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Sun 21 Aug 2011 13:30 BBC Radio 4 FM only

Duration:
30 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 21 August 2011

f you want to get into university these days it's not just A-level grades that matter. You need a brilliant personal statement as well. That's because most universities don't interview anymore. There are just too many applicants. So they rely on the UCAS form and in particular the section where pupils have to sum up their whole life so far in 4000 characters. The personal statement. But what should it say?

Imogen Stubbs investigates how to write a personal statement, choosing as her case study one of the most competitive subjects at university: law. She asks 2 experts to re-write a personal statement she's cobbled together from examples on the internet: The director of 6th form in a top state school and a former top judge both do their best. But which one will convince the admissions tutor?

Producer: Lore Windemuth
A Loftus Audio production for BBC Radio 4.

  • Guy Summers’ original Personal Statement

    Aristotle once said that ‘the law is reason free of passion’. I disagree completely and my evidence is my enormous passion for Law at university. In my opinion law has always had a bad name, Hamlet, thinking about suicide, talks about ‘the law’s delay, ‘ and in another play of Shakespeare’s , Henry VI Part 2, when two characters are discussing how to achieve social justice, one says ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’ But despite it’s many faults the law is vital to the way we live, and therefore it is what I want to study.

    One reason I am passionate about reading law, particularly criminal and human rights law is a sense of duty to society. And right now society is under threat. I believe that there are areas in public life – health, education, transport, law enforcement – where the wellbeing and dignity of the citizen are things for which an elected government should be directly answerable. If it no longer is, the integrity of legal practice will become even more crucial. A wide ranging knowledge of the world is essential for an aspiring lawyer so I read the papers every day to keep up with contemporary events.

    My family has moved around a lot, so I went to a number of schools, and I hope it won’t count against me that I was expelled from one and tried to run away from another. That had less to do with the school and more with my parents who I felt simply didn’t want to deal with me turning into an adult. However I never really felt that interested in school. But I know that I will love the challenge of studying law at university because I will finally be able to follow my passion and if I work hard I might be able to become a judge at the high court like my uncle is.

    Another reason I am passionate about reading law is the academical rigour of it. Very few other subjects test the brain in the same way as law, yet from an early age I have been interested in doing law and have pursued my chosen career acquisitively since then. I was always good at sorting out problems and have a keen sense of right and wrong, which in my opinion is indispensable for law. Also I would like to have a job where I make lots of money.

    My studies in history A-level will help because of the analytical skills I’ve learned and also the law is based on precedent. Taking part in school debates and plays has also been valuable and I have always felt confident in front of an audience. Even in real life the courtroom can’t help having an element of theatre. I have observed some trials, and seen the way the lawyer glances at the jurors, working out who might be easily impressed or sway the others later on. In two of the trials the prosecution case collapsed early, and it turned out that the accused had already pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, but the trial had gone ahead because the police insisted on trying to get the accused convicted of a more severe crime. I feel this was a waste of time and money. We already lock up more people than any other country in Europe. Why can’t one of them be Tony Blair for his lies about Iraq?

    I take part in many extra curricular activities. I have achieved my Duke of Edinburgh Silver Award and I regularly volunteer in a soup kitchen for homeless people. I also play computer games like Call of Duty or Fable 3 which deal with increasingly complex moral issues about the meaning of the greater good. Court room games like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney or Law&Order 2 are good for spotting contradictory evidence, flawed arguments and for polishing the dialogue.

    I’ve always enjoyed legal drama on TV, too. Silk, Kavanagh QC and Judge John Deed, but the one that really swayed me to make me want to become a lawyer has been Garrow’s Law. In the 18th century William Garrow single-handedly invented cross-examination, as we know it today and established the principle of innocent till proven guilty. This was a great inspiration to me and I hope I will be able to match such achievements when I become a lawyer.

  • Guy Summers’ Personal Statement - corrected by Gary Howells

    (Gary Howells is the Head of the Sixth Form at The London Oratory School)

    Aristotle once said that ‘law is reason free of passion’. He certainly captures the need for detachment and rigour in studying law; the power of reason to come to a solution to a complex problem. However, denying passion misrepresents the importance, vitality and contentiousness of the subject. There is no aspect of life immune from the law, from road traffic regulations to privacy for celebrities to ethical issues concerning the rights and wrongs of separating conjoined twins. The sheer variety of legal life, from personal injury to corporate taxation, from family difficulties to immigration and asylum is what attracts me to the subject.

    A spark was set off by watching legal dramas. Initially it was the drama of the cases which attracted me. Now I enjoy the programmes more for the insights they provide into argument and legal principles. One common theme is the ability of lawyers to make a difference, whether through the individual work for their client or through the establishment of enduring principles. Recent cases away from the world of TV drama show me the central position of law. The case of the Portsmouth landlady who took on the Murdoch empire in order to broadcast live football to her customers shows how the law can take the side of the ‘little man’ against large corporations and how European Law intersects with our own legal system. At the same time super-injunctions and even hyper-injunctions show how wealthy people can use rights to benefit their own interests. The debate about Wikileaks and the personal troubles of Julian Assange has made me think hard about freedom of speech and secrecy and shown the dangers of absolute freedoms.

