A guide to personal statements for public and civil service jobs: how to sell yourself, both on application forms and in person

By on 28/03/2022 | Updated on 29/03/2022
A cartoon of recruiters looking at CVs for johs
Photo: d4rkwzd/Pixabay

Recruiting managers may have to sift through hundreds or even thousands of applications, while interviewers are likely to be meeting multiple candidates. So how do you ensure you stand out from the crowd? Writing a short but perfectly formed personal statement or selling yourself at interview in just a few well-chosen words could make all the difference. Danielle Littlejohn tells you how   

A personal statement is a summary of what you offer an employer whether you’re a school leaver, graduate, or an established career mover. By condensing your experience and skills into a few sentences, the aim is to highlight what sets you apart from others whether you are applying for a new role and writing a personal statement to go with your CV, or relaying your experience during an interview or more relaxed meeting. These days we need to be able to promote our professional worth in just one or two minutes.  

Be it a written or verbal personal statement, recruiting managers and interviewers are looking for a short, sharp clarification of who you are, what makes you stand out, and what makes you the best person for the job.  

Not everyone knows the term ‘elevator pitch’ but I have always quite liked the analogy. If you found yourself in a lift with the employer of your dreams and had only the time it takes to travel a few floors, how would you sell yourself? Ideally, you should incorporate your personal values, and unique selling point (USP), as well as skills and experience. It can be the clincher in an employer’s mind as to your organisational fit so it can be the perfect thing to say at the beginning of the interview when you are asked: “So tell me a little about yourself”.

These days, our careers and their progression can be quite fluid. When you’re looking to move forward, it’s advisable to hone your skillsets and have clear aspirations of where you want them to take you. To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, when she finds herself lost in the woods and asks directions: “If you don’t know where you are going, how are you going to know when you get there?”

How to structure a written personal statement

Lucy Ventrice, senior HR business partner at Amazon, suggests you start by creating a ‘mind map’ of both yourself and one of your potential employers. By comparing the two, you will have something to build from and an idea of what they are looking for, enabling you to make the application bespoke.

In the opening sentence, you want to grab the reader so it should include your job title, number of years’ experience, expertise, and some positive or active ‘hook’ words. Your personal statement will obviously vary according to where you are in your career. If you have achievements that are relevant to the employer, it’s an idea to mention these briefly. It’s a good idea to give an idea of what you’re looking for in the closing sentence, for example, specific goals and why you would like to work for that employer.

Beyond that we want to keep the personal statement as concise as possible without jargon or repetition and with a real focus on grammar and spelling.

Pinning down your elevator pitch face-to-face

In the same way as written personal statements, an elevator pitch should be a quick synopsis of your background and experience but, as it is generally delivered face-to-face, it should be more relaxed and affords us the opportunity to inject a little more personality into it.

It is great to have something up your sleeve for job fairs, networking events and other professional activities as it sounds corporate, explains you in the terms they are after, and gives you a head start on something to say about yourself rather than getting tongue-tied.

As this is verbal, we need to think about our delivery and particularly not speaking too fast, so keep it short – ideally up to one minute.  

Ensure you have some intonation and that you’re not rambling. Be aware of our body language. You should be approachable without being overbearing – don’t frown, don’t slouch.

As with any public speaking, it is a good idea to have something practised and polished that can be adapted on the spot to suit the audience or individual you are talking to.

Dos and don’ts for personal statements

  • Do highlight what sets you apart.
  • Do make it relevant – tailor to the person or role in question.
  • Do be specific (on what can you offer) and succinct (two-three sentences).
  • Do make it engaging – think about your hook.
  • Do be passionate.
  • Don’t be negative.
  • Don’t exaggerate or embellish.

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Danielle Littlejohn provides a range of professional development courses as part of Global Government Forum’s training portfolio. Courses she runs include Delivering Results at Work – Essential Success Skills for New Managers, Creating and Growing a Productive Team – Interviewer Skills and Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling.

About Danielle Littlejohn

Danielle Littlejohn provides a range of professional development courses as part of Global Government Forum’s training portfolio. Courses she runs include Delivering Results at Work – Essential Success Skills for New Managers, Creating and Growing a Productive Team – Interviewer Skills and Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling.

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