Personal statements. They’re probably the most difficult things you’ll ever have to write. You want to stand out from the crowd but be credible and honest. You want to look great even though you feel rank average most of the time. You want that job so badly, but at best your personal statement gets you to the start line of the final challenge, the interview.
I think I’m getting better at writing them as I get older — I’ve always been able to find the next job pretty quickly — so I thought I’d share some personal statements where I’ve either got the job or at least an interview. That’s not to say I think they’re particularly good. Looking at them now makes my feet cramp from toe-curling. They’re littered with errors and things I’d love to change. But, they’re honest, authentic and have served their purpose well, and if by making myself vulnerable helps others, it’s a risk I’m happy to take. To help you write yours, I’ve put together ten tips that I’ve had to learn the hard way. I hope it helps.
My personal statement examples
School 2 personal statement — 1 ½ years into my career
School 3 personal statement — 5 years into my career
Lecturer personal statement — 10 years into my career
The first personal statement was for my second teaching job (I couldn’t find my first one). It’s raw, it’s long, it’s error-strewn. But it got me into an alright school after a horror-show of an NQT year. The next personal statement was for a school that turned out to be my utopia. Loved the place. They loved me. Sharing a beer with them years after, the head and deputy both said that they read my statement and said ‘we’ve got to have him in’. The last personal statement is for an application for a teacher training lecturer role. They gave me an interview but didn’t give me the job – it went to the right person though. Still, the personal statement got me onto the start line of the final round.
If you think they’re full of BS, you’re probably right in one way or another. I’ve been told more than once that I’m full of it. Please let me know because I’d love to improve them! If you think they’re just generally crap, please let me know that too – I welcome the feedback.
10 tips I wished I followed for all my personal statements
- Tailor your application to the school. Not all of it necessarily, but at least some. Fruitful places to tailor to are the ‘ethos and values’ type pages or ‘welcome from the headteacher’ pages on schools’ websites. Try to get at least the opening statement and the final statement written from scratch with the school in mind. Also, be sure your ethos matches theirs: it’s no good showing your passion for restorative conversations if they’re a no-excuses school.
- Write the top 3 or 4 things that you’d like the reader to know about. If they’re things that make you unique, all the better. I leaned a lot on my developing experience and knowledge of ICT leadership and still do. Of course, match these to the school’s needs.
- Don’t bury the lead. Those 3 or 4 things are important, so don’t let them get lost. If someone’s reading 30 applications, they’ll likely skim read and won’t spend a lot of time working out what the point you’re trying to make is. It’s our job as applicants to spell it out. Introduce the key points early on, maybe in your introduction paragraph and in topic sentences.
- Resist the temptation to undersell yourself. If you can’t blow your own trumpet now when it’s your passage into a new job, when can you? To help with this, write in the third person first, then turn it into the first person after. According to Schneiderman (2015), ‘the third-person voice diffuses emotionally charged situations, enabling people to reconstruct an understanding of their experiences and gain new insights without feeling overwhelmed.’ It sounds gimmicky, but it’s worked for me every time.
- Give other points of view. It’s tiresome writing ‘I am…’ and ‘I did this…’ sentences, let alone reading them. Of course, you can’t get away from using at least some of these sentences, but giving other points of view adds variety and increases your credibility. For example, instead of saying ‘I work hard to build a supportive class culture and communicate my high expectations’, you could say ‘my mentor commented on how supportive my class culture felt and how pupils responded well to my high expectations.’ Other points of view add a different dimension, and as long as they’re true and anonymised, use them to your advantage.
- Give examples at a middling level of detail to enhance your credibility. Too general — you risk a ‘meh’ response. Too specific — you risk boring the reader and running out of words. Focusing on outcomes and touching on a few tangible activities work for me. Here’s what I mean:
|‘I worked on the school’s curriculum review which resulted in a new whole-school approach.’|
|Just right||‘I worked with the school’s curriculum review working group where I promoted an inquiry-based model. After supporting SLT with a subject knowledge audit and delivering CPD activities, my input informed a whole-school approach to teaching and learning which 79% of teachers supported.’|
|Too detailed||‘I worked with the Headteacher on the school’s curriculum review working group, where I promoted an inquiry-based model because I read a wonderful book and went on a great CPD course about it. In the working group, the Head was very influenced by my ideas and asked me to support them in auditing the staff on their knowledge. I undertook this with a suite of tools such as Google Forms and quantitative analysis. While only 13% of staff felt that this approach was appropriate at the start of the process, after working in the curriculum team and supporting CPD sessions, 79% of staff supported the idea.|
- Write in the active voice – it’ll save you words and make you appear confident. The passive voice sounds waffly and hesitant. Which of the following is better?
|Active voice||Passive voice|
|‘I worked with the school’s curriculum review working group where I promoted an inquiry-based model.’|
‘My promotion of an inquiry-based model was accepted by the school’s curriculum review working group.’
The active voice version makes it much clearer that you played a key part. In the passive voice, it’s less clear how much of a role you played.
Put your personal statement through the free Hemingway checker to spot offending sentences. Grammarly is another free alternative that does similar things.
- Proof-read. It’s amazing how many mistakes you’ll find. Put it through the Hemingway or Grammarly checker to pick up the inevitable errors you’ve missed.
- Keep it to one page. Senior leaders have to read a lot of these, so don’t give them an excuse to get bored.
- Keep Ofsted references to a minimum. Often, they’re woefully out of date (even 6 months is a long time) and in my opinion and the opinion of many others (for example, Roberts, 2020), inspections are woefully inaccurate and skewed. On one occasion, when we were doing one of the almost obligatory walk-arounds I mentioned the school’s Ofsted report. The Head said, ‘Pay no attention to that. It’s out of date and we’ve done all the stuff we need to. Besides, it wasn’t an accurate reflection.’ Unfortunately, I had my completed application form in my hand where — you’ve guessed it — I referred to their Ofsted report a fair bit. Needless to say, I didn’t get an invitation to interview.
I hope this reaches and helps people on the way to finding a new role they love. Any feedback you could offer would be wonderful. What do you think of the personal statements and my tips? What other tips have I missed? How do you go about writing yours? Please leave a reply below.
Roberts, J (2020) ‘Basic errors’: 6 complaints about Ofsted inspections. Available at: https://www.tes.com/news/basic-errors-6-complaints-about-ofsted-inspections [Accessed 23 May 2020]
Schneiderman, K (2015) Fooling Your Ego: Writing in the third-person frees you to explore your story. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-novel-perspective/201506/fooling-your-ego [Accessed 23 May 2020]