    I am confident from my academic studies and extra-curricular activities that I am suited for the rigorous study of law. Mathematics A level has taught me to consider problems from different angles and to apply rules and logic, key skills for a successful lawyer. I will persist with mathematical problems, only settling when I have reached a satisfying conclusion. In History, I have developed the ability to sift through evidence and to marshal evidence to reach a reasoned conclusion. I have enjoyed engaging with controversies such as Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws. Here I have had to engage with competing accounts by different historians who after considering the same evidence have come up with contrasting views. I enjoy exploring how they have constructed a case and through my own close reading have enjoyed forming my own view on a major historical controversy. My enjoyment of this type of close study convinced me I would enjoy a subject which requires close attention to detail and forensic skills. My extra-curricular interests further prepare me for the study of law. I am a keen debater, competing at inter-school level. I enjoy the cut and thrust of debate and the need for flexibility and resourcefulness. I like researching an issue quickly and presenting a clear case. I especially enjoy the team collaborative side of the debating process and have forged good relationships with my debating team-mates. Recently I have taken an interest in drama, playing a leading role in a school production. The self-discipline required for successful drama work has taught me a lot.

    My educational background reflects a somewhat unsettled period in my life while my parents were divorcing. I believe I came out of that experience more mature, focused and determined to succeed. I have researched a legal career fully, through conversations with my uncle who is a high court judge, through attending a week of trials at my local crown court and a week in a solicitor’s office. In addition I have enjoyed reading Stephen Lee’s Judging Judges and regularly read the law report in the Times and Marcel Berlins’ column in The Guardian. I approach a law degree with anticipation, providing me with an opportunity for genuine academic growth, preparing me for a rewarding yet demanding career.

  • Guy Summers’ Personal Statement - corrected by Sir Robin Jacob

    (Sir Robin Jacob is a High Court Judge and Professor of Intellectual Property at University College London.)

    I want to read law. That may sound odd and a bit ambitious coming from someone who was expelled from one school, tried to run away from another and whose formal record shows that I went to rather a lot of schools. There were reasons for all three which, putting myself in your position, I am sure I would want to know. I was expelled for what I now see was a foolish “joke” – breaking into the headmaster’s study and filling it from floor to ceiling with crumpled newspaper. It was an enormous fire hazard. I think the punishment was too much, but I can see that they needed to show that dangerous acts would be treated very severely. I tried to run away from the other school because one of the teachers was a bully and unfairly accused me of copying. He would not let me explain, just shouting I was a liar, that it would go down on my record and that I would be kept in detention for a month. That made me realise how important it is to be fair and listen to the other side. I will never forget. The lots of schools were simply because my family moved a lot. It made studying hard, so I am glad to have the grades I got, even though I admit I was not always that interested in school work.

    Some of this experience may be why I want to read law. I think I have something of a sense of duty to society. And right now society is under threat, for instance the recent attacks on judicial decisions by politicians, including even by the Prime Minister. I believe that there are areas in public life – health, education, transport, law enforcement – where the wellbeing and dignity of the citizen are things for which an elected government should be directly answerable. If it starts to fail, if the rule of law comes under attack, the integrity of legal practice will become even more crucial.

    A wide ranging knowledge of the world is essential for an aspiring lawyer. I read the papers every day. Things about fairness and duty excite me particularly. For instance I wonder whether the Director of the LSE really needed to resign over the LSE’s Libyan contacts when as far as I can see he had done nothing wrong.

    Even though I was not that interested at school I think I would love the challenge of studying law at university. Not only will I learn how things like human rights work out in practice, but I will also get academic rigour. I understand that law is not all about big human issues – things like land law or contract law are important because they need to be clear and sharp: people need to know where they stand. Very few other subjects I have seen so far require clear reasoning in the same way as law.

    I think my studies in history A-level will help because of the analytical skills needed to martial facts in a logical order. Taking part in school debates and plays has also been valuable: I have always enjoyed being in front of an audience. Even in real life the courtroom has an element of theatre. I have observed some criminal trials, and seen the way the lawyer glances at the jurors trying to develop a rapport with them and seeing their reaction to the evidence. In two trials the prosecution case collapsed early. It turned out that the accused had already pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. The trial had gone ahead presumably because the police wanted to get the accused convicted of a more severe crime. I wonder whether that was justified: was it a waste of time and money? Is there too much of a desire in this country (fuelled by the popular press) to lock people up? After all we already lock up more people here than any other country in Europe save for Turkey

    I achieved my Duke of Edinburgh Silver Award (mountain rescue and a three day camping expedition on Dartmoor at Easter. It was cold and very wet but we got a great buzz out of it). I regularly (about once a month) volunteer in a soup kitchen for homeless people. I also play computer games and enjoy legal dramas on TV, particularly when they portray realistic moral dilemmas.

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