Medical Three Ways Writing About Obstacles Strengthens Your Application Essays

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Applicants love to write about their accomplishments, whether in a personal statement for graduate school or in a b-school essay that asks about one’s greatest achievement, challenge, or the like. And they are not shy about sharing their accomplishments, such as driving innovations that led to revenue boosts for their firm, conducting original and meaningful research in their field of study, or leading a volunteer group on a community service initiative.

As genuine and significant as these accomplishments are, many initial essay drafts are often missing a key element: obstacles. In this blog post, we explain why you shouldn’t shy away from discussing obstacles in your essays and how doing so intelligently can help your candidacy.

Here are three ways that discussing obstacles enhances your application:

1. Sharing how you overcame an obstacle shows the adcom that you can navigate bumps in the road in a positive, proactive way.​

All of us frequently encounter obstacles: the traffic detour, an incompetent customer service representative, a disagreement with your partner, the approval you expected on a project unexpectedly turning into a “No.” Every single person faces challenges, but people deal with them in wildly varying ways. Those who are more successful in life succeed because they understand that obstacles are to be expected. They learn how to navigate them with patience, creativity, and a problem-solving attitude, and by – to borrow a phrase – “keeping calm and carrying on.” But too often, when asked to discuss their accomplishments, applicants selectively and completely forget the things that got in their

way en route to their achievement. When they experience this kind of amnesia, they are shortchanging themselves. Triumphing over the hurdles they encountered might well have been just as difficult as executing all the anticipated elements of their plans – and therefore worth sharing.

2. Details about how you overcame obstacles create an appealing image of you as a candidate with a can-do personality.​

Look at the following examples and see if you don’t agree.

First we have the “stop-putting-me-to-sleep” example:

As the leader of my product research group, I came up with a plan for a new widget that would save us 10% in costs. After I communicated my vision to the team, we worked hard for four weeks on a prototype, completing it by the deadline, to the delight of management. Today, my widget is still the standard for my company, saving us over $300K annually.

Okay, this sounds like a solid accomplishment, but it’s hardly memorable. How did the candidate communicate her vision? What specific example does she offer of the hard work that was done over four weeks on the prototype? We have absolutely no idea.

Now let’s look at a “dazzle-is-in-the-details” example:

As the leader of my product research group, I came up with a plan for a new widget that would save us 10% in costs. But when I explained my vision to the team, two senior engineers immediately argued against it, saying that there were key flaws in the design. After revisiting my design and realizing that they were correct, I revised my plan and was able to eliminate the flaws. We worked on a prototype for two weeks before discovering that the cost of the material we had planned to use for it had increased by more than 30% in recent months. I worked many late nights that week researching alternative materials, before finding one that was both appropriate and cost-effective. By the skin of our teeth, we met our four-week deadline and presented the prototype to management, but the VP of Manufacturing argued that we would need to purchase major new equipment to produce the widget. I convinced the team to work overtime on a manufacturing proposal that proved we could craft the product with existing equipment. Today, my widget is still the standard for my company, saving us over $300K annually.

There’s no contest here, is there? The second example, loaded with specifics about what went wrong and what almost derailed the project, is mighty impressive. The details highlight the applicant’s creativity, thoroughness, tenacity, communication skills, and leadership potential. When spelled out this way, discussing an obstacle can make your essays shine with the drama of the story and can associate you with lively elements and images. For example, in the second example, it’s easy to visualize the two dissenting engineers, the surprise of discovering the price hike for the materials, and the VP’s frown. In the first, there’s only the haziest impression of an employee smiling about a job well done.

3. Discussing obstacles makes you a more fully developed, more relatable applicant.​

Can you see through these examples how including specific, key obstacles in your essays and explaining how you negotiated them showcases your ability to overcome the unexpected? This will assure the adcoms that you can capably execute a well-defined plan – even when you face unexpected bumps in the road. Moreover, it shows the school how you spring into action when the chips are down. This adds to a fuller understanding of who you are as an individual – and as an applicant the school would like to have in its next class.

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