The goal in answering this kind of question is to analyze rather than summarize an achievement. This advice is particularly true if you’re discussing an accomplishment that is listed elsewhere on the application. Your readers want to gain insight into your character—not read a factual summary of what occurred.
Here are some guiding principles to use in constructing your answer:
- Choose something that’s meaningful to you. Some applicants feel obligated to choose the most objectively impressive accomplishments. You should write about something that has personal significance, even if you weren’t formally recognized for it. What matters is that you write passionately and insightfully about your subject. Unless otherwise specified, you should feel free to draw on academic, personal, or professional successes.
- Focus on details about the process. Show the reader through concrete details how you achieved what you did. If you want to discuss a grade you earned in a particularly challenging class, show us how you mastered the material. For example, describe creative strategies you used; don’t rely on clichés like “I succeeded through hard work.”
- Build tension. Describe obstacles and how you overcame them. Note initial difficulties or intermediate failures, and show how you recovered. By adding a sense of drama to your story, you not only keep the reader interested, but you also make the accomplishment seem that much more significant.
- Evaluate the significance of the accomplishment. Again, the goal here is to add insight beyond what the reader knows from the straightforward facts. For example, you can comment on how the accomplishment represents an aspect of your character, or describe how it fits within your background of successes and failures. Don’t get carried away, however, and try to draw overly grand lessons. You might discuss external consequences of your actions to convey their magnitude, but ultimately you should stay focused on your personal response.
- Don’t boast or be overly modest. This is a hard balance to strike, but if you stay focused on the details of your story, then you shouldn’t have a problem. Use the details to convey the magnitude of your accomplishment; you should be able to do so sincerely without having to promote yourself. For example, if you can show through illustrative evidence how you influenced the course of someone’s life, you won’t have to make a presumptuous statement about, for example, “having a profound impact on the life of another.”
This applicant discusses three accomplishments. The first is a professional achievement with specific details both about the difficulties he encountered and the contributions he made. His second accomplishment comes from his involvement in his community. Note that he makes the following unnecessary statement: “This experience was remarkable because it afforded me the privilege of making a positive difference in the lives of others.” Although this is certainly true, the writer would be better off showing the difference he has made. Nevertheless, the overall account is still strong, because he does return to focus on specific duties he had and results for which he was responsible.
His final accomplishment falls under a personal achievement. Note that he is able to avoid sounding boastful by acknowledging but downplaying praise: “My act was heralded in the newspapers and recognized by a citation from the highway patrol and the county in which the event occurred, but this hardly equaled the feeling I received from having saved this boy’s life.” Few of us have been involved in saving another person’s life, but this story provides a strong model of engaging dramatic narration and effective use of detail. The writer does not need to spend many words evaluating the significance of his story, because the details have already revealed so much to the reader about his character.