Have you been set the daunting summer holiday homework of writing your 4,000 character personal statement? That 47 line beast that is supposed to convince the admin team at your future university that you stand out from the other thousands of applicants?
I was lucky enough to have some brilliant advice while I was at school from my great science department and two academic parents. I am aware that this is a unique situation that others are unlikely to be in- so, where do you even begin?
Well, UCAS have a bit of basic info on their site (where you’ll eventually upload your prose) but let me try to help a little further…
Structure your info to reflect the skills and qualities the universities and colleges value most.
Write in an enthusiastic, concise and natural style – nothing too complex.
Try to stand out, but be careful with humour, quotes or anything unusual – just in case the admissions tutor doesn’t have the same sense of humour as you.
Proofread aloud and get your teachers, advisers and family to check – then redraft until you’re happy with it and the grammar, spelling and punctuation are correct.
I think the advice to structure your info to reflect your skills is quite hard when it comes to science subjects. We aren’t always incredibly talented writers or even very good at expressing our enthusiastic feelings in a very concise way. Do you structure a science personal statement like a lab report? Do you write it like a journal article?
There’s a nice article on the Guardian website about personal statements for physics and a good summary article here. Admissions tutors are real life humans and can be contacted if you’re super nervous, as can PhD students and undergrad representatives (look on the union website of the university you’re applying too). Imperial have a free mentoring scheme which has separate strands for medical and science/engineering applicants.
For science, hard examples of experience and inspiration are really important. We live in an age where you can access almost anything in femtoseconds: you could download e-courses on carbon in Graphene, organic electronics or plasma physics and watch lectures online- you really have no excuse. Sci Comm is basically the trendiest thing since skinny lattes and brioche buns for burgers- a time when the top 10 articles on BBC often relate to scientific discoveries. But what really inspired you? What inspired you differently to the rest of the population? We all really liked Brian Cox on Wonders of the Universe, we all like the particle physics round on University Challenge.
Have you set up and run your own science club? If you haven’t, could you? This can be at your secondary school or you could dare to return to your primary: word of warning though, primary science gets very messy!
Have you ever tutored science or maths? Again, could you? It’s an easy way to earn money and can be really rewarding- it’s also an awesome way to make sure you really understand a subject.
Have you attended a free talk at a society or institution? There is so much going on that sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming and I don’t leave my house! There are free talks (every day!) at at the Royal Society, IOP, Royal Institution, Wellcome Collection, RSC.. there are often talks at universities and museums too, so keep an eye out.
Did you meet someone really awesome at an open day or summer school? Talk about them! If you met a great academic when you were shadowing them for work experience, describe what it is she/he did! What was the equipment like? Were you excited to wake up in the morning?
Did you take part in a university summer school? If not, why not! Lots are free to attend and some even provide you with accommodation and food. For the Imperial ones check here. In London: there’s also the outbox incubator run by Stemettes, Mission Discovery @ KCL, Year 12 Physics @ St. Mary’s and a Bringing Physics to life taster course @ UCL.
Have you ever interned? Check out the NPL internship scheme, Nuffield Research Placements, Rutherford Appleton’s work experience, Rolls Royce, Imperial’s work experience programme.. get in touch with your local university and just ask ! Chances are you’ll never meet the person you annoy by e-mail, so you never need to worry!
Have you visited a real life science lab? Why not try one!
- Diamond Light Source (the UK’s synchrotron)
- The STFC Central Laser Facility
- The National Physics Laboratory
- The summer exhibition of the Royal Society
- If you really can’t leave your house, check out the virtual lab at NPL!
Have you won any prizes?
We’re not talking D of E or Great British Bake Off.. but instead science prizes are super easy to find out about and apply for. They are also insane amounts of fun, letting you build water rockets or make science films. Why not have a look at or consider a few of the list below…?
- CREST awards for committed project work
- A water rocket challenge at NPL
- a WISE campaign ‘girl’ award
- A Science Film Challenge at NPL
- Experimonthly: video an experiment for TIMstar every month
- Beat the Flood: an annual challenge to beat flood-resistant homes
- The Tata Sixth Form Materials Prize for year 12 material scientists
- The National Science and Engineering Competition
- The IET and BBC Make it Digital Campaign
- The First Lego League
- STEM Plastics Challenge
- Download science podcasts ! I really like the Infinite Monkey Cage and Life Scientific, which are both free on Radio 4.
- Watch MIT’s lectures online!
Every time you attend a lecture, summer school or seminar write a few sentences somewhere safe about what really worked for you- it’s awful trying to remember something important months after you saw a talk. Try and reflect on what you really got out of the experience by talking to your friends and family: if you can explain it really clearly, chances are you were interested!
There’s way too much to include to need to lie about books you’ve read or magazines you’ve subscribed too. I’m in the final year of my PhD, and I guarantee no one religiously reads the New Scientists every week, nor will any serious academic ask you to describe your favourite physics book. Check out the Royal Society Reading list if you like to hold something in your hands!
Keep up-to-date with current research activities and discoveries. What’s going on at CERN? How’s pluto looking? What is the Rosetta mission all about? Should we watch Interstellar in our physics lessons? Most newspapers are online for free, so you have no excuses!
When you’ve made sure you’re clear on what it is about physics that makes you want to spend the next 4 years and £36,000 (+) on it, then start to write. Write out a plan (just like an essay in English) and see where all your experiences can fit in. If you’re really nervous about the structure and flow, then e-mail me: I can be completely impartial and will check any english or grammar. When you’re ready, ask your parents to read it and then your cousins or siblings if you’re close to them. Eventually, it will be so good that come September you can walk proudly into year 13 and knock your teacher’s socks off..
🙂 🙂 Jess x