When you write an application essay or statement of purpose, you’re trying to accomplish two equally vital goals at once. First, you need to prove your worthiness for acceptance at your target school. Second, you also need to show the adcom that you have the desirable character traits that your program values. But how do you prove to people whom you have never met that you really are a person of good character, as well as smart, determined, focused, capable, and creative – without bragging?
The secret sauce – show, don’t tell
The cardinal rule for achieving this goal is: “Show, don’t tell.” How? Simply by illustrating the personal characteristics that you want to show in a compelling way. If you do the opposite – “Tell, don’t show” – you end up with boastful claims such as: “I was considered among the smartest in my department,” or “I’m a team player,” or “I have the maturity of someone much older.” Whenever clients make these statements without backing them up with real examples, they sound empty, and utterly unconvincing. However, when you highlight selected experiences to underscore your fantastic character and professional qualities, you’ll make a far more convincing case.
Tell stories to make your point
Let’s look at one essay example from a law applicant and see how the narrative he tells reveals his candidate’s character:
Driving home from a busy day at work as general manager of our family’s signage and graphics company, I received a text message from the director of a local, small, post-collegiate Talmudic academy. The director was going out of town in a few days, and asked me if I would give his daily morning class on the Talmud in his absence. The class is given every day at 6 a.m., before prayer, to a group of men dedicated to studying this body of Jewish civil and criminal law. I felt honored to be asked to stand in for a man of his stature. Studying and teaching the Talmud is one of my favorite activities, and I gladly accepted. Now, in less than 12 hours, I must be ready to teach the next day’s topic. I’d be up late preparing.
Right out of the gate, we learn that this candidate manages a family business, and was tapped to substitute teach a high-level class in Talmud. These simple facts, with no embellishment, establish that his character traits include responsibility, reliability, and the capability to teach sophisticated concepts in ancient Jewish law.
Moving to the next paragraph, he explains the relevance of this subject matter, suggesting a link between the study of ancient law and modern-day law:
. . . I spent many years poring over the Talmud. Though codified in the 7th Century, its exacting, sometimes tedious arguments, legal theory and decisions apply even in modern life. Jewish law applies to most facets and situations of our everyday living. For example, there are laws, and nuances within laws, governing proper speech, the types of permissible foods, and honoring parents, teachers and elders.
In the next paragraph, he connects the dots between his work in the family business and his aspirations in law. The attention to detail required in his job also feels relevant to the practice of law and its endless details:
. . . I’ve learned many invaluable skills: project and time management, creative thinking, customer service, and leadership. I have had to develop extra attention to detail, particularly because of the customized nature of nearly all our jobs and because one of my duties is to make sure we are in compliance with the very strict signage codes in Santa Monica as well as in the City of Los Angeles. Additionally, I review the signage criteria and create a “permit package” for the city, after which we hope to obtain the permit without too much bureaucratic aggravation.
He also discusses a part-time job at an employment law firm, which illustrates his commitment to readying himself for law school. This section builds from a strong foundation that convincingly revealed the candidate’s broad-based personal character traits, becoming tightly focused on how he has gained a basic orientation into the workings of a law practice:
Because it is a small practice, I was able to speak directly with clients, send out personnel requests, and draft documents required before, during and after litigation. Although I enjoyed learning about the various stages of the civil litigation process and had an excellent experience, I also learned that I don’t foresee myself practicing civil litigation. Instead, I hope to work as a regulatory and corporate compliance specialist in the context of commercial real estate and mergers and acquisitions.
Concluding, the applicant explains his interest in this law school, pointing to its outstanding reputation, large local alumni base, an employment rate for the most recent graduating class of more than 80%, and its emphasis on practical legal theory:
One civil litigation attorney I met — at a World Series party — told me (during a commercial break) that Loyola’s hands on-training and practical approach prepared him for his career better than he could have imagined, and he found a job within a week of graduating.
This essay models the “show, don’t tell” advice we are giving here. By the end of the essay, the reader cannot help but be impressed with his personal character traits, which he illustrated by example, not making claims. Let’s look at an equally strong, but different essay where the candidate is asked to show when she has been a team player. This is 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 coworkers 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.
Here, the challenge was even bigger, as we see at the opening: (This essay appears in MBA Admissions for Smarties, by Linda Abraham and Judy Gruen, pages 93-94.)
I arrived in Chicago in the summer of 20__ as tech lead to revamp the website of a large chain of hotels. My company, Bright Zone (a pseudonym), was in an uncommon position as subcontractor to a management consultancy. I discovered that my coworkers’ morale had been falling for the last four months, a casualty of negative attitudes and the widely perceived incompetence of the previous firm that had been hired for the website overhaul, which had ended in disaster. I had been hired to direct development, but that was like putting out small brush fires when the whole forest was burning. I pursued team unification.
We learn several things about this candidate’s personality traits right away. First, she has formidable tech abilities, having been asked to revamp a failed website overhaul. Second, her observations about low morale among her coworkers shows her emotional intelligence and sensitivity. I don’t know about you, but I’m impressed.
In the next paragraph, she starts proving her commitment to her team and to the success of this huge engagement. Notice the thought process that sparked her idea to invite the team out for social dinners after hours:
I theorized that if people enjoyed being with each other socially, it would be harder to vilify each other at work. Over many dinners, the other techs under my supervision as well as the consultants seemed to begin to actually like each other and began trusting my recommendations.
Moving her story forward, she pinpoints the main perpetrator of the negativity. Barry is not only very senior to her but also her friend, but because of his severe antagonism toward the client, she takes a risk. Overstepping her normal boundaries, she convinces her firm’s vice president and company chairman to take action:
My friendship with Barry complicated this dynamic but I believed for my team to succeed we had to purge toxicity. After two weeks of meetings and interventions he was fired. With Barry’s negativity removed, my social activities began to have a dramatic impact. We became a true team as the other consulting company now trusted us and gave us broad influence to the client. In moving beyond a tech lead’s responsibilities, I helped build a multimillion-dollar, strategic account.
The specifics the writer lists here: inviting team members for meals, talking privately with key players, and pushing to remove a toxic team member from the picture, all illustrate her mature ability to assess the situation, take risks for the sake of the team, and earn her success on the other side.
Whether you want to reveal creativity, intelligence, dedication, commitment to social action, or anything else, ensure that you also include specific examples 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.
Our consultants have 20+ years of experience guiding applicants to admission with compelling, detailed, and story-filled essays. Are you ready to join the ranks of Accepted’s accepted clients? Explore our Admissions Consulting & Editing Services for more information on how we can help you create a winning application essay that highlights your greatest character traits, one that will get you noticed and accepted at your top-choice program. Learn more here.By Judy Gruen, former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!