When applicants write about their accomplishments, whether in personal statements for graduate school or in b-school essays that ask for greatest accomplishments, challenges, and the like, they almost always come up with real accomplishments: driving innovations that led to revenue boosts for their firms, conducting original and meaningful research in their fields of study, or leading a volunteer group on a major community service initiative. But as genuine and significant as these accomplishments are, many of these initial essay drafts are often missing a key ingredient: obstacles.
Obstacles are ubiquitous in everyday life – the traffic detour, the rude tech support representative, even the mean-looking dog on your favorite walking route – and inevitable when it comes to business initiatives. But too often when asked to talk about their accomplishments, applicants contract immediate amnesia for the things that got in their way en route to their achievement, even though getting past them was often as challenging as executing all the foreseen elements of their plans.
The result: bland essays, such as this example:
As the leader of my product research group, I came up with a plan for a new widget that would save us 10% in costs. After communicating my vision to the team, we worked hard for four weeks on a prototype, completing it by the deadline, to the delight of management. Today my widget is still the standard for my company, saving us over $300k annually.
Sure, it sounds like a solid accomplishment, but would you remember it as well as the following, obstacle-rich version? Take a look:
As the leader of my product research group, I came up with a plan for a new widget that would save us 10% in costs. But when I communicated my vision to the team, two senior engineers immediately pointed out key flaws in the design, and I had to revise my plan to correct them. We worked on a prototype for two weeks before discovering that the material we planned to use for the product had become over 30% more expensive in the last month, so I pulled an all-nighter researching alternative materials, and we chose one. We met our four-week deadline and presented the prototype to management, but the VP of Manufacturing argued that we would need to purchase major new equipment to produce the widget. I convinced the team to work long hours on a manufacturing proposal that proved we could make the product with existing equipment. Today my widget is still the standard for my company, saving us over $300k annually.
See the difference a discussion of obstacles makes? Obstacles make your essays more memorable in at least two ways: they heighten the drama of the story, and they give the reader more elements and images to associate with you. In the second version, it’s easy to imagine the two dissenting engineers, the surprise of discovering the price hike for materials, and the VP’s frown. In the first, there’s little to imagine but an employee smiling about a job well done.
So don’t forget to include key obstacles in your essays, along with how you negotiated them. Showcasing your ability to overcome the unexpected is actually more powerful than proving you can execute on a well-defined plan.