"Physics is a really cool subject because you can learn how to blow cars up." Not the most impressive opening to a personal statement Gary Barker of the University of Warwick has ever come across. More James May than Patrick Moore, he says wryly.
What would he prefer? "I would err on the side of formality rather than flippancy," he says.
Many admissions tutors look for two things in a personal statement: genuine enthusiasm for physics and signs of maturity.
Some statements border almost on the philosophical, which is absolutely fine, says Barker. "I like to think that there's a person out there who lies awake at night worrying about these things."
Demonstrating engagement with the subject is not difficult but do remember that some admissions tutors are looking for a richer knowledge of the subject than you get on prime-time TV.
"By all means mention what hooked you in the beginning, but do also mention what you are doing now to deepen your understanding," says Anton Machacek, a physics teacher who graduated from Trinity College, Oxford.
"Popular science programmes rarely develop your thinking skills in the way universities will want. In this sense, I would say that the influence of Nina and her Nefarious Neurons on you as a toddler might count more in your favour than Prof Brian Cox at age 16."
Think about which skills are relevant to your application: for example, computing experience will help you with a theoretical physics degree.
Machacek says it's a shame that students often forget to talk about their A-level courses in their personal statements. "It's no good saying 'I've studied A-level physics' – they already know that," he says. "But you can say what skills you enjoyed developing and which areas excited you."
And for a budding physicist it is well worth becoming a member of the Institute of Physics – membership is free for 16- to 19-year-olds.
Many physics undergrad hopefuls mention a lot of the same books, or say they read the New Scientist, says Professor Henning Schomerus, physics admissions tutor at Lancaster University. "This wouldn't put me off, but I would probably more or less ignore it," he says. If you want to talk about a journal you read, pick out an article and discuss why it interests you.
Be specific. If The Big Bang Theory sparked your interest in physics, explain why. Schomerus, for instance, likes the episode where Sheldon takes a job as an unpaid waiter to try to discover how electrons move through graphene – it's an area he's done research in.
"Make the statement truly personal," he says, a point reiterated by Machacek, who is also a visiting research scientist at the Central Laser Facility in Rutherford.
"It is extremely important to be yourself," he says. "If you are a quiet, modest type, and you force yourself to write an extrovert's personal statement to make you seem bigger, very odd things can happen if you are interviewed."
Most admissions tutors advise that content should always trump style or creativity, but stress that writing should be coherent because physicists must be able to communicate.
Physics admissions officer Kenny Wood points out that with over a thousand applications for tutors at the University of St Andrews to sift through each year, spelling and grammar can make all the difference.
Wood says competition is fierce, and urges students not to be disappointed if they don't get into their first choice. "Remember, all physics departments are accredited by the Institute of Physics and if you get a good degree from any department in the UK, this will keep the door open for postgraduate studies at other institutions."
Olivia Keenan, a physics masters graduate from the University of Southampton about to embark on a PhD at Cardiff in extra-galactic observations, urges more girls to consider physics.
"As a female, if you are as well qualified as your male counterparts and you can make yourself stand out, then you're often in a good position to get through the 'admissions game'.
"Having narrowly missed the grades to get on to my physics course, I'm sure that having a strong personal statement helped me," she says. "It displayed my passion for the subject, backed up with evidence to prove it – for example, I'd taught GCSE students about astronomy while in sixth form at school."
Extra-curricular activities can reflect passion – working at a science museum, being a member of a local astronomy society or having visited Cern, for example – but tutors realise that not everybody has these opportunities. Simply making the most of your school's library is fine if it gives you a deeper appreciation of physics.
Above all, don't get too worked up about it. At the University of Birmingham, Professor Andy Schofield stresses that the personal statement is unlikely to be the decider in whether or not you get an offer.
It's a chance to explain any unusual aspects of your application though, says Schofield – for example, why your past performance doesn't reflect your potential.
Not everyone knows what they want to study and it's okay to apply to more than one course, say, physics and natural sciences. "I'm quite happy to see a personal statement that talks in two halves," he says.
Whether your interests lie in the cosmos or computing, the most important thing is keep it personal and prove your enthusiasm for physics.
Below is a pdf link to personal statements and application essays representing strong efforts by students applying for both undergraduate and graduate opportunities. These ten essays have one thing in common: They were all written by students under the constraint of the essay being 1-2 pages due to the target program’s explicit instructions. In such circumstances, writers must attend carefully to the essay prompt (sometimes as simple as “Write a one-page summary of your reasons for wanting to pursue graduate study”) and recognize that evaluators tend to judge these essays on the same fundamental principles, as follows:
- First, you are typically expected to provide a window into your personal motivations, offer a summary of your field, your research, or your background, set some long-term goals, and note specific interest in the program to which you are applying.
