4 steps to writing an effective personal statement (or covering letter)

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Elijah O’Donnell


1. Be self-reflective. One of the keys to effective writing is knowing what to write – and the operative word in Personal Statement is ‘personal’. It’s difficult to articulate clearly to an audience of strangers what your achievements, skills, experiences, and qualities are if you don’t know them yourself. And constructive self-reflection has additional benefits:

“Self-reflectors (generally) because they enjoy examining themselves and learning new things about themselves, know more about themselves, are more in control of their destiny, and characterised by better mental health.”

(Morin, A. Do you reflect or self-ruminate? Science and Self-consciousness review No. 1 December 2002)

How to choose a career you love” from the University of Sheffield Careers Service is one approach that could help you reflect.  A 30 minute appointment with a careers consultant for researchers – either Rachael or Darcey – could help you develop reflective strategies and approaches, as well as help you practice articulating who you are and your experiences.

2. Know your audience. The main subject of a personal statement is you – but you are not the audience. Use your research skills to close read and analyse the job description, the personal specification, and any other documents or sources of information you can find. This will help you develop a more accurate understanding of the language used by your audience, what keeps them awake at night, skills/qualities gaps they need to fill, etc.  If there’s a named contact, phone them. Often these discussions reveal some of the specific needs, demands, and ‘wishes’ obscured by the formal language of job adverts.

3. Understand the role and the organisation. If any of you reading this have ever engaged in recruitment and selection, you know it’s expensive. In terms of money, but also in terms of the amount of time, mental, and emotional effort invested  to select and secure the right employee for the job. Applicants need to show a detailed, in-depth, realistic understanding of the role and the organisation to demonstrate their motivation and commitment. This includes academic roles.

The usual research rules apply (see point 2). To make the linking of your evidence (see point 1) more persuasive: a. visualise (i.e., daydream) doing the job in as much detail as possible b. set up an informational interview with someone who does the job or works for the organisation, or possibly both.

4. Draft and get feedback. No one (well, to my knowledge) has ever submitted the first draft of their PhD or a paper. We think, we write, we reflect, we ask for feedback, we reflect some more, we revise, we write again.  Is that statement clear? Could I choose a more precise word? What impact will that example have on the reader? Why am I telling them that? Personal statements  (or covering letters) are no different in the amount of learning, reflection, and critical thinking that goes into producing them.

A majot difference is that personal statements (or covering letters) are not written in an academic style.  They are – fundamentally – marketing documents.  They must be personal, display enthusiasm (and perhaps other emotions), and are preferably not written in the passive (which takes up a lot of space, and can – overused – strip a narrative of life and energy). Use the active present and past tenses to help your statement (or letter) sound more direct and…active.

Even if you feel you are a long way from applying for a job, have a go at drafting something now.  This will help you become more practiced at reflection and writing – rather than trying to develop these skills the night before the application deadline for your dream job.  The Careers Service provides application feedback – to get the most out of it: use these resources first, do some practice writing before booking an appointment, and bring in the advert and draft statement (or letter) for position you are applying for.

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