Criteria for Success
- Your personal statement convinces a faculty committee that you are qualified for their program.
- It convinces them that you are a good fit for their program’s focus and goals.
- You show a select group of skills and experiences that convey your scientific accomplishments and interests.
- Your experiences are concrete and quantitative.
- Your personal statement is no more than 2 pages.
The graduate school personal statement tells your story and demonstrates that you are a good match for a particular department or program. Matching goes both ways: they should be interested in you, and you should be interested in them. Your personal statement should make this match clear.
Analyze Your Audience
Your personal statement will be read by a graduate committee: a handful of faculty from the program. They’re trying to determine if you will be a successful graduate student in their department, a positive force in the department’s intellectual life, and a successful scientist after you graduate. They are therefore interested in your qualifications as a researcher, your career goals, and how your personality matches their labs and department.
The graduate committee probably reads hundreds of applications a year. To make it easy for them to figure out that you are a good fit, make direct, concrete statements about your accomplishments and qualifications. To make it easy for them to remember you, create a narrative that “brands” you.
Create a personal narrative
PhD programs invest in the professional and scientific growth of their students. Get the committee excited about investing in you by opening your essay with a brief portrait of what drives you as a scientist. What research directions are you passionate about, and why? What do you picture yourself doing in 10 years?
Close your essay with a 2-3 sentence discussion of your career interests. No one will hold you to this; this just helps your committee visualize your potential trajectory.
Describe your experiences
Experiences are the “what” of your essay. What experiences led you to develop your skill set and passions? Where have you demonstrated accomplishment, leadership, and collaboration? Include research, teaching, and relevant extracurriculars. State concrete achievements and outcomes like awards, discoveries, or publications.
Quantify your experiences to show concrete impact. How many people were on your team? How many protocols did you develop? How many people were in competition for an award? As a TA, how often did you meet with your students?
Describe actions, not just changes in your internal mental or emotional state. A personal statement is a way to make a narrative out of your CV. It is not a diary entry.
|Vague experience||Concrete experience|
|During this project, my mind was opened to the possibility of using different programming languages together to create code that is faster to run and easier to understand and modify.||During this project, I collaborated with other group members to develop a user-friendly Python wrapper for a 10,000-line Fortran library.|
|I showed initiative in my second project in the lab.||Frustrated with the direction of my first project, I consulted with other faculty and proposed an entirely new project.|
|During my first year, I became a more curious and capable scientist.||I explored the literature and proposed two alternative procedures to make the experiment efficient.|
|I won the physic department’s Laser Focus prize.||I won the physics department’s prize for top student among my cohort of 20 students.|
|I learned about the role of enzymes in cancer.||I quantified the kinetics of three enzymes implicated in cancer onset.|
Explain the meaning of your experiences
Meaning is the “why” or “so what” of the document. Why was this experience important to your growth as a scientist? What does it say about your abilities and potential? It feels obvious to you, but you need to be explicit with your audience. Your descriptions of meaning should also act as transition statements between experiences: try to “wrap” meaning around your experiences.
|Experience only||Experience and Meaning|
Demonstrate match to your target program
Demonstrate an understanding of the program to which you’re applying and how you will be successful in that program. To do this:
- Read the program’s website. See what language they use to describe themselves, and echo that language in your essay. For example, MIT Biological Engineering’s website lists the department’s three objectives.
- Get in contact with faculty (or students) in your target program. If you have had a positive discussion with someone at the department, describe how those interactions made you think that you and the department may be well-matched.
- State which professors in the program you would plan to work with. Show how their research areas align with your background and your goals. You can even describe potential research directions or projects.
"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.