This write-up will explain largely the key questions surrounding applications to read Economics at LSE – Composition and direction of the Personal Statement and subject choices. I am currently studying BSc in Economics (L101) at LSE, having studied A level (History, Economics, Maths and Further Maths) at Kolej Tuanku Ja’afar previously.
The Personal Statement is undisputedly the most important component of your application. Tons of other applicants will possess stellar grades, which is where your statement will differentiate you from the others and land yourself an offer. If your grades aren’t stellar, likewise, this is the hinging factor that might place you over the others. Evidently rejections from LSE often fall back to faults in Personal Statements being not up to the standard LSE wants or that they do not reflect what LSE looks for in an applicant.
Let’s establish three simple principles to follow in writing your personal statement, which will apply to arguably all other university applications through UCAS. Firstly, your personal statement must reflect that your academic potential or interest. Secondly, your personal statement should be about academics. Thirdly, your personal statement should reflect you. Being able to follow these three divine commandments will, hopefully, bring out the essence of your application to British universities, with LSE included. Keep in mind that Economics at LSE is extremely competitive, you have no reason to slack off on your personal statement.
How shall I display my academic potential or interest?
The most intuitive way to do this is to display curiosity, sophistication and clear understanding of economic issues that deeply interest you. Given that, it might be helpful to start planning and think about burning questions or issues that you love way beforehand rather than to glide through economic books or textbooks to find the “most interesting topic”. You will be able to talk about topics that interest you deeply more intelligently, passionately and interestingly.
In my case, my initial draft largely consisted of brief mentions and analysis of books of different topics, ranging from financial crises, development, income disparity to policies. A clear problem was that it lacked depth and sophistication. Surely it displayed evidence of reading but certainly not competency. Realising that, my further drafts focused on largely a central topic – development. In doing so, the number of books mentioned was reduced significantly. Each book mentioned revealed a different aspect of developmental economics, while complementing and extending one another. At this point, it is easy to slip into a trap of summarising books you read. Avoid this and relate the content to what you have understood, or how it revealed a new aspect that sparks curiosity. A good way to do this is to either express an opinion in extension to your analysis of the book or an intelligent question.
A crucial aspect that might easily be overlooked is mathematics. Maths is the Holy Grail for LSE, especially for economics, which is maths-intensive. This means that you should display mathematical competency in your Personal Statement, not forgetting to relate maths with economics. Developing this portion in depth, supported by your understanding and perhaps, achievements in maths would be great. Remember however that listing your achievements in maths competitions is good but isn’t impressive in comparison to a candidate who shows awareness of relation between maths and economics in context.
How should I make my Personal Statement academic?
An appropriate answer to that would be to strike out/cut down on ECAs and personal interests that have no direct relation with Economics. However, that does not mean that your personal statement should be strictly without ECAs etc. Having internships and ECAs that directly relate to Economics would be very helpful if you are able to show that they facilitate your understanding of the subject. Intuitive examples could be debates and internships at the government/think tanks/financial institutes/research institutes. To be clear, it is imperative to discuss them in an academic context and not the typical “leadership/teamwork skills”. Surely the latter is interesting but less importance than the academic portions.
If you do feel the burning need to include unrelated ECAs or personal interests, to the point that you will not gain sufficient closure, do it by all means. However, do minimise it to perhaps, a short paragraph at most. It will contribute at most marginally, if not nothing at all, to the strength of your application, which also applies to generally highly selective universities. It is your personal statement regardless, do whatever that makes you most comfortable.
How do I reflect myself in my Personal Statement?
Given that UCAS Personal Statements are academic in content, having an essence of individuality would, supposedly, make your application more differentiable and perhaps, impressive. Notice how US college essays explicitly, and sometimes strictly, emphasise on revealing yourself as an individual. Your goal is to achieve that effect within the academic construct of a UCAS Personal Statement.
