1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

How to mention self study of physics in undergraduate application

  1. Sep 24, 2014 #1
    Hello all, I am a high school senior applying to college this year and have a question.
    Like many others on these forums, I have done a lot of self-studying of physics in my spare time, purely out of interest.

    How should I include self-study on a college application, and for for those you who have done this before, has it helped? I plan on listing it as an extracurricular and also talk about it in my essay. However, I think the problem is that I don't have any evidence to show that I'm not bluffing; is this a legitimate concern? I do have indirect evidence in the form of Physics Olympiad, summer programs, and research, but I feel it doesn't reflect the level of physics that I have studied. I could list textbooks, but then again, I have no evidence to show that I have actually read these books. An even bigger problem is that the admissions officers probably would have never heard of those books.

    Consider the emphasis colleges place on rigorous and college-level coursework, it seems that self-studying advanced physics is an impressive accomplishment, but I'm not so sure. People who have gone this route; what are your opinions? Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 24, 2014 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    It's important to realize that self-study is not an accomplishment in an of itself. It's great in that it (a) helps you to improve your grades, (b) gives you a better understanding of a field that you may want to go into and (c) generally makes you more scientifically knowledgeable.

    When talking about this in an application you have a couple of obstacles to overcome. First, as you have hit upon, self-study can't be quantified. You might be able to mention books that you've read, or problems that you've wrestled with, but someone in a position to evalute you will have no real means to use information about your self study to stratify you against the other applicants.

    Second, to a certain extent, self-study is expected. I would generally expect that a student who choses physics as a major and is serious about it does a fair amount of self-study outside of assignments and classwork. So bringing this up in an application is kind of like expecting to get paid for driving to work.
  4. Sep 24, 2014 #3
    Choppy, thank you for your advice. I understand what you mean, but I am not sure how familiar you are with the undergraduate admissions system in the United States and perhaps there is some misunderstanding. Admission to college is based on not only grades and test scores, but also essays and extracurricular activities, as well as other factors. Many high school students are very serious about their extracurricular simply for the sake of university admissions. For me, my main "extracurricular" is studying physics and it may have been to the detriment of other activities (due to taking up time). Therefore, I want to somehow show on my application that I spend much of my time on physics and that I take it seriously.

    Also, while I understand that reading a little physics or math is no big accomplishment, many students my age aren't even sure what they want to study in college, so self-driven study of advanced subjects is at least worth mentioning. However, as we both agree, there is no way of providing evidence
  5. Sep 24, 2014 #4
    I am also applying to universities this fall and I understand the application process very well. I do not think mentioning self-study of physics will say anything more about you. Your love for physics is probably best demonstrated through your college essays. If you have nothing to really prove for you learning physics extracurricular, then it's not really worth mentioning. Even though AP scores are not usually considered in the admission process itself, I'd recommend you take AP Physics 1 and/or 2 test if you've taken the class or if you haven't taken the tests already. That's probably the best way to translate your self-study into more tangible uses in college. Nevertheless if you have been really learning a lot through this then it will come back later on and help you. This isn't to downplay your self-study, it has many uses, however it doesn't extend as to as far as really giving admissions offices a deeper glimpse of you. Good luck.
  6. Sep 24, 2014 #5
    Ritzycat, I've passed both AP physics C exams with 5s a few years ago as a freshman. Most of the stuff I'm doing now is 3rd-4th year college or graduate material. I feel like I am at a disadvantage compared with applicants who have done courses at community colleges, etc, because if you look at my transcript, it looks like I have nothing beyond calculus and introductory physics, where in fact I know much more. I will definitely talk about it in my essay, but I don't know how seriously admissions officers will take it, so that's why I am asking here.
  7. Sep 24, 2014 #6
    That is very impressive. Did you take calculus as a freshman? What have you taken in high school if you had passed the most advanced science classes freshman year?
  8. Sep 24, 2014 #7
    I took the calc and physics AP exams in 9th grade, but I took the actual classes later in high school (although I already knew it). There's also other sciences, chem and bio, plus AP stats, so it isn't that bad. Combined with extracurriculars, I think I have a decent shot at ivies or caltech/mit, but my application would be much stronger if the amount of time I put into physics was taken into account. My hope is that if I talk about it enough in my essays, admissions people would get the idea that I have "passion" in something.
  9. Sep 24, 2014 #8


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    I think you should try to get someone knowledgeable about physics to interview you, ideally a professor at a nearby college or university, perhaps one that you're going to apply to. He can evaluate your knowledge of physics (sort of an informal oral exam), and write a letter of recommendation for you. That would provide some external verification of what you've done.
  10. Sep 25, 2014 #9

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    You shouldn't feel as if you are at a disadvantage. You are at a disadvantage. A formal course is, for the reasons described above, more highly regarded than reading a book. The students who chose to go and take community college courses made a good decision, and that decision will be rewarded. If for some reason, you couldn't do the same, that will mitigate this to some extent, but you are not going to convince universities that self-study is equivalent to coursework. Because it isn't - and the fact that you are applying to college demonstrates that you recognize this too.
  11. Sep 25, 2014 #10


    User Avatar

    What you are describing is a typical concern for home schoolers. For particular schools you should look to see what they suggest as guidelines for applications from home schoolers. Evidence of advanced work is usually not asked for because it's more of a placement than an admission criterion. But college classes, research, internships, and competitions (preferably with impressive results) are all considered good things and seem to wow the admissions people.

    I home schooled my math kid, who did vast quantities of self study, along with auditing classes at local universities. He's pretty much covered the entire undergraduate math curriculum (as most US schools define it) and yet has no proof of this. The transcript I made for him lists various class-sized chunks and gives them recognizable names (e.g. Algebraic Number Theory, self study following Stanford Math 154; and Probability Theory, self study from Rosenthal's A First Look at Rigorous Probability Theory). However, given his narrow focus on mathematics, he's going to Cambridge (in a week) where they don't care about "well rounded" and are happy to judge your potential as a student for themselves by interview and their own exam.

    In short, I recommend you make up your own self-study supplementary transcript and figure out how to submit it to the places you apply to. Everybody loves people who take personal responsibility for their education, but you have to get past the admissions people. Don't worry too much about evidence for the things you have learned, but I do recommend getting letters of recommendation from people recognized in the field if you can.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook