English at Cambridge

UCAS Personal Statement

When I read Nabokov's Lolita, I found the book immediately engaging. Aside from what the narrator describes as a 'fancy prose style', the format of the text as a kind of monologic epistolary ('Ladies and gentlemen of the jury') is compelling for its ability to convey Humbert's psychological truth without this being his intention. The nomenclature in the famous beginning, and Humbert's countless diminutives for Lolita shows an eagerness to separate the girl from her innocence in the context of his own actions. His personal anguish at his transgressions forces him to manufacture the idea of a sensuous 'Lolita' - entirely inconsistent with the real Dolores, whose own name derives from the Latin 'sorrow' - as well as a world where his inexcusable obsession is justified by the existence of 'nymphets'. Nabokov perhaps showcases Humbert's idealisation as a form of cognitive dissonance - though the novel precedes Festinger's theory, it was likely influenced by Freud's conceptualisation of the ego - to cope with deviant desires; it's a way of psychologically distancing himself from a morally repugnant reality.

I am also reading Ada or Ardor as a comparison, along with critical literature surrounding the texts. Nabokov describes his best work as a 'clash [...] between the author and the world' as opposed to between the characters, and this is apparent in the very subjective realities of both Ivan and Humbert. Evidently, I find the tool of unreliable narration fascinating. The complexity and ambiguity of the unwritten narrative created by compromising the integrity of the speaker is something I think offers a great potential for depth of insight. In a wider investigation of this device I have closely analysed both 'My Last Duchess', and 'The Tell Tale Heart', and also read Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.

The stately home and other Gothic tropes in James' novel reminded me of Manderley in Rebecca, but it was du Maurier's other work, Jamaica Inn, which I found most interesting as a comparison. The vastly differing characterisation of the heroines I think is indicative of the greatly changing ideals of womanhood between the late 19th and 20th Century. While the governess in The Turn of the Screw seems uncomplicated, timid, and arguably hysterical, Mary Yellan embodies a role less obstructed by narrow Victorian paradigms of femininity. There are also parallels to be drawn between the somewhat morally ambiguous characters; the children at Bly seem angelic but may consort with ghosts, and Aunt Patience is almost the proverbial 'kicked dog' made manifest.

I appreciate poetry especially, for its efficiency in conveying meaning in limited words, and what is often a very rich subtext. In Armitage's 'About His Person', for example, the official tone and significance of the listed items is the only indication that the subject is dead.

The opportunity to study English at university would give me a sense of personal fulfilment as well as developing invaluable skills. I'm also considering extending my studies past undergraduate level, if I am able. In addition to my studies, I have enjoyed performing contemporary dance and in youth theatre: taking part in edited Shakespeare as Lady Macbeth and Juliet, as well as in more modern productions. I would credit to this an improved understanding of dramatic direction and effects, which I had struggled with previously. Within school, I attend a play-reading group, and was an administrator of my school's creative writing club. I have also been involved in counselling younger students struggling to adjust to secondary school, and recently took part in The BBC Student Critics' award.

Behind the Statement

How did you make start on your personal statement or begin planning?

I found it easiest to consider/note down what actually attracted me to the course, and try to connect them in a very loosely flowing 'narrative'. Ignoring the "qualifications" that would make me eligible and trying to show rather than tell why I'd enjoy/be successful the course. This is extremely specific to English Lit, but sometimes it can be beneficial to treat part of the personal statement like an essay or creative exercise of analysis.

How did you decide what experiences to include in your personal statement? What did you cut out?

I found it difficult to talk along the lines of 'I have done this and therefore am eligible', so made that a smaller portion. I also thought it best to cut any 'I am very passionate about...' phrases, since they add nothing; prove it, don't just say it. I'd advise mentioning several texts by name, but don't list.

How did you get these experiences in the first place?

In terms of primary texts, some I read in direct preparation, but most I had already encountered. I used secondary or critical reading as a shorthand for my thinking on the texts, so much of it I encountered in researching for the personal statement.

How did you structure your personal statement? 

80% essentially an exceedingly brief essay on what most interested me at the time, 20% extra- and super-curricular work that has some links to the course.

How did you decide on an introduction for your personal statement?

I didn't want to write an introduction, so I didn't.

How did you decide on a conclusion for your personal statement?

I concluded midway through ('The opportunity to study English at university would give me a sense of personal fulfilment [...]'). I felt the purpose was to name the course and summarise broadly why you'd like to do it, in as few words as possible. I don't view it as an important part of an English application, though it is probably wise to at some point show you're self-conscious of the exercise, and that this IS a personal statement aiming to convince that you'd really really like to study this course.

What do you think are the strengths of your personal statement?

Good balance of show/tell as well as essay vs. extracurricular. Relatively good linkage between paragraphs. Some good analysis, but poor grammar in places. Texts covered skew slightly to the more modern end, but this is pretty expected.

Is there anything you wish you knew beforehand/advice? 

It's not like any other piece of writing, and you'll probably never have to do anything like it again. It feels self-conscious and a bit cringy, but it's sort of supposed to. Also, its only a very small part of your application, especially if your university does interviews or admissions tests. It's not the be-all and end-all.

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