Personal statement advice: English

Are you looking to study English literature or language at university? You'll need to pay attention to more than just your spelling and grammar, according to admissions tutors. Here's what else budding literary students will need to showcase – or avoid – in their applications.
‘Turn offs? Deep and meaningful philosophical statements, overlong sentences, baroque syntax, and incorrect punctuation...’ Dr Luke Thurston – Director Of Recruitment For English & Creative Writing | Aberystwyth University

What do English tutors look for in a personal statement?

If you're about to start drafting your personal statement, thinking about this question is a good place to kick off your thought process. Here's what a couple of admissions tutors we spoke to said...

‘A succinct and focused statement that:

  • specifies the kind of books you enjoy
  • details the specific aspects of literary study that appeal to you and, crucially, why
  • is written in good English (naturally), using correct punctuation and uncomplicated syntax.

‘You should be specific about the texts, contexts, and critical tendencies that really excite you. We read hundreds of statements each year, but genuine passion and detail will always catch our eye.

‘Be wary of writing about authors or texts that are almost certain to attract a huge amount of popular attention, whether it be Kerouac’s On the Road, the Harry Potter series, or Joyce's Ulysses. Try to be original and passionate without waxing lyrical.’ Dr Padraig Kirwan – American Literature Lecturer | Goldsmiths, University Of London

Which texts and authors should you cover?

Do use your statement as an opportunity to discuss one or two specific writers you're interested in – and preferably one who isn’t on the GCSE or A-Level English syllabus. It's a great way of demonstrating your interests and what inspires you about the study of literature.

Be genuine. Tutors want to hear an account in your own words of those books and features of literature that you found most enjoyable. But, while you might want to try and think outside the box by picking a more unusual novelist or poem, don't be obscure just for the sake of it. An insightful, imaginative, and critical response to literature is what will impress, not what's on your bookshelf.

As Keele University says, it’s fine to talk about your wider cultural insights too, such as plays you’ve seen or pieces of journalism you’ve liked.

What else should you include?

  • A strong opening – like the literary greats, you need to engage the reader from the very first line. Avoid gimmicks by keeping it specific. 'I don’t want a philosophical essay on the joys of reading, I want to know what turns you on about literature – start with that', one admissions tutor told us.
  • Evidence that demonstrates you're an analytical reader – not just someone who enjoys reading. For example, University of Bristol admissions tutors want to see some evidence of your analytical approach to the books you've read, and for you to express this in a way that shows clear thinking and understanding.
  • Your long-term career goals – if you have a profession in mind, do expand on this (warning: just saying you 'want to be a journalist' will make you sound like thousands of others). If you don't know what you want to do yet though, don't worry.
  • Your ambitions – according to Dr Emma Bainbridge, an English Admissions Officer at the University of Kent, expanding on what you hope to achieve while studying literature, not just what you already know, will impress.

English personal statement pitfalls to avoid

  • A boring opening – avoid 'I have always loved literature/reading' or 'I have always had a passion for literature…'.
  • Irrelevant context – talking about the Beatrix Potter book you were given when you were six probably won’t impress.
  • Overblown language – English applicants need a strong writing style, but don't go overboard. Cut lines like 'I was totally encapsulated by To Kill a Mockingbird' or 'my achievements at school were vast', and limit reaching for that 'synonyms' button.
  • Cut the cheese – the University of Southampton very sensibly suggests avoiding rhetorical phrases like 'So why English and philosophy, then?' You are applying to an English department, not The Apprentice.
  • Poor spelling and grammar – it is an English degree, after all!

Extracurricular interests

Most universities like to see some detail of this, but keep it interesting and brief – probably 20% maximum – and ask yourself why it’s relevant. For example, your experience listening to or coaching readers in your local primary school will probably make more impact than playing badminton.

How much you dedicate in your statement to outside interests will also depend on the kind of English degree you're applying for, or whether you're combining it with another subject.

Dr Antonella Castelvedere at University Campus Suffolk, whose degree course focuses on English language as well as literature, is looking for students to reflect on both elements, and mentions book group membership, theatre attendance, cultural projects or voluntary work in schools as examples of the kind of activities that would impress – along with anything that demonstrates inquisitiveness or critical thinking.

Put your personality into it

The English department at Royal Holloway reinforces Dr Thurston's point above about being turned off by ‘deep and meaningful philosophical statements’. The bottom line is, they would much rather read about you, your tastes in reading, your cultural activities, your aspirations, and some of your relevant personal experiences.

In summary, do try to give them a sense of your analytical approach and the breadth of your literary or cultural interests. But engage them with your passion and enthusiasm too.

Read more advice about writing your personal statement, and our English subject guide, covering courses, entry requirements, and careers.