Writing a Physics Personal Statement
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The requirements of a personal statement are broadly the same, regardless of the subject, so it is worthwhile reading the more general guide to writing personal statements in addition to this more specific guide for a physics PS.
Planning your statement
The first step prior to writing anything is to think about and plan what it is you're going to write in your personal statement.
Research the subject
In order to write a personal statement, you need to demonstrate that you know what the subject is about and explain why it is for you. Read up on the course through university websites and prospectuses prior to writing your statement. You can't tailor your statement until you know what you're applying for.
You need physics and maths, there is absolutely no point in applying without them. Further maths is recommended for almost all physics courses, although it isn't usually essential. If you're not taking further maths then it can be helpful to at least look over some of the material, and of course to use this to sell yourself in your personal statement. Though you’re applying for physics, remember that a huge chunk of your course will be maths and so you need to be very mathematically competent and enjoy maths. Make sure you do know what you’re talking about. The last thing you want is to be in an interview and be asked a question on something that you found on wikipedia and actually know nothing about – it’s not easy to talk about plasma physics on the spot if you haven’t read up on it.
Most universities don’t interview for physics, but more and more are starting to. With increased fees and the introduction of the A* grade, universities are becoming more and more selective about who they give offers to. The university website should stipulate whether or not there’ll be an interview, and what kind of interview it will be. Physics interviews tend to be largely academic, with one or two personal questions, perhaps focusing on your PS, before moving on to maths and physics.
Aims of the Personal Statement
The obvious place to start is to think about why you're writing a personal statement in the first place and what messages you are trying to convey to the reader. The most important thing is to demonstrate your interest and enthusiasm for physics, but there are other things to think about too, listed in rough order of priority:
- Show that you're passionate about physics.
- Explain how you became interested in the subject.
- Demonstrate that you have both the academic and soft skills necessary for completing a physics degree.
- Show that you understand what physics at degree level is about, and how it relates to other subjects that you have already studied.
- Demonstrate that you're a well rounded individual with interests outside of physics.
- Show that you're able to write in a clear, concise and structured manner to convey your thoughts and experiences.
The emphasis here is very much on showing and demonstrating meaning that you need to provide evidence to back up your claims. It is not sufficient to simply state that you are passionate, and it is far more powerful to demonstrate your passion implicitly through your discussions and experiences. If content in your statement is not talking to one of these aims, then it does not belong in your PS.
Different universities may want to see slightly different things and may give specific guidance on what they look for on their websites. A physics degree will be much the same wherever you apply and it's easy to write a general statement, but there may be some course specific aspects that you wish to include, provided that this will not put off your other choices.
Listing your experiences
The next step is to think about what experiences you have and how these map on to the aims listed above. List all of the things that you've done related to physics, school, work experiences, positions of responsibility, hobbies and interests. Next, think about the skills that you have gained from each of these and how these skills will make you a better physicist or student. These skills may be academic, such as mathematical ability, or they may be more soft, transferable skills like teamwork and communication. Try to prioritise these experiences in relation to how they reflect the aims of your PS and which show the broadest range of experiences and skills. A good position to be in is to have too many things to talk about, but a common error is to feel that your statement will be more effective by including all of them. It is all too easy to resort to listing experiences, but the best statements will really discuss each of their more limited number of experiences in detail in relation to how they demonstrate passion for the subject and their relevant skills. If you don't have many experiences then take note of the above, and if it's still not enough then now is the time to think about getting more!
In addition to the more tangible experiences above, you also want to think about why you're interested in studying physics and examples of physics that you might like to discuss in your statement to explain your interest, or to demonstrate an appreciation of what the subject is really about. This may be an interesting book you read, an article from a journal, or something you studied at school. What is it that you hope to get out of studying a degree in physics and what are your career plans more long term? If you're applying for joint honours, think about the links between the subjects and the overlaps/common themes, as you'll want to focus on these in your statement.
Physics is a very precise subject and an ability to express ideas clearly to others is an important skill to develop. This should be reflected in the structure of your PS which should be very clearly set out and ordered in a logical manner. Think of the PS as a bit like a history essay, rather than an English essay. It's not a piece of fiction or your life story, it's a reasoned argument with the use of evidence to make a case for why the admissions tutor should be choosing you to study on their course.
The first step is to ensure that you make use of paragraphs. It sounds obvious, but do not be tempted to forego the use of line breaks between paragraphs to squeeze in that extra sentence of discussion or experiences (see above comments on quality over quantity). A well written PS can include all of the required content and have clear paragraphing. There is nothing less appealing to an admissions tutor than a block of text, especially if its the 50th statement you've read today.
A typical PS will consist of 5-6 paragraphs, consisting broadly of the following:
- Introduction - Why physics?
- Paragraphs 2 & 3 - How have you shown an interest in physics? Probably one paragraph inside school, one outside school.
- Paragraph 4 - What hobbies and responsibilities have you had and what skills did you develop relevant to physics?
- Conclusion - Re-emphasising your interest and what you can offer.
