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Writing a Personal Statement...

I have worked with students applying to university to study English for years. The Personal Statement is now a big part of the application: it is seen as a mission statement; a way of signalling interest, passion and committment; a way of standing out from the crowd. I have always told my students to start thinking about the Personal Statement (and I am deliberately capitalising the words) at the start of the sixth form: what kind of novels do you enjoy? is there a pattern in your reading generally? if you like nineteenth-century poetry, for instance, read some more. With an increasing number of applicants for places at good universities, English departments do look at personal statements as a way of seeing if a student is excited about reading English. Those few universities which still include interviews as part of the application process focus on the statement in the interviews themselves and so it is important that no student claims to have read everything by Trollope when in fact she hasn't: she will be found out.

Back in the late 1980s when I applied to study English, things were much simpler. I filled in something which was then called the UCCA form. I have little memory of it, but given it was something I wrote by hand I doubt I spent as long on it as students spend on their personal statements today. I vaguely remember talking about the jobs I had had outside school (working in a deli on Saturdays, delivering papers) but little else. I got realistic offers for the universities I applied to (BBC was the highest I think) and I sat the 'Oxbridge' exam in the November. This led to an interview, which led to an unconditional offer (two Es in my A levels). Now it is much tougher: although the ELAT is intended to test intuitive reading and the exam I sat in 1987 required huge amounts of preparation, the offer that is given - if you get through the ELAT and the interview itself - is still tortuously high. I was able to relax after I got my offer.

This year I am working with several students applying to read English at university: one at Cambridge and one at Oxford. We have spent time discussing their personal statements and they have spent even longer writing and refining it. It is an act of marketing, pure and simple. You need to find a way of making yourself appear interested, interesting and teachable in 4000 characters, without resorting to too many clichés or sounding too pompous. And I use the word 'too' advisably: it is pretty hard not to use clichés or to not sound pompous in this exercise.

Flora, who I have worked with for over four years now and who is currently applying to study English at university, suggested that I had a go at writing a personal statement myself to see how it actually felt to do so. And so I did. Here it is. I have spent three weeks doing it and I can confirm that it is incredibly tough to write: to strike that balance between confident and arrogant; to not sound too learned or too naive; to sound excited but not so excited that one doesn't believe anything that is written. This is absolutely not a model personal statement; it is simply my personal statement, written at the age of 46 as if I was applying for a place to study English at university for the first time now in 2016. It has been an interesting experiment and I can conclude that the process is a tough one. Perhaps a good one, a way of working out what one really feels about a subject one is prepared to commit to for at least three years, but nevertheless a tough one.

My Personal Statement, 2016

Literature, for me, is both a place of safety and a site of disturbance. It is a world I have occupied all my life. As a child, I found it difficult to separate myself from the real and the imaginary; even now I take pleasure from the disappearance of the existing world and the overtaking of the world, happy or not, that an author creates for me. As an adult reader, I am able to examine this process critically even as I am overtaken: the seduction of words, their sounds and patterns; the wonder of a story. The need to understand how it works and to be able to communicate this almost inexplicable magic is what makes me a student of literature as well as a reader.

My main literary pleasure lies in fiction. My reading covers most genres and I have always been interested in exploring the questions ‘What makes a good novel?’ and ‘Who decides?” I am curious about the way that the Canon was formed: the selection of texts that exemplified what Matthew Arnold called ‘the best which has been thought and said’. How were these texts selected and what criteria were used to judge the notion of ‘good’? When I read a ‘good’ detective novel, I ask myself about the difference between this and a novel by someone like Dickens. How does his portrayal of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House differ from that of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus? Unity of landscape and character? Page-turning plot? Imagery? Both writers tick all these boxes. I also enjoy the relationship between reader and narrator, and how a good writer exploits this. I like the unreliability of Lucy Snowe in Villette; the deliberate deceptions of Briony Tallis in Atonement and Dr Shepherd in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; the selective truthfulness of Nick Carroway in The Great Gatsby; and the self-deception of Alysoun in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue. All these voices unsettle the status of fiction and make me marvel at the ability of good writing to sustain a truth.

I love poetry. Kathleen Jamie is my favourite living poet, evoking the treeless Orcadian landscape and the pain of isolation. Tennyson is my preferred Victorian poet, with his allusions to Arthurian legends and a life-long grief. But T. S. Eliot’s poems would accompany me to my desert island: his journey towards self-knowledge via Prufrock (a hint of mermaids) and The Wasteland (a hint of peace) concluding in the perfection of the Four Quartets cannot be surpassed by any other writer. I am especially interested in the relationship between form and meaning: the anxious form of Prufrock; the alliterative verse and kennings in ‘The Seafarer’; the calculated elegance of Shakespeare’s sonnets; the a-symmetrical 11-lined stanzas of Keats’ exquisite ‘Ode to Autumn’, a suggestion of what is always, and yet never, to come; the echo of waves in Plath’s ‘Full Fathom Five’ with its three-lined stanzas loaded with internal and eye rhymes. For me a poem must sing as much as it must share an idea.

Theatre has always been part of my life. There are two productions that stand out for me. The image I have of Anthony Hopkins’ King Lear is a pathetic old man holding his grey sleeves; I secretly wanted a stronger Lear, like that of Anthony Sher but Hopkins’ was closer to my interpretation. And I remember a marionette version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, the darkness of which stayed with me. Both disturbed me. Edward Bond said that catharsis provides too easy an option, and I agree: we need to leave the theatre unsettled for a play to mean anything. And so I prefer plays that make me feel uncomfortable and force me to question the status quo.

Aside from reading and writing, I enjoy the outside world. I like the stillness of gardening and the energy of mountain biking. More recently I have learnt to ski and scuba dive, both of which have given me access to the world from a different viewpoint. The state of suspension in diving is something that I find very powerful, and given my obsession with mermaids, this is not perhaps surprising.

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