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3 Reasons Why Writing About Overcoming Obstacles Strengthens Your Application Essays

3 Reasons Why Writing About Overcoming Obstacles Strengthens Your Application Essays

The article 3 Reasons Why Writing About Overcoming Obstacles Strengthens Your Application Essays was originally posted on the Accepted Admissions Blog.


Why do obstacles matter to the adcoms? 

Applicants love to write about their accomplishments, whether in personal statements for graduate school or in b-school essays that ask for greatest achievements, challenges, and the like. And when they do, they are not shy about coming up with tangible accomplishments: driving innovations that led to revenue boosts for their firms; conducting original and meaningful research in their fields of study; or leading a volunteer group on a major community service initiative. But as genuine and significant as these accomplishments are, many initial essay drafts are often missing a key ingredient: obstacles. As this blog post will show, you shouldn’t shy away from discussing overcoming obstacles in your essays, either.

Here are 3 reasons why doing so strengthens your candidacy:

1. Overcoming obstacles shows you can navigate bumps in the road in a positive, proactive way

Obstacles are ubiquitous in everyday life: the traffic detour, the rude tech support representative, even the mean dog who snarls at you on your favorite walking route. They are also inevitable when it comes to business initiatives. Every single person faces obstacles, but people deal with them in wildly varying ways. Those who tend to be more successful in life learn how to navigate them with patience, creativity, a positive problem-solving attitude, and, to borrow a phrase, “keeping calm and carrying on.” But too often, when asked to discuss their accomplishments, applicants contract immediate amnesia about the things that got in their way en route to their achievement. When they do, they are short-changing themselves. Triumphing over these hurdles was often as challenging as executing all the elements of their plans that had been anticipated in the first place.

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:

The stop-putting-me-to-sleep overcoming obstacles essay 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 communicating 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, it sounds like a solid accomplishment, but it’s hardly memorable. How did the candidate communicate her vision? What specific example is there of that hard work over a four-week period on the prototype? We have absolutely no idea.

Now let’s look at:

The dazzle-is-in-the-details overcoming obstacles essay 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 communicated my vision to the team, two senior engineers immediately pointed out key flaws in the design, and I had to revise my plan to correct them. We worked on a prototype for two weeks before discovering that the material we planned to use for the product had become over 30% more expensive in the last month, so I pulled an all-nighter researching alternative materials, and we chose one. 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 long hours on a manufacturing proposal that proved we could make 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 detailed the project, is mighty impressive. The details highlight the applicant’s thoroughness, tenacity, communication chops, and leadership potential. When spelled out this way, discussing obstacles makes your essays shine through with the drama of the story and associates you with lively elements and images. For example, in the second version, it’s easy to visualize the two dissenting engineers, the surprise of discovering the price hike for materials, and the VP’s frown. In the first, there’s only the haziest image 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 along with how you negotiated them, showcases your ability to overcome the unexpected? This will assure the adcoms that you will capably execute a well-defined plan–even when there are unexpected bumps in the road. Moreover, it shows them how you spring into action when the chips are down. This adds to a fuller understanding of who you are as an individual and an applicant the school would like to have in its next class.

For more details about what the adcom actually wants to know about the challenges you’ve overcome, watch this short video where Linda Abraham shares the answer to this often-asked question:

Are you still wondering how to address obstacles you’ve overcome in your application essays? Leave a comment on the video in YouTube and we’ll gladly offer some tips. 


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