Build a better accomplishments essay by following this recipe.
Accomplishments are the bread and butter of personal statements and application essays. That may sound straightforward, however, a fascinating brainstorming session of Accepted admissions consultants reveals that applicants don’t always know what an accomplishment is. What goes into this application staple? And how can you analyze your own profile to find compelling accomplishments to write about in an academic or personal achievements essay?
In this blog post, we’re providing the recipe for an enticing “accomplishments sandwich.” Here are the simple ingredients:
The bread = Impact.
Let’s start with the bread. Your accomplishment must show you as a contributor who has had a significant impact on a person, organization, or entity. What are some examples? You took the initiative to increase membership, lead a team to victory, build a coalition in student government, increase sales, cut costs, or find a solution to a problem that enabled a critical deal to go forward.
Impact and initiative are the two critical qualities to keep in mind when you assess whether your achievements belong in a greatest accomplishment essay.
How about if you won an award? Does that count? It depends. If you are asked to write about a personal achievement, then if you won an award for a published story, an athletic competition, or some other “personal best,” those would be excellent choices. More often, however, you will be asked to write about a significant achievement with impact beyond your own personal growth. In these situations, an award might result from an achievement, either academic or professional, and that endeavor is likely to be more important than the award itself and form the basis of an effective essay. By now, you probably see the difference between an achievement that is primarily personal versus one that is career-related. You may already recognize which among your achievements is notable enough to write about. But let’s say you don’t have much that feels important or clear cut enough. Let’s look at how you can identify potential experiences for your accomplishments essay.
A good place to start is by reviewing your resume. Ideally, it will be loaded with as many quantifiable achievements as possible, from both your professional and extracurricular roles. If you work in marketing, and clinched four new accounts in a single year, leading to a promotion, that’s an achievement. If you work in a social service agency and developed a new intake system for clients that the agency adopted, leading to a much more organized and streamlined process, that’s an achievement. In college, you may have become involved in a student organization that fosters career development and leadership among minority students. Your success in getting speakers that drew big crowds led to you becoming the president of that campus organization. That’s an achievement.
Which experiences on your resume stand out to you now? No doubt you’ll start to see things popping out at you.
Small achievements can be big
Significant accomplishments can also be quieter and smaller. This essay offers a great example where the impact starts with one person but radiates outward:
From the first day, my task to mentor a new-hire, Thomas, was a challenge. He had strong work experience in product development at his previous job, but he was soft-spoken and reserved, and had a strong stutter. While I felt pain for him as he struggled to complete a word or a sentence, it was also awkward for both of us as I waited for him to finish his point. During a department meeting, someone actually rolled her eyes as Thomas was answering a question. I just glared at her for being so cold. At our weekly department lunches, which were meant to be a relaxed social time for everyone, Thomas hung back quietly, seeming like he was a million miles away.
I still didn’t understand why Thomas seemed a little slow to catch on to the ways of our department. He was clearly very intelligent. It was taking me longer to complete my own work because of the extra time I was spending with him on his own assignments. One afternoon, on a whim, I invited him to join me for dinner at a popular burger place. He looked surprised but agreed.
That night broke the ice. Thomas relaxed, enjoyed his dinner, and I noticed his speech was more fluid as well. We discovered a mutual love of soccer and political thriller novels. I really enjoyed his company and told him so. We went out again the following week to an Italian place that he chose. On our third “date,” Thomas opened up about a broken engagement that happened just before he started his new job. He knew that his grief was distracting him, clouding his thinking, and making his stutter worse.
“I know I’ve not been easy to train,” he told me, “but I’m starting to come out of it now.” After that night, Thomas’s work improved rapidly. He risked speaking up more at the weekly lunches and at meetings, and everyone was patient when he struggled to say something, although those occasions were less frequent.
I consider this mentoring experience one of my greatest accomplishments because in trying to befriend a coworker, I not only gained a true friend for myself, but helped him gain confidence and perform to his capacity at work. It was the first time in my life when I felt I had such a strong and positive impact on another person. It showed me the power of small gestures of friendship and understanding.
As we can see, this writer’s decision to offer a listening ear to a coworker who seemed in some sort of distress became an achievement that was both personal and professional. His actions had impact that flowed outward beyond Thomas himself and to the entire department and organization.
The butter = Obstacles overcome.
Overcoming obstacles, such as lack of resources – like time, money, innate talent, or people – magnifies your accomplishment manifold. Since we rarely have enough of everything for plans to go smoothly, make sure you tell the story of the difficulties you faced. By the way, the obstacle can also be a failure that you experienced and chose to learn from, emerging wiser and more capable at the end. It’s important that when discussing either obstacles or failures that you don’t point fingers, blame other people or circumstances, or complain about the unfairness of it all. State the facts simply and the situation will speak for itself.
