Starting your personal statement is always difficult, and it’s especially so for a course like Physics and Philosophy, where may feel as if you have to yoke together two entirely unconnected fields. If you looking for some inspiration, taking a look at an example is always useful. Here, we have a real Oxford student’s personal statement, annotated to explain why it works.
Example Physics and Philosophy Personal Statement
In the last academic year, Physics has risen from being a subject I already enjoyed to one I could not do without. Entering sixth form, I expected questions in class to be answered with the familiar oversimplified responses; I was instead inspired by in-depth explanations that were at once fascinating and neatly logical. As we moved beyond the equations introduced at GCSE, it was a revelation to discover the subject’s true beauty: the reasoning and principles from which these equations arise. I therefore started reading more about scientific theories, including relativity and Feynman’s book on quantum electrodynamics, and so found that physics could be more than just a series of applied maths questions – it can be an elegant, rational explanation of why the world acts like it does.
A good example here of showing how your interest began in school, but you read around the subjects and developed your understanding through self study.
One area of relativity I found particularly engaging is how thought experiments and simple diagrams can be used to easily show seemingly illogical ideas, like light following curved paths. While the idea of velocity-caused time dilation seemed counterintuitive at first, after learning the basics of Minkowski diagrams I was even able to explain it to non-physicist friends. I also appreciated how in QED, light’s wave- and particle-like behaviours can be unified with a single set of rules explaining wave behaviour in terms of probability distributions. As well as studying completed theories, I was eager to find out about more recent progress. Lee Smolin’s ‘The Trouble With Physics’ provided a concise introduction to the problems facing physics today, and the attempts to solve them. However, I realised that without further education in physics my understanding of these topics would be constrained; thus, my decision to study it at university.
Smolin’s analysis of string theory provoked an interesting debate with my physics teacher about whether this area of research should yet be called a theory. Arguments against included the lack of testable hypotheses, while its claim to unify the particles and forces is promising. The book also inspired an interest in the way theories develop, and how they are influenced by social and historical contexts. For instance, Feynman’s ‘The Meaning of It All’ was striking in how clearly it is a product of the Cold War; its second part borders on anti-Soviet propaganda, showing how strongly influenced science was by the social climate.
This is an interesting and unique way of linking in a element of the humanities to physics, a great stepping stone to the philosophical part of the Personal statement.
Reading Thomas Kuhn’s ideas convinced me that to fully understand why a theory is held, we must examine how it developed.
I also became curious last year about broader philosophy, and have since delved into classical texts like Descartes’ ‘Meditations’ and Plato’s ‘Republic’. I found Descartes’ challenge to our traditional views of knowledge thought-provoking, but was unconvinced by the logic used to counter these issues in later chapters.
Including your own thoughts and analysis of philosophical texts is a good idea, as it shows you beginning to think in a philosophical manner, and could spark a debate in interview.
In examining these texts I drew on skills gained from my A-level history course: an analytical and thorough approach to information, and the ability to construct effective arguments. I believe both skills to be crucial in physics, especially for explaining observations and communicating ideas. This year I have built on them through extracurricular activities: analysis through a literature reading group, and argumentative reasoning through my school debating society.
Linking your extracurricular activities back to your subject is important, otherwise they can appear irrelevant and of little interest to the admissions tutor.
Maths has also featured in my extracurricular activities for years. As well as featuring on a school maths team, I achieved five consecutive golds in UKMT challenges, qualifying repeatedly for higher-level competitions. This year I have committed to teaching myself three extra further maths modules, one of which I have already completed. Helpfully, years of roles in choirs and school plays have taught me to balance out-of-classroom commitments efficiently. The challenge excites me; through it, I hope to expand my knowledge of maths while developing a more autonomous style of learning. I look forward to studying more advanced physics this way, honing my skills and gaining new ones in the process.
This personal statement effectively communicates the student’s passion for Physics and Philosophy because it’s full of concrete examples – it doesn’t just make grand, over-arching statements about a love for Physics and Philosophy, but backs them up with evidence of independent exploration of both subjects.
For more ideas about what to include on your personal statement, check out our Physics and Philosophy reading list.