it’ – it being victory in the competition. Needless to say, they all wanted it ‘really badly’. Food truly was their passion. Some were so passionate, they cried actual tears. The segment was ditched.