A First Appointments guide to preparing your personal statement. Fiona Flynn asks a panel of experts what draws them to a candidate and what infuriates or bores them about people's applications
It's a difficult business, applying for your first teaching job. With more competition but fewer jobs, it's much easier to end up on a reject pile. So how do you persuade potential employers to get as far as reading your personal statement, let alone invite you to interview?
We gathered three experts to cast a critical eye over 20 real personal statements. We asked them to explain what makes your statements reek of failure or sing out "Hire me!"
The three experts are: Eileen Ross, a primary headteacher in Lambeth, south London; John Dunn, director of Select Education, a recruitment agency; and John Howson, professor of education at Oxford Brookes University and The TES recruitment adviser.
Eileen Ross explained how she works through a pile of applications to choose the people she wants to interview.
"First, I check the application forms. Terrible spelling, poor handwriting or dates that don't add up go straight to the No pile. I'm looking for people who I can rely on to write letters and reports to parents!
"Then I take the ones that are okay and scan their personal statements.
First, I check layout and presentation. I'm unlikely to read anything with a font size that's too small, or is poorly laid out. I'm busy and they need to make it easy for me! They too are likely to be rejected.
"With a much smaller pile, I look at the opening gambit. Does it grab me? Then the last paragraph - can it convey to me that this person is enthusiastic and has something special to offer my school? If the answer is Yes and Yes, only then do I read through the entire statement."
Around a third of applications never make it through the first stage on Eileen Ross's desk. As she's only looking to interview a handful of people for any post, she's likely to read only a small number of the personal statements she receives.
ROUND ONE. THE APPLICATION FORM
Our experts agree that that a strong application is the gateway to your statement being read. If you don't get that right, you're stuffed.
Reminder 1: keep them fresh. "If you're writing out 25 applications, make sure the last one is as sparkling as the first," says John Howson. "For school number 25, it's the first time they've come across you."
Reminder 2: mind your handwriting. "Teaching is one of the few areas of employment where your handwriting still really matters," John Dunn explains. "So take care."
And if you normally write with a querty keyboard, you need to make an extra effort. Under no circumstances dot your is with a cute circle. Amazingly, prospective teachers have indulged in juvenile handwriting but, for our experts, immaturity is not the message you want to get across.
ROUND TWO. DRAFTING THE STATEMENT
You sent in a wide variety of statements, but most of them suffered from the same mistakes, the same ones that people make year after year.
* DON'T! Repeat information that's on your form. Don't waste your opening gambit with the details of the job you've applied for or where you're studying. Our experts were disappointed to see so many of your statements cluttered up with this sort of information - it's on your application form, isn't it?
"You get the impression that people feel they have to put everything down,"
says John Dunn. "There's no need for chronology - what's important is what's important." Pull out special pieces of information only to stress a point you want to make about yourself. It's easy to repeat words and phrases too, if you're not careful. We counted 12 ICTs on one page; in another statement, information and communication technology was mentioned five times in one paragraph.
* DON'T! Fill your pages with vacuous statements and cliches. Remember Eileen Ross's rule on powerful opening lines - some of your statements told our experts nothing of interest until halfway down the page. Many of you are guilty of filling your pages with I believeI, I feel... and even I am of the opinion that... (one statement we looked at had four of these on one page).
"If something is important to you, then come out straight and say it!" says Eileen Ross.
I will make an effective... and I have the qualities... are convincing. I have always been fascinated by education... is not, but it appeared on one we looked at. And trotting out received wisdom about the importance of equal opportunities or inclusion is unlikely to impress a seasoned employer, advises John Howson. As Eileen Ross explains, you often get it wrong, which makes it worse. "We can spot it a mile off when you don't really understand what you're talking about," she says.
nDON'T! State the obvious. No one would be so crass as to say they like working with people, but some of you still think you can open your statements with similar nonsense. Take the young woman who relegated her interesting and useful time on Voluntary Service Overseas in Africa to the bottom of the page, but filled her first two paragraphs saying nothing of value.
"Of course she's enthusiastic and conscientious," says John Dunn. "Do we really need to be told? Her enthusiasm should come through in her statement."
Why insist that you've got a sense of humour? To do so simply looks like, actually, you don't. And never say you like working with children. Sure you do, but as John Howson points out, it's got nothing to do with education.
