Over the weekend I went to a talk focused on the difference between history and memory. The two are clearly related, but not the same. History is what you read in an encyclopedia or newspaper timeline. It is facts, dates, statistics, and data, impersonal and frequently very dry in isolation. Memory consists of vignettes, stories, experiences. It is personal and human, engaging. Churchill’s History of the Second World War as opposed to The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw. (Those of you who have read the former will correct me saying it has lots of memory in it and is highly engaging. You are correct, but it is still primarily dates, facts, and history — as Churchill saw it. Those of you who have read the latter will say he uses data to support the memories, and you will be correct too, but it is still primarily memory.)
Whether writing an MBA application essay, an AMCAS essay, a law school personal statement, a grad school statement of purpose, or an undergraduate application essay, realize you should be like Brokow, dealing in the realm of memory: Write about events that you find personally significant, experiences that you would recount to make your point. You are not constructing a timeline, a resume in prose, or your personal data bank, although you can and should use data in your essays. Nothing but the facts goes into the boxes on your application. The realm of the essay consists of memory and your subjective interpretation of events as you recall them.