"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.
UCAS applicants applying for entry to a Physics & Astronomy undergraduate degree programme during the current application roundmay find the information on this page helpful.
UCAS Admissions FAQ:
- Should I apply to first- or second-year entry when completing my UCAS form?
- Entrant students are able to make their final decision on entry year when they arrive. Choosing first or second year entry on your UCAS form will not influence our decision making process. It helps us to know your preferred intention but you will not be bound by any entry year choice you make at the application stage. Further information about our entry year options can be found on our application advice page.
- Will applying to more than one degree option increase my application chances?
- No. We will only issue an offer for one course option. The School does not have separate quotas for each degree programme. Our primary concern is to attract and recruit the best possible students regardless of which degree programme they may choose. With this in mind, we strongly advise that you choose one degree option only, this will maximise your UCAS choices across institutions. Entrant students have the option to change their degree choice at the end of their first year and we expect most candidates to be able to follow a choice of modules that will leave a number of degree options open to them at this point.
- Does the School provide guidance on personal statements?
- Only in a very general way. The UCAS personal statement should help to explain why you would like to study your chosen degree option, from your own viewpoint. The statement will be read by a number of different admissions officers at the different institutions to which you have applied; this makes it difficult to offer detailed advice as we can only provide this from our viewpoint. We do expect you to know clearly why you wish to follow a degree programme in Physics & Astronomy - use your personal statement to tell us why.
Occasionally we receive enquiries from applicants wishing to meet with our admissions team to discuss their application. In these instances our advice is to attend one of the University visiting days where candidates will have an opportunity to view the School's facilities and discuss course options. We will not offer detailed and specific advice about what to put in your personal statement.
- What degree option should I choose?
- You may feel unable to decide which of our degree options to choose from. If this is the case, we advise you to read through our prospective undergraduate web pages which provide information about the course options and structure. At St Andrews, most students do not need to make their final degree choice until the Honours year of study. As long as you attend the core prerequisite modules for the options that interest you, the final choice of degree will remain flexible. Make your UCAS application choice for the option that best matches your interests. You will have an opportunity to change this choice if your application is successful.
- Are your MPhys degree programmes more competitive for UCAS applicants?
- No. We wish to recruit the best possible candidates regardless of which degree they choose. Many of our BSc students choose this option as they intend to follow a specialist MSc course at another institution and do not feel the need to complete an extra year at St Andrews. We will not view an application to our BSc programme as a lack of ambition, it may simply be part of a sensible career plan. With this in mind, applicants should note that it is not easier to achieve an offer for our BSc programmes. Both BSc and MPhys/MSci options are highly competitive.
- My School has told me that unless I demonstrate a commitment to Physics & Astronomy through extra-curricular activities my application will not be considered, is this correct?
- Not precisely, no. The School of Physics & Astronomy will consider all applications carefully. We are interested to read about the opportunities our applicants have taken to immerse themselves in varied interests and pursuits, be they related or unrelated to their chosen subjects; however, some of our applicants may have had a limited range of opportunities offered by their School and we consider this during our decision-making process. Even if you didn't go to Space Camp when you were 12 years old, we expect there will be other ways you can demonstrate your interest and enthusiasm. For all applicants our advice remains: ensure that you work hard to attain the best possible examination grades.
- Your published asking rates are high, what are my chances if apply with lower grades?
- Places to study Physics & Astronomy are limited and our application process is very competitive. Candidates who do not meet our asking rates are very unlikely to receive and offer. The School is aware that a small number of candidates, who might otherwise make excellent scientists, fail to achieve our asking grades through exceptional circumstances. For this reason we have created 'Gateway' entrance programme for candidates who experienced disadvantage, and may narrowly miss our usual asking grades but nonetheless demonstrate a significant aptitude for Physics and Mathematics.
- I have my heart set on a career in particle physics / string theory, do I get to study these options as an undergraduate at St Andrews?
- Particle physics: yes; string theory: no. By publishing this particular question we would like to draw potential applicant's attention to an aspect of our School that they should consider carefully. The School is one of the top Physics & Astronomy research departments in the UK (currently ranked joint second in the latest RAE exercise). Our academic and research staff are distributed over three main research themes: Condensed Matter Physics, Photonics and Astrophysics. By focussing on these key areas we are able to maintain a national and international lead over a broad, but not exhaustive, range of subject areas. While this permits us to teach to graduate level across the physics curriculum, among the research areas in which we have no significant current activity is particle physics (including theoretical aspects such as string theory). Our students have the option to take courses in particle physics but they will not be fully exposed to active research in this area. As a prospective undergraduate embarking on your scientific career this may not necessarily have a bearing on your choice of institution. You should consider, however, that the close interaction between students and leading research academics that characterises the School's undergraduate programme tends to guide our undergraduates into research specialities that match those undertaken at St Andrews.
- When will offers be made?
- The University plans not to make offers until after the UCAS deadline (usually the second week in January). Once the number of applications is known, admissions officers can work to select an appropriate number of candidates with particular qualifications who will receive an offer. We anticipate our offers being sent out in early February. For a small number of applicants we may choose to issue rejections earlier than January if it becomes clear that their applications will not be competitive against those already recieved.
- When can I visit the School?
- The University runs a number of visiting days on Wednesdays thorugh the session, which can include a visit to this School. We also run a Saturday visiting day specifically for the School. There is a major overlap in content between this day and the Wednesday visits, but we realise that those who are considering an offer may find it useful to attend the Saturday visit that is focussed primarily on the School. Visiting day attendance can be booked centrally via the University visitng day webpages.
- What fees will I be expected to pay?
- Fee guidance for entrant undergraduates is provided on the University's Fees and funding webpage.