Here’s an example of how one applicant dealt with a significant obstacle:
My book launch had been planned for nearly one year. This was my first book, a biography about my great-grandmother, a trailblazing homeopathic physician who lived at a time when even regular women M.D.’s were a rarity. I wanted to publish independently, but knew there was a huge amount of work involved that I didn’t feel suited for. There was editing, design, layout, marketing, getting the book accepted into the book distribution system, and more. Most published books are quickly forgotten and sell few copies. I didn’t want that to happen to mine.
My solution was to sign an agreement with my friend Haley to publish my book. She was a talented graphic artist who had set up her own publishing company to publish her husband’s book. Our agreement spelled out our individual financial obligations and responsibilities, but I had a nagging worry. Her marriage was tumultuous, and she could make impulsive decisions.
Six weeks before the publishing date, a popular book blogger promised a 5-star review on her blog. I also sold an excerpt to my college alumni magazine. I was still doing my “happy dance” when Haley called to tell me that our deal was off. She was leaving her husband and driving to stay with her mother, who lived in another state. She said she’d be in touch to work something out. She didn’t say when.
I was furious and anguished at the same time. My biggest problem was that the book’s ISBN (identification) number was assigned to Haley’s company, and it could not be reassigned to anyone else. Haley also had the distribution and payment agreements in her name. I could have kicked myself for not listening to my intuition, which warned me against working with someone whose life was so upside down.
While waiting for Haley to call, I researched my options. The ISBN could not be transferred to me, but if I bought her publishing company, I would also own her ISBNs. I had no idea if Haley would agree to this, and I had no idea how we’d work out terms, but the only way to save my book was to do the very thing I had tried to avoid: become a publisher myself.
The following week, Haley agreed to sell me her publishing company for a token amount. It had no assets, and I had already paid for all book-related costs, except for Haley’s time. She also promised to help me with the transition of all the accounts. I decided not to look too far ahead, and just focus on giving my book the best send-off into the world that I could with its new publishing company, which I named after my great-grandmother.
This story about a close call with a publishing disaster revealed the writer’s ability to stay level-headed in an extremely stressful situation. Her achievement was stretching beyond what she thought she could do, and moving forward because she had to. Dealing with life’s curve balls this way was certainly an achievement worth sharing.
Let’s review where we are so far with our “recipe.”
The bread = impact and initiative
The butter = obstacles overcome
Now, let’s sweeten the dish with some jam.
The jam = Leadership.
Leadership accomplishments that are appropriate for application essays usually involve your ability to influence, motivate, persuade, cajole, direct, and work effectively with others. This turns your humble bread and butter into a delectable delicacy.
Think about how you have worked with other people – how you led a team, what you learned, and so on. How did you demonstrate leadership skills? What did you learn about leadership, and how have you grown as a leader through this experience?
In this next example, accomplishment through leadership seemed almost accidental:
My job teaching in a private school began uneventfully. I had a class of bright 4th graders, with only a handful expected to be “challenging.” I loved my supervisor, Monica, who was a gifted teacher but new to her role as a team lead overseeing the 3rd and 4th grades. In addition to having one class of her own, Monica was supposed to create interventions for struggling students, incentivize specific behavior or achievements, plan events or trips, and offer guidance to teachers.
Monica quickly proved that her skill set was really in the classroom and not in administration. She let requests from teachers for interventions or advice pile up, and when I repeated my requests, she got testy. I wanted to work with her and not against her, so I offered to help. I suggested we meet twice a week after school to review her in-box, and I discovered that just by having me sit with her and discuss the situations, she was able to focus much better. Although I only had two years’ experience as a teacher, Monica still seemed to value my opinion on handling thorny situations, such as when a wealthy parent who was on the school’s board of directors refused to face the reality of her daughter’s chronically aggressive behavior in class. This case was bigger than the both of us, and we agreed that Monica needed to bring it to the headmistress of the school for her intervention.
About halfway through the year, Monica and I were still meeting regularly. It was an unexpected partnership, and it was clear to both of us that she wanted to return to full-time teaching the following year. I realized that the administrative tasks and decision-making came more naturally to me than to her, and that after a few more years of teaching experience and a master’s degree in education, I might enjoy having a job like hers.
I was fortunate that it played out this way. Another person in her situation might have simply become angry or resentful at my trying to play a role in her job. I could have been completely shut out. But Monica and I became friends, and I learned a lot from watching her dynamism in the classroom. Additionally, she courageously told the headmistress about our arrangement and asked if the school could pay me for my extra hours–which they did.
This was a totally unexpected situation that helped me realize that I wanted to take a fork in the road of my career in education.
Finding the experiences in your life where you have shown initiative and impact, overcome obstacles, and demonstrated leadership, will help you write a home-run of an essay.
Are you thinking about what you’ve got to include in a winning accomplishments essay? Team up with Accepted’s consultants to help you pinpoint your best material. As your partner and guide in this process, we will make sure your selections will make you stand out for all the right reasons!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!
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