About our writer

Ben Jones graduated in politics and international relations (HSPS) from Cambridge University. He then interned for President Jimmy Carter and became a policy advisor to 10 Downing Street. Ben is also the founder of International Conflict Witness, an online conflict reporting platform, and is presently a freelance election observer.

Are you considering applying to university? If you are, you may have started to think about the personal statement, one of the most important parts of any university application. In this article, we will consider one strategy for success in personal statements, based on a talk I recently attended by Simon Sinek at the US Ambassador’s house in London. The idea is that personal statements can be more powerful by ‘starting with why’.

Consider these two excerpts from fictional personal statements:

I am applying to study politics. I am doing so because I want to work in a leading think tank. I am passionate about finding new ideas to old problems.

It’s a little wooden.

Now, compare that with this second excerpt:

I am passionate about finding new ideas to old problems. My vision is to devise these ideas as part of a leading think tank. I am applying to study politics to empower myself to do so.

Now, if you were an admissions tutor which of these two applicants would you want to accept?

This is far more powerful. According to Sinek, orator of one of the world’s most-watched TED talks: https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action/transcript?language=en , most communicators start with the ‘what’, then the ‘how’, then the ‘why’. This is just what happens in the first excerpt – and it is not remotely inspiring.

But Sinek claims that the best communicators, from Apple to Martin Luther King, do something different. They start now with the ‘what’, but with the ‘why’. People are inspired, he argues, not by what you do but by why you do it.

In our second example, it is clear that starting with ‘why’ leads to a more inspiring message. The centrality of ‘why’ makes for a more persuasive statement. After all, Sinek argues, Martin Luther King gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech – not the ‘I have a plan’ speech!

Cambridge Immerse has a wealth of expertise on the best strategies for personal statement success. We understand the most effective ways to communicate academic potential, and as part of our summer schools at Oxford and Cambridge universities for 15-18 year-olds, we host personal statement workshops. This helps teach our students the best techniques to write in a compelling way.

When it comes to university applications, it is important to communicate effectively not just in the personal statement. There is also a good chance that you will be required to demonstrate your attractiveness as a candidate at interview. Here, too, techniques such as ‘starting with why’ can be effective. Many candidates will be asked some variant of ‘why should we accept your application?’. Responding in the most persuasive manner is absolutely critical – so it pays to be aware of communications techniques.

This is why Cambridge Immerse offers interview preparation as part of our summer schools. The best way to put into practice what you have read about communicating at interview is by doing. We invite all our students to practice their interview skills with us so that they are prepared to thrive during their actual interview.

But being able to understand why you are applying to do a course is not just about success in the admissions process. It is also important so that you keep yourself motivated once you commence your course at university. This is why it is important to spend a good deal of time contemplating your choice of course.

Cambridge Immerse recognises this, and we offer students the chance to take two subjects simultaneously in order to empower them to make the best choice. By receiving a taster of what it is like to study one or two subjects at university, students are better able to choose the course that is right for them. In doing so, they are better able to demonstrate genuine enthusiasm at interview and in their personal statements.

So, whatever you are considering applying for, be sure to ensure you can explain why – and it is a good idea to ‘start with why’, too.

For more information on Cambridge Immerse’s summer schools, check out our website at https://www.cambridgeimmerse.com/enrol/ where applications are still open for our summer school at the University of Cambridge.

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