Don’t rehash your resume in your essay; it’s as simple as that.
But what does that mean?
First and foremost, your resume should speak for itself, without any explanation. If it isn’t doing that, if there’s some crucial accomplishment missing, then we need to address that… in the resume.
The essay is a chance to do something different. You have a limited number of opportunities to showcase who you are and why you’re a gosh darn impressive candidate. If you use the essay to restate, in prose, the argument you made in your resume, you are losing one of those precious opportunities.
An essay that asks for a past achievement (“proudest achievement,” “past growth,” etc.) can and SHOULD dig deeper into a key experience or accomplishment that your resume highlights. However, while on your resume you worked hard to distill HUGE accomplishments into 20 words that sum up what you did, how you did it, and why it was important, in the essay, we want the STORY behind one or two of those bullet points. Tell us about the challenges you faced at the outset, the pushback you overcame, the stumbling points as you worked the problem, the key leadership moments, your brilliant ideas or actions, the awesome outcome and why it all mattered. It won’t be obvious until the end, when you tell us that at LAST you accomplished X, that this is the story behind one of those resume bullet points.
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In order to achieve this, you need to switch gears into storytelling mode, and drop the resume language of “I did this to accomplish that.” The magic ingredients? Thoughts, feelings and introspection. We want to know WHY you took action, what your thought process was, and how it panned out. Tell us about failures as well as successes to give the adcom a sense of who you are as a leader and problem-solver. A single vividly illustrated moment of leadership will always bring an applicant to life more memorably than a ten page CV—THAT’S what essays are all about.
If you keep to the surface level in the essay and stray into resume-like language of “I accomplished X” or “I won Z award” you run the risk of not only boring the reader, but making them wonder “Is this all the kid’s got?” Suddenly, what should be impressive accomplishments become red flags, causing the adcom to wonder if the candidate truly understood WHAT or HOW he accomplished, or if they could replicate that result. Trust us, you don’t want doubts in the mind of the person weighing your application.
Understanding the difference between the essay and the resume, and using these as distinct opportunities to enhance your profile, are vital to getting an admit. Think of yourself as a cube, or better yet, a polyhedron—there are so many colorful sides to you, and you want to show off as many as you can to the adcom. Your resume shows them ONE side—the broad sweep of your professional and educational background—but the essay is a chance to show them something else: what it’s like to be in the room with you, what makes you tick, and why they should bet on you.