The new school year is only a few weeks old, and it's started already: the awkward moment when a final year student shuffles over after class, shamefaced, a piece of paper or a memory stick in their hand, and asks me whether I would read the Personal Statement for their UCAS form.
I'm probably not even meant to do it, but somehow I can't quite resist it, ever year: trying to help any sixth former I know well to find a way of explaining to the universities to which they might like to apply just who they are and who they're going to be.
It's not an easy thing, explaining your personality in no more than 4000 characters. Far too many people seem to start off thinking that it's just a list of things you've done - teams joined, competitions entered, prizes won. If you do that, they think, then you've sold yourself as someone who does well. And up to a point, that's quite correct: you're ticking all kinds of boxes such as teamwork and application and time-management and conscientiousness and the ability to succeed.
But it's not just about that - because if it were, life would be so simple. We could all just wear the t-shirts to prove that we had 'been there and done that', and nobody would ever have the slightest need to try to get to know anybody else. But that's the thing about t-shirts. People wear t-shirts with logos and quotations which they don't even understand. Millions of tourists buy the 'official' t-shirts or hoodies of top international universities every year, and for some of them, reading the label inside bearing the garment's washing instructions might be the closest they come to studying anything.
Perhaps everyone is just a little bit aspirational, deep down: we all like to think of ourselves as intelligent, interesting and worth knowing, so if we can make a personal statement of a sort, even through the few characters of a logo, to advance this opinion on unwritten application form of how we present ourselves to others, then maybe doing so tells our unseen application panel everything they need to know.
It's not as easy as that, though, explaining your personality in black and white. When I'm faced with an application form of my own, I always feel that I should pass the question on to somebody who knows me well, because when it comes to my own character, the words for which I am never normally lost desert me quite completely.
I could list details: co-ordinates of age and nationality and dates, marital status and educational history. I could list a job description: classes taught, duties carried out, exam results attained by my classes over far too many years. I could list the things I do in what little spare time remains: the musical instruments I seldom have time to play, and the few books which I still find time to read. But would that mean anything at all, really, any more than the cosy hoodie I still pull on on winter nights could ever define just how much my years at university made me who I am?
If I were to write down all the things I do as a means of explaining who I am, all that anybody reading it would know is that I'm usually very busy, I'm probably very tired and I must like books and talking to people. And although that's all quite true, it's still missing the point. I think. It's missing the point that most things I say are punctuated by the kind of humour which makes people despair instead of laughing.
That I seem to be the slightly quiet person whom people forget to invite on a night out, but that I might equally talk to the point of over-enthusiastic hand-waving about books or politics or music while drinking too much coffee with good friends. That I might read late into the night and then read some more, and that although I love writing I might have struggled with even this brief an attempt at self-description. And there isn't really a writing frame for that kind of honesty - or a t-shirt you can wear to symbolise it.
To sum up one entire character within a 4000 character limit is almost impossible, yet it's how we're judged. Been there. Done that. Wrote the statement. Met the character limit. It's the ultimate in complex arithmetic and the self-defining division problem upon which your entire future could depend. It's difficult, though. Because, just think about it. What happens when you divide one by 4000?
1/4000 equals 0.00025. You've tried it out. You've done your best. But the figures don't lie. You're left with a fraction of yourself so tiny, it can only just be seen.
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