"What makes you unique is not that you have had these life-altering experiences, but rather how and why your perspective has changed or been reinforced as a result of those and other everyday experiences. That is a story that only you can tell. If you concentrate your efforts on telling us who you are, differentiation will occur naturally; if your goal is to appear unique, you may achieve the opposite effect."
So wrote Derek Bolton, Assistant Dean and Director of Stanford GSB Admissions, in his most recent and excellent monthly column, "The Director’s Corner," for Stanford’s MBA Admissions Newsletter.
I have read many application essays where the author aimed for distinctiveness and failed miserably to achieve it, just as Mr. Bolton says. These applicants usually wrote in clichés, aimed to impress, and hid their story, values, and personality behind a façade of imaginary “diversity.” The authors of these essays probably attempted to write what they thought the adcom wanted to read – always a terrible mistake.
I have also read essays where the author aimed to tell his or her story honestly and still blended into the mass of applicants. Applying to professional schools, they felt they had to focus exclusively on work or activities directly related to their professional goals. Or they wrote on a superficial plain and left out the details that would have made their essays and personal statements unique. They ignored the role that distinctiveness plays in the admissions process. Also a blunder.
Your challenge is manifold. As Mr. Bolton advises, applicants need to tell their story with self-reflection and honesty. But if you have lived 20+ years and have only several hundred words to portray your life, you also have to choose which parts of your story to tell. Are you going to discuss your Little League experience? Your participation on your college’s swim team? Your work? Given that you have multiple ways to answer a question, how should you choose which experiences to write about?
Answer: Highlight those experiences that are most important to you and most distinctive about you.
If you have unusual experiences that answer the questions and reflect what is important to you, write about them and their impact on you. If your formative experiences are more common, then distinctiveness will have to come from the details you provide and from your insight into those experiences.
“Telling your story” is certainly necessary for writing a good personal statement or application essay. If that’s where the advice ends, however, it is insufficient guidance. Uniqueness and authenticity should be parallel goals as you draft your essays and personal statements. In fact, ignoring distinctiveness can be dangerous to the success of your application. Furthermore the uniqueness of your application is not strictly a by-product of sincerity. It reflects conscious choices you must make as you tell your story.
For more advice on writing with distinctiveness and integrity:
“The Devil is in the Details”
“What if Somebody Doesn’t Like My Cause?”
“The Worst Question”
“Admissions: Checklist of Mosaic”
If you would like the guidance and support of experienced editors in helping you write about your distinctive experiences and develop your essays,
This article was posted on January 31, 2005