On pretty much every curriculum vitae and job application, you will have to write a personal statement. For all the hard, objective data that selection committees have available about job candidates, the personal statement injects a distinctly subjective, unpredictable element to the application.
The personal statement, typically found at the top of the document, acts as your CV’s abstract. Employers will use it to decide whether or not it’s worth their time to read the remainder of the CV. As such, it’s got to be concise (50-200 words) while highlighting your major strengths as a candidate. If you feel you have more to say about yourself, remember you can always add it in your cover letter.
Like your CV, the personal statement should be crafted to the specific job ad you are applying to. Be sure to read the ad carefully, seeing which skills they are asking for, and try to highlight these in the personal statement.
When it comes to actually writing it, you can use the first person (“I have strong writing skills”) or the third person (“A motivated worker with strong writing skills”). Whichever format you decide to use, be sure to be consistent in the statement: do not switch between first and third person.
An example of a generic personal statement:
“A business administration graduate from the McGill University. I have the knowledge essential for managing key areas of an organization and the problem solving skills needed in finance. I am looking for a graduate trainee post in marketing where I can use my strong writing and time management skills.”
Knowing what information to include in your personal statement is key. Here are some tips:
It’s not an academic paper
By far, the most common offence I witness on resumés is the use of generic language. Suppressing your natural personality just plain makes your statement boring to read. Be sure to use language that is appropriate, but also highlights who you are as a person. Have a quirky personality? Embrace it. Remember, the personal statement is there because the committee wants to see if you could fit into the position, the department or the organization.
Write about your strengths
Having the requisite self-awareness to be able to discuss your strengths in detail is a difficult but necessary part of the job application process. However, no one wants to read anything clichéd or predictable either, like your “willingness to tackle difficult problems” or your “solid educational background.” What employers do want to read about is the way you used your creativity and innovation to teach that tutorial in a new way, or how you put students or co-workers at ease with your calm demeanor to more effectively solve interpersonal problems. Use specific examples to back up the claims you’re making.
Write about what they need
Do your research about the institution you are applying to. You could be the most qualified applicant for the position, but unless you make a connection to what the institution or department is trying to do, it’s all just guesswork and connecting dots. You need to customize every statement to the unique needs of each position you’re applying to.
Make it meaningful
It may be tempting to stretch the truth about your qualifications in the personal statement, but don’t. You have more skills than you think, you just need to think about them. Make a list or ask a friend what they think your best qualities are. A hiring committee will be able to tell if you’ve stretched the truth when you go in for the interview. So why waste their time by lying on your CV?
To illustrate the above points, I’ve crafted a personal statement below, based on an academic future version of myself applying for a position as an editor for a fictional small peer-reviewed journal. Notes are provided in parentheses.
“In addition to over five years of qualitative research experience and several peer-reviewed publications in the field of career development theory, I bring a thoughtful and articulate communication style; a patient, empathic, professional interpersonal demeanor; a master’s level training in counselling psychology; and a relentlessly optimistic attitude (highlighting strengths, including a personal touch). As a new publication, Constructivist Career Development Quarterly will surely benefit from reliable, dedicated, experienced, and creative editing staff (talking about what they need). As illustrated below, my effective integration of theory and practice over years of career counselling and academic research experience strongly indicates that I will be able to make great contributions to the exciting growth of this journal (meeting their needs, making it meaningful).”
David Lindskoog is a career adviser at the Simon Fraser University Career Services Centre.