Oxford PPE Application Part 1: UCAS

Corpus ChristiI’m Weiling from Port Dickson. I did A-levels at Inti International University, Nilai, and hold a conditional offer from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, to read PPE.

PPE stands for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. I think my teachers, especially, are quite dismissive when I tell them I’m going to study a subject that isn’t hard science (or law), but they tend to soften when I say I’m going to Oxford to do it.

My sponsor (Bank Negara) stipulated that I must apply for pure Economics where possible. Oxford does not offer Economics as a standalone course, so I was permitted to choose PPE – it’s arguably one of the most famous courses here. (If you are under no such restrictions, please be aware that many universities offer PPE or variants of it! Applying for different courses in different universities may complicate your personal statement. If you prefer pure Economics, Cambridge has just such a course – you can choose it instead of Oxford.)

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I was lost when people said “…of course, you apply through UCAS” because they never explained what it was. When I finally looked it up, I realised it was because they didn’t need to. If you don’t know what UCAS is, just google it and go to their website. They are obscenely clear about things.

You can and should apply for a maximum of five universities through UCAS (maximum of one Oxbridge university). You will have to fill in basic personal details, attach a reference letter from a lecturer or counsellor (who will also submit your predicted grades, if you don’t have your official results yet), and write one personal statement, which will be sent to all the universities you apply to.

… okay, that’s the only preface you need.

Personal Statement

What is it?

An essay that admissions officers will look at in deciding whether or not to offer you a place. Ideally it should explain why you’re interested and how you’re qualified. The personal statement needs to be 4,000 characters or under, including spaces. This is the part people worry about the most.

I won’t post my personal statement here in case someone gets the wrong idea. I got rejected by two very highly respected institutions: LSE and UCL. (Note: I applied for Economics to LSE, UCL, Warwick and Durham.) My essay was a strong PPE essay… with insufficient emphasis on Economics, according to LSE. When writing it, I carefully crafted it such that it would stress my passion for philosophy and politics, but related it to an all-encompassing theme of economics.

I only realised how much I was staking on Oxford when I got my first reply, about three weeks after my application was sent.

It was from LSE.

It was a rejection.

… Happily, Durham offered the following week, and Oxford shortlisted me for interviews the fortnight after.

Disclaimer: everyone has their own style of writing, and none is better than the other. This was how my personal statement went:

Introduction: I linked my life principles and childhood interests to “political economy, and the philosophies behind it” (Not-exactly-fun fact: Economics used to be known as “political economy”, and originated from moral philosophy.)
Body: The following paragraphs explained the parts I enjoy the most about economics – inevitably, its philosophy and uses in politics.

An excerpt:

“Questions of legislation and state intervention in the economy pique my curiosity. Equality and social justice are issues close to my heart. Growing up in Malaysia, a country distinctive for its affirmative action in favour of the majority race, has made me ponder the definitions of racism and secularism. The policies of my country have fostered division socially as surely as it has closed racial gaps economically. My experience working with the marketing department of my college has shown me that private firms must play by race in the market because of this. It has caused me to question the dynamism of democracy, and whether there truly are those who are “more equal than others”, as Orwell’s Animal Farm puts it.”

I basically explained what I liked and gave an example of it in Malaysia. Here I also linked it to working experience and a relevant book I’ve read. Some of it was unintentional – all of it came from the heart. And to be frank, “working with the marketing department” was being a part-time telemarketer who attended a marketing department meeting in college.

I wrote another two paragraphs detailing how I had important learning skills like critical thinking, problem solving, “mathsy” skills, self-discipline etc. It was linked with my school stuff (science stream, Scouting, debating, OMK, and I totally should have said chess! Why didn’t I?! Argh!) as well as stuff I did myself (reading, watching talks and debates).

Ending: A brief note on what I want to accomplish after my degree, and another mention of “political economy and the philosophy it operates on.”

Reference and Predicted Grades

I got my Physics lecturer to write about me. I didn’t read it.  Nevertheless, he was my favourite and my closest lecturer. And it was a last minute thing… So much for self-discipline. I did not know I had to request predicted grades from my faculty, or that it usually took three working days. I asked my Head of Programme to print one out on the spot. It was A*AAA.

Pro-tip: get it all sorted out at least a week before the deadline, which, for Oxford apps, is mid-October.

Review & Advice

In hindsight I could have done a much better job of applying. My application was sent on the day itself by my college – without my predicted grades. And as you can see, my grades were the bare minimum for those top universities I applied to (UCL may have rejected me for this). Individual universities requested my grades, except LSE and Oxford. If I was offered a place, it must have been based on my personal statement and relatively good academic track record.

I have some words of advice for future applicants:

DO set a much earlier deadline for yourself. I suggest starting a draft of your personal statement a few months in advance – don’t put it off! It may not be perfect at the beginning. Start early and you can take your time editing it.

“The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”
– Joshua Wolf Shenk

A well-written reference letter is also very importa

nt, so choose your referee well and give them time!

DO look things up yourself – I hardly need to state this. If you’re really interested, you’d find out what there is to know about the application process, the university and/or course requirements, the style of teaching, scholarships etc. Websites like The Student Room (http://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/) are your friends.

*By the way, Durham accepts alternate personal statements in place of the one submitted through UCAS.

DO find someone to proofread your essays. Sometimes we get so caught up in our views, we forget that the personal statement is read by someone who has never met us and doesn’t understand us completely. That said, take advice discerningly. Someone I know had his friends read his personal statement and comment, only to edit it in a way that was not at all what they suggested. It is entirely possible that you may get some sort of an epiphany from your teacher/parents/friends’ comments, even if it isn’t what they mean.

DO make the personal statement personal. There is no fixed format – anything goes as long as it reflects YOU and YOUR passion. And is, preferably, easy to read.

DO what you want to do! Apply for your dream university, even if it isn’t the one your parents/teachers/friends want you to go to. Just make sure your personal statement is not specific to any one university.

DO focus on your exams as well – hence the “early deadline” advice. Don’t let your worry about meeting deadlines affect your exam preparation.

DON’T PANIC! (Actually I just put this here for Douglas Adams fans. But, well, try not to panic.)

And paradoxically… don’t take advice! Just read it, weigh it, and make up your own mind. Chances are, you’re a legal adult now, and fully aware of how much not-very-credible information is out there. Trust yourself.

May the force be with you.

Read Part 2 of this story HERE


Wei LingThe University of Oxford claims that BNM scholar Tay Weiling is sure to “achieve the required grades and subsequently enjoy” reading PPE there. Meanwhile she dabbles in everything from poetry to parkour to particle physics. You won’t find her easily – the wild Weiling is shy of strangers.

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