When you write an application essay or statement of purpose, you’re trying to accomplish several goals at once: You are trying to prove your worthiness to be accepted to your target school, while also trying to impress upon the adcom that you have desirable character traits that your program values. But how do you prove to people whom you have never met that you really are smart, determined, focused, and creative, without sounding like a braggart?
The cardinal rule for achieving this is an old but very true adage: “Show, don’t tell.” This requires you to draw upon true anecdotes from your life that will illustrate the trait you are trying to show in a compelling way. If you do the opposite, “tell, not show,” you end up with boastful claims, such as “I was considered among the smartest in my department,” “I’m a team player,” or “I have the maturity of someone much older.” I have seen some clients make these statements and not back them up with any evidence at all. Would this sound convincing to you, coming from someone whom you’ve never met? Hardly.
However, when you highlight selected experiences chosen to underscore your fantastic qualities, you’ll make your own case far more convincingly than by just telling the adcom that you are creative, motivated, and hardworking. Let’s say for example that you’re applying to law school, and you want to prove your dedication to this career. Show the steps you’ve taken to reach the goal. Write about the summer you interned at a law office, volunteered to help re-elect your state senator, and took a part-time job at a law library. Thoughtfully describe what you learned from these experiences and how they further encouraged your interest in the law. These actions will show your dedication beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Another example: you want to show you’re a team player – a valuable trait for just about any career, and especially important for aspiring MBAs. Good examples could include: a time you came up with a creative compromise to a problem where your co-workers on a team were deadlocked; offering to take on additional responsibilities at work or on a school or club project when you saw everyone else was overloaded; or asking your supervisor what you could do to add more value to your department. Devoting anywhere from 3-5 sentences to each of these examples should be enough to demonstrate your point.
Whether you want to reveal creativity, intelligence, dedication, commitment to social action, or anything else, choose two examples (or three if you have room) where you have actively displayed those traits. Telling these mini-stories will save you from awkwardly claiming a certain quality. Let your own actions make the case for you.
Remember: show, don’t tell.
By Judy Gruen, MBA admissions consultant since 1996 and author (with Linda Abraham) of MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.