We Accepted.com editors have a private mailing list where we can share best practices. This weekend we were discussing certain nuances in responding to the Harvard essay questions, specifically HBS 4:
"In your career, you will have to deal with many ethical issues. What are likely to be the most challenging and what is your plan for developing the competencies you will need to handle these issues effectively? (400-word limit)"
One element in our discussion pertained to the question of whether an example of a situation where you handled an ethical issue would strengthen your reply to this question. In a nutshell, the answer is "yes."
In almost all application essays and personal statements you need to balance description with analysis, what you did with your motivation for doing it or the lessons learned. If you leave out the experiential aspect entirely, you risk writing a highly theoretical and superficial reply. Also realize that your actions and experiences speak volumes about who you are as a person. Some would even argue, myself among them, that what you do says more about who you are than what you believe or intend.
So why the need for both anecdote and analysis? Because telling only what you did or what happened, leaves the reader wondering why you initiated or responded as you did. In admissions, the reader wants to know what makes you tick. They want to understand motivation as well as results and impact. And impact isn’t just impact on others or on an organization or even something that you can always quantify (although to the extent you can quantify external impact you better convey it). Impact also includes the effect on you: What did you learn? How have you changed? How do you now act differently as a result of the earlier experience?
So in answering HBS 4 and most other application questions as well when writing less directed statements of purpose and personal statements, remember to balance anecdote and analysis, experience and interpretation, reality and theory.