Physics is an academic subject and so the majority of your statement should be about physics, your interest in it and why you want to study it. The rule of thumb is 2/3 academic and 1/3 extra-curricular hobbies, but particularly for the top universities it can actually weight even more towards the academic side than this. Don't fall into the trap of spending paragraphs discussing your achievements in football.
More detail on what to include in these paragraphs can be found below, but the first step is to try and match up your list of experiences and ideas into each of the paragraphs to make you think about the overall structure of your statement. A statement will generally go from more to less academic as it progresses (reflecting the relative importance of these), before returning to the academic interest in the subject in the conclusion.
What to include in your statement
The vast majority of people find this to be the hardest part of the personal statement, and you may want to leave writing it until last if you're struggling to get started. The most important thing is to draw the reader in; they'll read hundreds of statements, so try to make yours stand out and avoid clichés. That means not starting with "Ever since I was a child..." or a really cheesy quote. This is really about explaining why you're applying to study physics and what interests you about it, you don't need to say 'I have applied to study physics' because they know that. You also don't need to say 'I love physics' because they know that too, or else you wouldn't be applying to do it. Say and explain why you love physics, mention your favourite bit, give them the impression that you really care. The more genuine and sincere you can come across, the better. Your first paragraph should be nice and concise, with evidence for your interest coming later on.
The use of quotes in your introduction (or your PS generally) is an open debate. Generally speaking, its a bad idea because a quote is not personal to you and is therefore unoriginal. Certain quotes come up again and again (I'm sure at least 1 in 10 engineers include a quote by Einstein comparing scientists and engineers and the same goes for physics), so once you've read them a few times they become rather boring and unimaginative. There is also a tendency to put a quote in and expect it to make some contribution to your statement without further explanation. If you do choose a quote, pick one that is meaningful to you, preferably that's a bit obscure, and make sure that you discuss it.
The next three (or perhaps four) paragraphs are much more flexible and will largely depend on what you have to talk about. However, you will generally wish to demonstrate academic ability, particularly in maths and physics, an interest in the subject outside of school e.g. through books, lectures, work experience or summer schools and that you're a well rounded individual with interests outside of physics. These form fairly separate sections and will tend to be ordered from more to less academic. Also remember that the focus here is on your interest and aptitude in the subject, not your outside interests.
Physics isn’t a vocational degree, so good academics are essential. You do not need to mention what subjects you are studying or the grades you have achieved in your PS, since these will be elsewhere on your application and so mentioning them here is a waste of valuable space. The universities have enough experiences with A-levels and equivalent qualifications to know what skills your subjects will give you, but it is helpful to demonstrate to them that you know what these skills are and how the subjects relate to physics. It's particularly worth discussing maths and show that you appreciate its relevance and use in physics and of course you can also discuss topics that interest you and why. You can mention external awards and competitions you've participated in (such as UKMT maths challenges or Olympiads) but do so in the context of how it has developed your ability or increased your interest rather than just mentioning it for the sake of it.
Demonstrating an interest in physics outside of school
It's not all about grades, you also need to show that you're enthusiastic and knowledgeable about physics, which means you need to demonstrate that you've pursued an interest outside of the curriculum. Academic interests such as books, magazines, lectures and even television programmes show that you have an interest in physics outside the classroom.
An obvious way to show your interest is to read popular science books. Oxford has a physics reading list on their website, even if you don’t intend to apply there it can be helpful for finding the good books amongst the myriad of books available. There are also threads about physics reading on TSR as well. The same books tend to get mentioned again and again, so discussing something a little different can make a refreshing change and make you stand out. Although words are a precious resource, avoid just listing books you've read. Pick out specific things you liked and try to engage in a discussion about what you've read, why it interested you and your opinions on it. However, avoid simply repeating what you have read, since your audience will most likely already know about physics; make it personal to you. You can also read scientific journals such as 'New Scientist' but again, try to discuss a specific article to demonstrate a genuine interest and engagement with the material. Also, make sure you did actually read the book/article. If they ask questions about it in an interview and you can’t come up with anything then you’re in a bit of a tight spot.
In addition to reading, you can also show an interest for physics in many other ways, such as mentoring at school, societies or science clubs, lectures you attended, summer schools or astronomy in your back garden. Whatever you mention, explain how it increased your interest in physics and discuss what you did and why you enjoyed it. If you went to universities, what insight did this give you into what it would be like to study physics at university? Did you gain any skills from it that you'll be able to apply when studying a degree in physics? Show that you really engaged with whatever it was you did and avoid lists. Lists are dull and don't engage the reader. You need to fully discuss and utilise each experience if it is to add value to your statement.
Work experience is not required at all for physics since it's an academic subject and tutors realise that it's very unlikely that you'll manage to find any work specifically relating to physics. Of course, if you do manage to get some work experience then say which parts of it really appealed to you and what you enjoyed about working in that environment.
