The personal statement is perhaps the most important part of the university application, as it provides Admissions Officers with the information to identify those students that we would most like to admit. Prospective applicants to St Andrews thus often ask our Admissions Officers, "What should I put in my personal statement?" It is impossible to answer this question, since each statement is specific to a particular applicant. Without a doubt, however, your statement should obey the two Ps:
- Your statement must be personal. It should reflect your own interests and experiences, and not those of your parents, teacher, careers advisor or a random participant in a university discussion forum.
- Your statement must be proof-read! This may sound obvious, but we do receive a small number of applications that read as if they were composed the night before the UCAS deadline. Such applicants are highly unlikely to receive an offer, so ensure that your application is carefully composed and checked.
The UCAS website provides some useful general advice on writing a personal statement. But we also offer a list of phrases and statements to avoid; these (or similar) have often appeared in UCAS personal statements and offer little insight into the applicant, and are thus, in effect, a waste of the limited space made available to you.
- "I first became interested in computers when my parents bought a computer in 1903..."
- According to UCAS the most common opening line for a personal statement is "From a young age I have (always) been [interested in/fascinated by]...", followed by "For as long as I can remember I have...". So if your statement starts like this, it will struggle to stand out. What did you do with this computer?
- "My favourite book is Donald Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 2."
- While Knuth's tomes are indeed seminal works in our field, we would not expect the average 17- or 18-year old to have read them (and if you have read and completely understood them, you might find a degree in Computer Science a bit boring!). If you do have a favourite book that is somehow related to Computer Science, describe one that you have actually read and enjoyed, rather than one that you think will impress us.
- "I have built my own home page in HTML."
- Building web sites is not Computer Science. How has this experience led you to become interested in Computer Science? Have you gone beyond building static HTML pages?
- "I know PHP and Visual Basic."
- Many of our applicants already know (or think that they know) how to program in one or two languages. This is not required for our courses, so please do not feel that you need to mention a laundry list of languages. But if you do, it would be far more impressive if you were to tell us what you have done in these languages.
- "I love Physics above everything else and this is why I am applying for a joint degree in Computer Science and Physics."
- Unfortunately the UCAS form does not make it easy to apply for joint-honours degrees, as you have the same fixed amount of space, yet you have to appeal to Admissions Officers from both of your potential Schools. Please take care to word your statement such that you can show that you are interested in both subjects. Or consider applying for a single-honours degree, as the flexible structure of the Scottish degree means that you can still take additional subjects during your subhonours years and switch to a joint-honours degree later on.
- "I have used no other operating system apart from NetBSD since I was ten years old and would rather die than use a Windows machine. Open source or nothing!"
- Such statements can be fun to read, but are not particularly pragmatic. We use Linux, Mac OS and Windows in our teaching. Would your ideals mean that you would choose to skip parts of your degree?
- "I own an X-Box, a PS4 and an Atari 2600."
- Again, we receive many applications from students who enjoy playing video games. This is not of particular interest to us, unless you can demonstrate that your interest in games is related to your interest in Computer Science. Have you developed any games? Improved any games?
- "I am an avid football and shinty player."
- The purpose of the personal statement is for you to demonstrate that you are an interesting person whom we would like to teach, but also one who is interested in the subject. So please do not mention hobbies unless they are relevant to your interest in Computer Science, or you can show that they would make you a worthwhile candidate for admission.
- "It has been my life's ambition to attend St Andrews and I cannot picture myself at any other institution."
- While we are very pleased that you are specifically interested in St Andrews, remember that the same personal statement is sent to all of your UCAS university choices. If we are unfortunately unable to make you an offer, it is unlikely that your other choices will be impressed by such a declaration.
THE LEGACY OF COMPUTER SCIENCE
Gerald Jay Sussman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
We have witnessed and participated in great advances, in transportation, in computation, in communication, and in biotechnology. But the advances that look like giant steps to us will pale into insignificance by contrast with the even bigger steps in the future. Sometimes I try to imagine what we, the technologists of the second half of the 20th century, will be remembered for, if anything, hundreds of years from now.
In the distant past there were people who lived on the banks of the Nile River. Each year the Nile overflowed its banks, wiping out land boundaries but providing fertile soil for growing crops. As a matter of economic necessity the Egyptians invented ways of surveying the land. They also invented ways of measuring time, to help predict the yearly deluge. Similar discoveries were made in many places in the world. Holders of this practical knowledge were held in high esteem, and the knowledge was transferred to future generations through secret cults. These early surveyors laid the foundation for the development of geometry (“earth measurement” in Greek) by Pythagoras and Euclid and their colleagues around 350 BC. Geometry is a precise language for talking about space. It can be taught to children. (Euclid’s Elements has been used in this way for more than 2000 years.) It makes the children smarter, by giving them ways of expressing knowledge about arrangements in space and time. It is because of these Greeks that we can tell a child, “If you build it out of triangles it will not collapse the way it does when you build it out of rectangles.”
The Rhind Papyrus from Egypt (c. 1650 BC) is the earliest document that we have that discusses what we now think of as algebra problems. Diophantus, another Greek, wrote a book about these ideas in the third century A.D. Algebra was further developed by Abu Abd-Allah ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi (c. 780–c. 850) and others. (Note: “algebra” = al’jabr is an Arabic word meaning “the recombining of broken parts.”) Algebra is also a precise language that gives us the ability to express knowledge about the relationships among quantities, and to make deductions from that knowledge, without necessarily knowing the values of those quantities.
For a long time people were able to predict the motions of some of the heavenly bodies using ad hoc theories derived from observation and philosophical considerations. Claudius Ptolemy wrote the Almagest, a famous compendium of this knowledge, in the second century. About 350 years ago Descartes, Galileo, Newton, Leibnitz, Euler, and their contemporaries turned mechanics into a formal science. In the process they