Understandably, it is relatively easy to achieve this effect in the introductory paragraph of your Personal Statement. A situation, observation or experience that relates to an Economic problem would be appropriate. Of course, do expound on it and if it relates to you to the point that it deserves to be in the first paragraph of your statement, you should be able to raise intelligent, sophisticated and nuanced questions/understanding.
Extending that, an issue that closely relates to you would also be an appropriate theme of your personal statement. This general theme allows you to explore a topic in depth easier and in context, particularly when you know first-hand about the economic problem/topic in discussion. Take the freedom in exploring in breadth but writing along a familiar theme comes with good depth, understanding and relative ease. Moreover, your Personal Statement avoids the pitfall of being a barrage of loosely linked academic topics, with a touch of dryness.
What subjects should I take?
LSE is part of the Russell Group universities, which are all selective research-intensive universities. A common thing that all of them share explicitly is their preference for traditional subjects over vocational/soft subjects. LSE, in particular, discourages explicitly its applicants from taking soft subjects such as Accounting (yes, even if you’re applying for Accounting and Finance), Law (even for Law applicants), media studies etc. Economics applicants should, therefore, take the precaution of taking traditional subjects given that your offer will exclude Further Maths from being part of the A*AA offer. Your grades for Further Maths, however well you do, will only count towards the “Pass in A2 Further Mathematics” segment. According to LSE’s international officer James Brown (2015), taking a soft subject will put your application at a disadvantageous position, which could, however, be amended by getting impressive grades (metric is uncertain but the mid-high 90s UMS range would make sense).
There is also an ever-going discussion over the necessity of Further Maths as a fourth subject. There are practical benefits of taking Further Maths if you are applying for Economics at LSE as well as at other universities. University Economics generally requires good mastery of mathematics. More than half of your first year modules in LSE will be about maths, which means that taking Further Maths will help you in going about university easier than those without.
There is a saying that goes “taking Further Maths will not give you any advantage but not taking it will disadvantage your application.” Although there are people who have obtained offers without taking Further Maths, there is no reason to deliberately put one aspect of your application in a weaker position.
Given that, an optimal subject combination should comprise of Maths, Further Maths and 2 hard subjects. Hard subjects include but are probably not limited to the following: History, Economics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English Literature, Geography, Classical Studies and Languages. A list of “non-preferred” subjects is available on the LSE website itself under the page titled “LSE’s entry requirements”.
On a less related note, given that people applying for similar subjects might be viewing this, specifically Econometrics and Mathematical Economics that normally doesn’t accept first year entries, it is stated on the subject page on the LSE website that taking at least one physical science would be attractive, from which you will also find out that they don’t normally accept direct entries into first year.
What if my AS exams were to go wrong?
I suppose this segment is only relevant to those who would take their AS exams in summer (May/June) before UCAS application opens. A quick answer would be that you’re probably doomed. Fear not, however, as mentioned previously, your spectacular, groundbreaking, marvelous, impressive, stellar Personal Statement might be able to save you. Nonetheless, if your AS grades are only a grade away from the grade requirements and that your predictions meet them, you’re probably still in for the game. I cannot stress how important it is to perform well in your AS exams. Re-sits are possible but you might have to compensate on your A2. Worst of all is that the not-so-good AS grades will have to be declared on UCAS.
In instances where extenuating circumstances such as medical conditions, staffing issues etc. have affected your grades, declare them. In my case, I had a history teacher crisis in which there was a lack of a teacher for disturbingly long period of time. Unsurprisingly, I managed to obtain only a ‘b (76)’ for my AS History.. The point is that if your extenuating circumstances have affected your grades such that they do not reflect your academic performance, declare them with the utmost and shameless honesty. It is still possible that you stand as strong as or stronger than others with better grades.
Suah Jing Lian is currently a Bank Negara Malaysia Kijang Scholar who is pursuing Economics in the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He has a penchant for Baroque music, particularly Bach’s partitas, and debating, which he claims provides sparks to his life. People claim that he looks and speaks in an intimidating way but not really, he’s one of the most eccentric people you will ever meet.