Personal view on personal statements

Yesterday I ran the physics bit of a University Open Day for prospective students, and so I talked to a lot of prospective students and their parents, we had about 100 visit the department. I chatted about personal statements to one of them. Today I read in The Guardian that apparently there are companies that charge £350 to write personal statements for students applying to University.

Hopefully they are not selling many statements. Any applicant to Physics at Surrey, and according to the article, to Cambridge too, would be wasting their money. Neither of us select on the basis of personal statements. As I said yesterday at the Open Day, we just read them before we cat with the students and use them to start with an idea of what interests the student. When a prospective applies to us, in most cases, we invite them to come along for a day, and during the day they have a one-on-one chat with an academics.  It is good to break the ice by asking about an extracurricular activity mentioned in the statement, and if they mention a particular bit of physics there that they find particularly interesting, we can chat about that.

Yesterday, the prospective student mentioned that he was doing an extended project, so I said that they could mention the project in the personal statement. They could say what they found out in the project that was most interesting. Although we don’t select on the basis of personal statements it is nice to see one with an example of an interest in physics outside the A-level curriculum. But ultimately, for applications here, personal statements are not important, and I worry that at least some prospective students feel under pressure to write the perfect statement when there is no need, and when there are other more important things for them to do, like learning physics and maths.

I was admissions tutor for 4 years and so over the years must have read well over 1000 personal statements. Most are perfectly sensible statements mentioning a popular science book they have read (often one written by my colleague Jim Al-Khalili), a sport, a part-time job, and an example of how they have helped others, often by helping younger pupils. That’s great. It is more than enough.

I have read the odd dodgy one, though. One applicant was apparently inspired to do physics by the books of Stephen King. I presume they meant Stephen Hawking, at least I hope they did. So it is good to check a personal statement before it is submitted.