* DON'T! Be insincere. It's not uncommon to cite past inspirations for your decision to become a teacher. But more often than not, it reads as insincere. I would teach for free if I could is just too corny, but it appeared on one of your statements.
Avoid empty sentences. I believe I have the qualities to be a good teacher means nothing - you can be sure that the person you're hoping will read this has seen it a thousand times before.
* DON'T! Get negative. One woman wrote a good statement but spoiled her chances by criticising her PGCE. It's a golden rule in jobhunting: never be negative about your last employer or training estabishment, even if your time with them was awful.
* DON'T! Cock your statement up with a lousy layout. First appearances are everything, so once you've got your statement drafted, decide how it should look. Bullets can be useful for breaking up text (only one of you had thought to do this) and, as John Dunn points out, it's a courtesy to the reader because it makes it easier to scan.
"It shows you've made the effort to edit your words and that you understand the reader is busy," he says.
Think about the length. If it's less than a page, spread it out or use a bigger font. If it's just over, then you must edit it down - that stray last paragraph on a second page leaves Eileen Ross wondering what's missing. Go to two pages if you need to, but make sure your statement warrants it. Double spacing might do the trick.
Justified text makes your statement look more like an A-level essay, as far as John Dunn is concerned - and it's harder to read than a ragged right-hand side of type.
Check the start of every paragraph and make sure they vary, says John Howson, who counted five on one page beginning with I.
And use a serious font, such as Arial or Times New Roman, not Comic Sans.
ROUND THREE. LET'S GET RE-WRITING
If the above words seem harsh, well, they have to be. Remember, the person reading your statement has seen thousands more like it. So you must ensure it makes an impact.
"I'm sure lots of people use a sort of writing frame for personal statements," says Mrs Ross, "but writing to a format leaves little sense of personal style. I'm looking for not the stock phrase and not the standard format. I want to see that bit extra that makes me think this person would be an asset for my school."
Here are the rules to follow if you want your statement to shout out loud that you're the right person for the job.
* DO! Sell yourself. Be assertive about your skills: My strengths are... is what Eileen Ross wants to see.
"Tell us what you're good and strong at," she says. "That's what I want to know."
But your statement needs to sell your qualities to the school, not be "all about me". Know the difference.
* DO! Match the person specification. It should have come with the application. You must show that you meet every requirement that the school asks for. And show that your expectations are high when you talk about your teaching experience. Give details of how you handled situations on teaching practice.
* DO! Be distinctive. In one statement, the candidate talked about her love for her subject. "She's inexperienced, so she doesn't have much to sell,"
John Howson points out, "But this impresses me. I feel like I have a sense of who she is."
Another statement carried a charming opening paragraph in the style of a screenplay. A nice touch, our experts thought, if overlong.
Be original, but don't waffle.
* DO! Mean what you say. One I firmly believe... in your text convinces Eileen Ross. Show your passion and enthusiasm in the way that you write.
One statement did just that, and she would have booked the writer for interview immediately.
* DO! Be specific to the school or pool you're applying for. The reader must know that you're applying to them, not any old school. Flattery about a school or authority goes a long way, but only if it's genuine.
* DO! Write about your qualities, not those of AN Other. Does your character shine through? What do you do for work-life balance? How do you de-stress? If you can get an entertaining or endearing line on your personal life, stick it in. For Eileen Ross, it can mark you out from the crowd.
* DO! Remember your reader. Hone the top and the tail of your statement, making both as strong as you can. If you were the person you're hoping to impress, would you think: "This teacher shows they've got the qualities that I need for my school." When you read it through, ask yourself - is this me?
* DO! Show that you're a professional. If you want a teaching career, you should be able to write a great personal statement.
"After all, you need to show you have initiative and that you understand the principles of communication," says John Howson. Otherwise you're in the wrong job. Your statement will have some of these good points, and some weak ones that need changing. So believe in yourself and get on with it!
the first appointment panel of experts
John Dunn is the director of Select Education. In more than 20 years, he has read pretty much everything you can expect to see on a personal statement.
Eileen Ross, a primary head in Lambeth, south London, sees around 50 applications for every post advertised. She's busy running a school, and admits she is brutal about sifting through applications - it doesn't take much to get rejected.
John Howson is The TES recruitment expert. John knows just how many of you are trying to bag that first post in every part of the country.