When we interact socially, we talk on two different planes. With people that we are meeting for the first time, we try to find common ground. We exchange information and try to discover what links us – an alma matter, profession, acquaintances, hobby – something we share. On the other hand, when we are with people with whom we have a degree familiarity, we already know what connects us. Then the nature of our conversation changes. We introduce other topics of conversation: Vignettes from our day. News from our profession. Political developments (if we think the people share our viewpoint). Anecdotes. Stories. We usually spice up this type of conversation with a bit of opinion, insight, and interpretation.
Your application also contains these two levels of conversation. Typically the boxes, possibly aided by your transcript and job history/activity list, are the first level. You introduce yourself to the adcom member. If you are a traditional and competitive applicant, the facts in the boxes will trigger a basic level of interest in your reader. That sense of connection that you seek when meeting someone for the first time.
Once you’ve established that connection, then you move to the second level of dialogue, the “news.” Just as you unthinkingly do in conversation, you now intentionally want to provide something different, interesting, engaging. Especially for the traditional applicant applying to competitive schools, that’s the job of the essays. And just as you automatically do when chatting with a colleague or friend, tell them a story. Show them a situation. Tell them something they don’t know from the boxes and provide the insight required in an application essay or personal statement.