Writing a physics personal statement: expert advice from universities
Get ahead of the pack with these top tips from the physics admissions experts
Make sure you nail your physics personal statement with these nuggets of wisdom from university admissions experts.
Are you looking for inspiration?
Over on The Student Room, we have more than 50 examples of real physics personal statements.
What to write in your intro (and what not to write)Ian Whittaker, physics admissions tutor at Nottingham Trent University, shares his dos and don’ts for the opening lines of your physics personal statement.
“From a personal view, avoid starting your personal statement with ‘I have enjoyed physics from a young age when I first learned about topic x…’
“I would say this is how about 90% of personal statements that I read start. It is great to know why you are interested but it means your statement looks like all the others initially, and you want to stand out.
“Good starting points to a personal statement could instead be an introduction to yourself, or why you are interested in physics starting from a particular topic or visit to a location. Perhaps you have met an inspirational scientist, already have a plan for your career, or an interesting idea for research projects."
Make it easy to readYour personal statement is a reflection of you, so it’s well worth taking your time over.
“Has the student taken the time and effort to write something that is engaging, clear and coherent?” asks Dr Martin Buzza, admissions tutor for the Department of Physics and Mathematics at the University of Hull.
“A well written personal statement shows someone who takes pride in their work, while a sloppy personal statement shows someone who can’t really be bothered, and these attitudes are likely to be carried forward in their degree."
Think of it like writing a storyIf you feel like you’re just listing stuff out, stop and consider how you could pull the information together into a cohesive narrative, which will make it much easier for admissions officers to get an idea of the sort of student you’re likely to be.
“Consider that idea of the “narrative” across the statement,” says Dr Tim Kinnear, admissions officer for physics at the University of Kent.
“Sometimes they can read a little disjointed, like several completely isolated elements rather than a coherent, single statement. Consider what story the statement of a whole is telling, which not only shows your best capabilities and interests but relates them together.”
Don’t be afraid to shout about your achievementsRemember that the point of your personal statement is to really sell yourself.
“Some students are quite modest when writing their statement. If you have done something great then shout about it,” says Ian from Nottingham Trent University.
“Write in a positive style and tell us what you did, how it made you feel, and what you learned from it. Even if it went wrong it is still valuable experience and worth mentioning."
Show your understanding of physics beyond your predicted gradesEven if your grades are lower than you hoped, you could still impress admissions tutors with your passion for the subject.
“When I read a personal statement I am looking for an understanding of physics as a whole,” says Ian.
“We can already see what your predicted/actual grades are, but these are not always reflective of what you understand, especially as students cope with assessments in different ways. A standout personal statement could mention a particular topic that has been taught and you have shown that you understood, went away and found out more about it, or thought about its practical application in some way."
Focus on the things you’re most passionate aboutGoing into a bit more detail about the areas of physics you’re most interested in could help your physics personal statement stand out.
“In addition to explaining why you are passionate about your chosen subject, it is a good idea to focus and develop on a few interesting things that you have done outside your studies that either relate to your chosen subject or that have developed you as a person,” says Martin at the University of Hull.
“If you have done lots of other things, it’s fine to list them as well, but resist the temptation to discuss all of them in full detail as this is exhaustive and exhausting for the reader! Better to focus on a few things that you are most passionate about."
Be specific and make connectionsAs well as focusing on the specific areas of physics that you’re most interested in, explain why and how you developed this particular interest.
“Emphasising the advantage of specificity is important,” says Tim at the University of Kent
“A lot of people can just write that they’re interested in quantum mechanics or astrophysics, but those are fairly general areas that don’t actually inform much about the depth of one’s interest; they read a little like keywords dropped in.
“Something more specific, or that connects that interest to something they’re actually doing/have been involved with, is far more personal and substantial: ‘I have always enjoyed astrophysics’ is fairly generic and you can imagine essentially anyone writing it with nothing to specifically evidence, whereas ‘I became interested in orbital mechanics through Kerbal Space Program, reading such and such a book to better understand the real-world physics of it’ is a more direct aspect and insight into their own real connection to the topic.
“Establish a narrative for your involvement, rather than a plain series of statements."
Keep it positiveShout about your achievements and don’t let your modesty hold you back.
“Keep your writing style as positive as possible, remember you are selling yourself so show off if you can,” says Ian from Nottingham Trent University.
“If you have any interests then do include them, even if you think it is embarrassing or non-relevant."
Let your personality shine in your personal statementWriting a bit about the type of student you are – or hope to be – could help the admissions tutors decide whether you’ll be a good match for the course.
“As well as an interest in the subject I am also looking at you the person,” says Ian.
“Do you have a strong work ethic, will you be able to work to deadlines and show commitment to learning? Maybe you haven't had the chance to develop these skills but you would like to? Knowing about your personality and how we can provide you with the best experience is as important as your grades are."
“Don’t try to be something you are not," says Martin from the University of Hull. "An authentic piece that genuinely reflects who you are as a person always comes across much better and is more compelling and engaging.”
Mention your work experienceIt doesn’t have to be a physics-related job – admissions tutors are interested in any kind of work experience, as it shows responsibility and may involve using similar skills.
“Any work experience you have is extremely valuable as it shows you can take on responsibility and builds up your important transferable skills. Should you want to take a placement year then work experience will help you in applying for this,” says Ian at Nottingham Trent University.
“If you are a mature student then your experiences are more detailed and more extensive so please tell us all about them as they are all valuable!”
Highlight the skills your extracurricular activities have helped you developEven if they’re not directly related to physics, your hobbies and activities outside of school can demonstrate all sorts of relevant skills.
“You should be highlighting anything that you do outside of school and college,” says Ian.
“Every experience or interest has its own benefits in terms of what makes you a student we want to teach. This could be participating in sports – showing teamwork, travel, and planning. It could be in hobbies which show attention to detail, use of tools and equipment, potential commercialisation and so on.
"It could be going for a DofE Award which shows resilience and an urge to explore new things. An after school club, which does not have to be a science based one, again shows an interest in learning new topics which you definitely need at an undergraduate level."
“There are a variety of more co-curricular things specific to physics and experiences connected directly to the subject outside of school," adds Tim at the University of Kent. "However, the ability to evidence one’s interest and engagement within any additional activity illustrates a host of additional skills which are not subject specific but are highly valuable.”
If you’re the first in your family to go to university…It can be challenging to write a personal statement if there's no-one else in your family who's been to university. Ian from Nottingham Trent University has some advice.
“If you are the first in your family to go to university, then the personal statement can seem exceptionally daunting. Take advice from as many people as you like but remember to just write about yourself in whatever way you feel comfortable.
“You do not have to adhere to any particular template, just tell us why you want to be a student and study physics! Lots of first-time students become undergraduates and you will find them amongst university staff as well so feel free to tell us (or not if you prefer)."