- Second, you are expected to provide some personal detail and to communicate effectively and efficiently. Failure to do so can greatly limit your chances of acceptance.
Good writers accomplish these tasks by immediately establishing each paragraph’s topic and maintaining paragraph unity, by using concrete, personal examples to demonstrate their points, and by not prolonging the ending of the essay needlessly. Also, good writers study the target opportunity as carefully as they can, seeking to become an “insider,” perhaps even communicating with a professor they would like to work with at the target program, and tailoring the material accordingly so that evaluators can gauge the sincerity of their interest
Overview of Short Essay Samples
Geological Sciences Samples
In the pdf link below, the first two one-page statements written by students in the geological sciences are interesting to compare to each other. Despite their different areas of research specialization within the same field, both writers demonstrate a good deal of scientific fluency and kinship with their target programs.
Geography Student Sample
The short essay by a geography student applying to an internship program opens with the writer admitting that she previously had a limited view of geography, then describing how a course changed her way of thinking so that she came to understand geography as a “balance of physical, social, and cultural studies.” Despite her limited experience, she shows that she has aspirations of joining the Peace Corps or obtaining a law degree, and her final paragraph links her interests directly to the internship program to which she is applying.
Materials Sciences Student Sample
For the sample from materials sciences, directed at an internal fellowship, the one-page essay has an especially difficult task: The writer must persuade those who already know him (and thus know both his strengths and limitations) that he is worthy of internal funds to help him continue his graduate education. He attempts this by first citing the specific goal of his research group, followed by a brief summary of the literature related to this topic, then ending with a summary of his own research and lab experience.
Teach for America Student Sample
The student applying for the Teach for America program, which recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in underprivileged urban and rural public schools, knows that she must convince readers of her suitability to such a demanding commitment, and she has just two short essays with which to do so. She successfully achieves this through examples related to service mission work that she completed in Ecuador before entering college.
Neuroscience Student Sample
The sample essay by a neuroscience student opens with narrative technique, telling an affecting story about working in a lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Thus we are introduced to one of the motivating forces behind her interest in neuroscience. Later paragraphs cite three undergraduate research experiences and her interest in the linked sciences of disease: immunology, biochemistry, genetics, and pathology.
Medieval Literature Student Sample
This sample essay immerses us in detail about medieval literature throughout, eventually citing several Irish medieval manuscripts. With these examples and others, we are convinced that this student truly does see medieval literature as a “passion,” as she claims in her first sentence. Later, the writer repeatedly cites two professors and “mentors” whom she has already met, noting how they have shaped her highly specific academic goals, and tying her almost headlong approach directly to the National University of Ireland at Maynooth, where she will have flexibility in designing her own program.
Beinecke Scholarship Student Sample
The Beinecke Scholarship essay is written by a junior faced with stiff competition from a program that awards $34,000 towards senior year and graduate school. This student takes an interesting theme-based approach and projects forward toward graduate school with confidence. This writer’s sense of self-definition is particularly strong, and her personal story compelling. Having witnessed repeated instances of injustice in her own life, the writer describes in her final paragraphs how these experiences have led to her proposed senior thesis research and her goal of becoming a policy analyst for the government’s Department of Education.
Online Education Student Sample
Written during a height of US involvement in Iraq, this essay manages the intriguing challenge of how a member of the military can make an effective case for on-line graduate study. The obvious need here, especially for an Air Force pilot of seven years, is to keep the focus on academic interests rather than, say, battle successes and the number of missions flown. An additional challenge is to use military experience and vocabulary in a way that is not obscure nor off-putting to academic selection committee members. To address these challenges, this writer intertwines his literacy in matters both military and academic, keeping focus on applications of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), his chosen field of graduate study.
Engineer Applying to a Master’s Program Sample
This example shows that even for an engineer with years of experience in the field, the fundamentals of personal essay writing remain the same. This statement opens with the engineer describing a formative experience—visiting a meat packaging plant as a teenager—that influenced the writer to work in the health and safety field. Now, as the writer prepares to advance his education while remaining a full-time safety engineer, he proves that he is capable by detailing examples that show his record of personal and professional success. Especially noteworthy is his partnering with a government agency to help protect workers from dust exposures, and he ties his extensive work experience directly to his goal of becoming a Certified Industrial Hygienist.
Click here to download a pdf of ten short essay samples.