This piece is adapted from one of the bonus chapters in my upcoming book on how to write a brilliant UCAS statement. The advice applies to most people, I think.
Cast your net wide
Especially in your first couple of years, I’d recommend trying as many different things as you can. With most degrees the importance of your work increases each year, so take the opportunity to explore early on. This applies to everything. Activities, people, ideas. Most universities have an incredible range of clubs and societies who are all hungry for new members. Head down, make some new friends, give it a try. The worst that can happen is you have a mediocre hour or two. The best case – well – it’s hard to say how great that might be. You will always learn something, either about yourself or the world.
With people, I would advise you to be mindful of your prejudices. You might think you’re an open and fair person. Trust me, you’re not. No-one is. The last few decades of research in behavioural economics has shown us all to be irrational and biased, admittedly to varying degrees. Google ‘Daniel Kahneman’ (Nobel prize winner and one of Barack Obama’s favourite authors) for some brilliant research in this area. Or, if you want a quicker and more engaging fix, watch Dan Ariely’s short (<5 min) Youtube video entitled ‘What is behavioural economics?’
It isn’t really anybody’s fault, but our upbringing and environment shape our perceptions of the world in a tremendous range of ways that are often imperceptible. Many of these biases will only be revealed when you come up against someone who challenges them, either with their ideas, their own conditioning, or simply what they are as a person. Do your best to be compassionate towards people and understanding of the reasons they might think like they do. Withhold ‘judgement’ as long as you possibly can. Really, very few of us have sufficient information to judge anyone else. So try not to.
I can laugh about it now, but the first draft of my personal statement showed immense prejudice. I spent at least a paragraph berating Oxford for being Elitist and unjust. With sentiments like that, I certainly wasn’t going to make myself popular. More importantly, as my teacher and number one ally Phil pointed out, I didn’t really know anything about Oxford. I was basing these opinions – and I use the word ‘opinions’ because to call them ‘arguments’ would be a flattering distortion- on public opinion, hearsay and gossip. Fortunately, I had someone wiser than me to put me right. So do you. Take it from me: delay judgement until you have a level of experience and knowledge you might consider to be gratuitous.