Anything else you’ve done that isn’t related to physics fits in here. The general rule is that this should only be about 1/3 of your personal statement, but for an academic degree like physics it can afford to be a little shorter. You do have to show that your life doesn’t revolve around physics though. If you had any roles of responsibility such as being a prefect or club leader, mention that, but also mention what you did with it – it’s no good being a prefect if all you did was wear a badge. Mentioning any general work experience or part time jobs is also worthwhile to show your organisation/time management skills. Sports or music clubs are also good to note down, particularly if they're things that require your active participation. As with the rest of your statement, you're writing here for a purpose, firstly to demonstrate that you have the capacity to do things beyond academic study and secondly it provides further opportunity to demonstrate key skills like team work, organisation, communication, time management and leadership. The best statements will also discuss how these skills will be relevant to a physics degree. If you’re planning to take a gap year (not recommended for physics generally) then you need to have a good reason which goes here. Be very careful though, a lot of universities don’t support deferred entry for physics.
Writing this paragraph often requires a lot of restraint and one of the most common mistakes in a PS is to spend too much time discussing extra-curricular activities when the focus needs to be on your interest in the subject and how you have demonstrated that interest. You really shouldn't be spending any more than a paragraph on this and if you have too much then you need to prioritise and discuss only those which you feel shows you off best and demonstrates the widest range of skills. If you have the opposite problem and don't have anything to put then don't worry too much, better to spend the time elsewhere than to give weak examples such as 'watching tv' or 'hanging out with your friends' which only serve to imply that you have no life and nothing better to mention.
This is basically to round off the whole thing and give a brief summary of why you want to study physics, since this is what a tutor is going to remember you by. You don't need to start with 'In conclusion...' or similar. Again, the conclusion should be short and to the point, probably only a sentence or two.
A lot of people warn against sounding too arrogant, and there is a fine line between arrogant and confident. Still, be careful to avoid things like 'I hope' and 'I think'. You need to sound sure of yourself. Remind them of that enthusiasm from the first paragraph and summarise what it is that you can offer, although avoid just listing skills. There can be a tendency to include comments along the lines of 'and I look forward to taking part in all aspects of university life' as part of the conclusion. Try to avoid this, since you are being judged on your academic merits and this is what you want to be remembered for, not your eagerness to enjoy the night life.
The most important thing about joint honours is making sure that you cover both subjects well. If you're applying for physics and maths, a very common combination, this is easy enough. A regular physics application will need to have a decent amount on maths since it's so integral to the subject anyway. This allows you to apply for both joint and single honours courses without putting yourself at a disadvantage for either. Indeed, there is a large overlap between virtually all of the physical sciences which makes writing a joint application relatively straightforward, provided you focus on the aspects common to both.
Another common combination is physics and philosophy, and whilst this might be a little harder to work in, it's by no means impossible. Many parts of physics seek out to answer the same big questions as philosophy, so do more outside reading on things like the origin of the universe, the nature of matter, and quantum physics where there is still room for a lot of speculation. Reading a few philosophy (or physics and philosophy) books will help as well - Heisenberg actually wrote a book called 'Physics and Philosophy'. There's plenty of material out there, so look at university reading lists to find things at the right level.
There are plenty of courses out there called 'Physics and...' with the second part of the degree being a specific branch of physics. This is easy enough. Whilst you still need a good knowledge of general physics, focusing on a few things from the specialist area will strengthen your application. Common degrees include astrophysics, particle physics and medical physics. If you can't think of anything to put in that particularly draws you to the other half of your joint honours, then consider whether or not you should be doing it. In any case, be careful with specific physics degrees; yes it may give you a degree in 'Astrophysics' but it may be just as possible to choose the same module options from a general physics degree and all you've done by choosing a specific degree is to limit the choice of modules you can take.
The personal statement is a formal piece of writing, so speak as if you were applying for a job. That means no contractions like "can't" or "didn't" and no slang. Avoid exclamation marks and bad grammar, and make sure that your spelling is correct. Note that formal doesn't mean using big words, so you don't need to give the impression that you swallowed the dictionary. If you're still at school or college, try to get an English teacher or someone who has an experience with writing to look over it and make sure that everything is correct. Physics might not have as many essays as English or History, but having sloppy writing sets a very bad example, considering how easy it is to fix.
If at all possible, try to find someone with some experience in reading applications/CVs to get some feedback. The more people you can get to check over your statement the better. Teachers, friends and family can offer a more personal perspective since they know you and your situation. However, it can also be good to have an objective opinion from someone who doesn't know you. Don’t be afraid to change things in your personal statement, it will not be perfect first time and you may need to go through many iterations to perfect it. Getting under the character limit can be a challenge, you can remove anything which isn't contributing to the aims of your statement and try to write more succinctly. However, don't be tempted to remove those paragraphs!
- The biggest aim of a personal statement is to show your passion for physics. Physics is a very academically based degree - extra curricular activities may make you slightly more appealing to universities, but don't do so many that you don't have time to read books on your subject.
- Knowing what you're talking about is a huge asset. If you can hold a conversation with your interviewer on why you want to study plasma physics without sounding as if you've memorised a wikipedia article, that'll be a lot more impressive than being in the football club. Don't, however, come across as completely obsessed. That's never good.
- You have to love physics. It's a full on degree with lots of lectures and lab time. You also have to be hardworking, so try and show this in ways other than your grades. Taking on leadership roles, having initiative, and managing your time effectively are all important so try to show that.
Use the support offered in this article to create your UCAS personal statement for physics with The Student Room personal statement builder..