Personal statement advice: physics

Are you a future physicist in the making? You'll need a strong personal statement that communicates what inspires you about the subject. We spoke to physics admissions tutors to find out more: With keen competition for places on physics courses, Professor Jim Al-Khalili from the University of Surrey is looking beyond grades to select the best students
‘We are now seeing more attention being paid to personal statements. What motivates the candidate? Are they really inspired by physics or have they just drifted in that direction?’ Jim Al-khalili OBE, Professor of Physics and Professor of Public Engagement in Science – University Of Surrey

Motivation and honesty

Try to give tutors evidence in your personal statement that demonstrates why you are genuinely inspired by physics. What is it that motivates you about the subject personally? Write about this in an interesting and reflective way – and be honest, too. Our guide to studying physics at university may offer some useful pointers.

As an admissions tutor from Lancaster University puts it, 'if the Big Bang theory sparked your interest in physics, explain why.' Likewise, guidance on the University of St Andrews website says: 'we do expect you to know clearly why you wish to follow a degree programme in physics (and astronomy)… use your personal statement to tell us.'

Remember, if you’re invited to an interview, your statement is sure to form the basis of at least one or two of the questions. This could also be the case if you're invited to an applicants’ open day, where your personal statement may act as an ice-breaker in an informal interview or discussion with staff. Keep this in mind, and don’t write anything that you wouldn’t be happy to talk about in more detail if you were asked.

Wider reading

What will always go down well is if you give an example of an interest in physics you've explored for yourself, outside your school or college syllabus, and especially any wider reading you’ve done.

Be selective in your choice – admissions tutors often tell us that they read about the same books over and over again in personal statements. So either choose something that’s slightly more unusual or obscure or, if it’s one of the more popular science books, then make sure you give your own personal take on it, or write about it in a reflective way that reveals something about what it was that inspired you specifically.

Whatever you do, don’t just say 'I read New Scientist.’ All the other applicants probably read it too. So either be specific, like picking out one article and explaining how it impacted on you, or choose something you’ve read that’s a little more obscure.

Roddy Vann, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physics at University of York, went a step further when he told us that he is unimpressed by applicants who just say things like ‘I have read A Brief History of Time.’ He would prefer you to express your opinion on a contemporary issue, like your views on whether we should build more nuclear power stations. It’s not so much what you read, it’s what you think that matters.

More physics personal statement pointers

Individual university websites are a great resource for advice. Durham University says it looks for 'a genuine interest in science and technology,’ so here’s where your evidence needs to come in. If you designed a water bottle rocket-launcher, and subsequently learned it was Newton’s second and third laws that made it work, then selectors will probably be very interested to read a short, reflective paragraph about this. They’ll remember you for it too. Tutors at the University of Bath, meanwhile, want to see something that:

  • is honest, original, to the point, grammatically sound, and not too quirky
  • gives them some evidence of your interest, motivation, and commitment to the subject, including your wider reading or any events you’ve attended, and your extra-curricular activities and interests

They also say that they 'rarely reject a student because of a personal statement' but that 'in the case of a student who has narrowly missed their offer grades, we may look to the statement for signs of something special.' The University of Bristol is looking for evidence that you appreciate the importance of maths in a physics degree, as well as explaining why you want to pursue a degree in physics.

Don't forget your other extra-curricular interests and perhaps devote a short paragraph to these – whether it’s sport, the creative arts, a part-time job, or something you do that helps others. For more advice on drafting your personal statement, see our article on how to get writing your personal statement.