Strategy for Writing an Accomplishment Essay (with examples)

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Maybe you’re familiar with macros – the nutrients your body needs to function. Achieving the proper balance of macros leads to optimal health. When it comes to writing your MBA personal statements and application essays, it might be helpful to think of your accomplishments as the carbohydrates, protein, and fat – in other words, the macros – you need to make your submissions the best they can be. A fascinating brainstorming session among Accepted’s admissions consultants revealed that applicants don’t always understand how MBA adcoms define an accomplishment, so we wrote this post to explain what goes into the recipe for an enticing “accomplishments sandwich” and remove the guesswork on your part. Here are the simple macros:

Carbohydrates = Impact and Initiative

Protein = Overcoming Obstacles

Fats = Demonstrating Leadership

Carbohydrates = Impact and Initiative

Carbohydrates are known as the “staff of life,” something nearly everyone considers a staple of their diet. Similarly, for your accomplishment essay, your “carbs” are what will . 

For example, maybe you took the initiative to boost membership in a group or led a team to victory. Perhaps you built a coalition in student government. Or you increased sales, cut costs, or found a solution to a problem that paved the way for a critical deal to go forward.

When you assess whether your achievements belong in a greatest accomplishment essay, think impact and initiative

Do awards count? It depends. If you won an award for a published story, an athletic competition, or some other “personal best,” then yes, those would be excellent choices for an essay about a personal achievement. More often, however, you will be asked to write about a significant achievement with impact beyond your own personal growth. In these situations, an award you’d like to write about would have had to result from an effort – either academic or professional – that involved a team or people other than yourself. This is the kind of achievement that transcends a “personal best.”  

By now, you can probably see the difference between a primarily personal achievement and a career-related one. You might even already recognize which of your accomplishments are notable enough to write about. But let’s say you don’t have much that feels important enough. How you can identify potential experiences for your accomplishments essay?

A good place to start is by reviewing your resume. Ideally, it will be loaded with as many quantifiable achievements as possible, from both professional and extracurricular roles. If you work in marketing and clinched four new accounts in a single year, leading to a promotion, that’s an achievement. If you work in a social service agency and developed a new intake system for clients that the agency adopted, leading to a more organized and streamlined process, that’s an achievement. In college, you might have been involved in a student organization that promotes career development and leadership among minority students, and even became president of that organization. That’s an achievement.

Which experiences on your resume stand out to you now? No doubt you’ll start to see things popping out at you.

Seemingly small achievements can also be big. The following sample essay offers a great example where the impact seems limited to one person but radiates outward: 

From the first day I was tasked to mentor a new hire, Thomas, it was a challenge. He had strong work experience in product development at his previous job, but he was soft-spoken and reserved, and had a strong stutter. I felt pain for him as he struggled to complete a word or a sentence, but it was also awkward for both of us as I waited for him to finish his point. During a department meeting, someone actually rolled her eyes as Thomas was answering a question. I just glared at her for being so cold. At our weekly department lunches, which were meant to be a relaxed social time for everyone, Thomas hung back quietly, seeming like he was a million miles away. 

I still didn’t understand why Thomas seemed a little slow to catch on to the ways of our department. He was clearly very intelligent. It was taking me longer to complete my own work because of the extra time I was spending with him on his assignments. One afternoon on a whim, I invited him to join me for dinner at a popular burger place. He looked surprised but agreed.

That night broke the ice. Thomas relaxed and enjoyed his dinner, and I noticed his speech was more fluid as well. We discovered a mutual love of soccer and political thriller novels. I really enjoyed his company and told him so. We went out again the following week to an Italian place that he chose. On our third “date,” Thomas opened up about a broken engagement that happened just before he started this new job. He knew that his grief was distracting him, clouding his thinking, and making his stutter worse. 

“I know I’ve not been easy to train,” he told me, “but I’m starting to come out of it now.” After that night, Thomas’s work improved rapidly. He risked speaking up more at the weekly lunches and at meetings, and everyone was patient when he struggled to say something, though those occasions were less frequent. 

I consider this mentoring experience one of my greatest accomplishments, because in trying to befriend a coworker, I not only gained a true friend for myself but also helped him gain confidence and perform to his capacity at work. It was the first time in my life I felt I had such a strong and positive impact on another person. It showed me the power of small gestures of friendship and understanding. 

This writer’s decision to offer a listening ear to a coworker who was clearly in some sort of distress became an inspiring achievement that was both personal and professional. His actions had impact that flowed outward beyond just Thomas to the entire department and organization. 

Protein= Overcoming Obstacles

Overcoming obstacles such as a lack of resources – time, money, talent, or people – magnifies your accomplishments. Our best-laid plans rarely go smoothly, so make sure you discuss any difficulties you faced. By the way, the obstacle can work “double-duty,” representing a failure that you experienced and chose to learn from, while also showing that you emerged wiser and more capable at the end. When discussing either obstacles or failures, make sure not to blame other people or circumstances, or to complain about the unfairness of it all. Pointing fingers makes you look small and as though you want to avoid accountability. State the facts simply, and the situation will speak for itself. 

Here’s an example of how one applicant dealt with a significant obstacle: 

My book launch had been planned for nearly one year. This was my first book, a biography about my great-grandmother, a trailblazing homeopathic physician who lived at a time when even regular women MDs were a rarity. I wanted to self-publish but knew there was a huge amount of work involved that I didn’t feel suited for. There was editing, design, layout, marketing, getting the book accepted into the book distribution system, logistics, and more. Most published books are quickly forgotten and sell few copies. I didn’t want that to happen to mine. 

My solution was to sign an agreement with my friend Haley to publish my book. She was a talented graphic artist who had set up her own publishing company to publish her husband’s book. Our agreement spelled out our individual financial obligations and responsibilities, but I had a nagging worry. Her marriage was tumultuous, and she could make impulsive decisions. 

Six weeks before the publishing date, a popular book blogger promised a 5-star review on her blog. I also sold an excerpt to a women’s magazine with more than 4 million readers. I was still doing my “happy dance” when Haley called to tell me that our deal was off. She was leaving her husband and driving to stay with her mother, who lived in another state. She said she’d be in touch to work something out. She didn’t say when.

I was furious and anguished. My biggest problem was that the book’s ISBN (identification) numbers for print and digital downloads were assigned to Haley’s company and could not be reassigned to anyone else. Haley also had the distribution and payment agreements in her name. I could have kicked myself for not listening to my intuition, which warned me against working with someone whose life was so upside-down.

I researched my options. The ISBNs could not be transferred to me, but if I bought her publishing company, I would also own her ISBNs. I had no idea if Haley would agree to this or how we would work out terms, but the only way to save my book was to do the very thing I had tried to avoid: become a publisher myself. 

The following week, Haley agreed to sell me her publishing company for a token amount. It had no assets, and I had already paid for all book-related costs, except for Haley’s time. She also promised to help me with the transition of all the accounts. I decided not to look too far ahead and just focus on giving my book the best send-off into the world that I could. I named the publishing company after my great-grandmother. 

This story about a close call with a publishing disaster revealed the writer’s achievement of stretching beyond what she thought she could do and moving forward because she had to. Making lemonade out of lemons this way was certainly an achievement worth sharing.  

Let’s review where we are so far with our “macros”       

Carbohydrates = Impact and Initiative

Protein = Overcoming Obstacles 

Now, let’s incorporate our “fats.”       

Fats = Demonstrating Leadership

Leadership accomplishments that work well in application essays usually involve one’s ability to influence, motivate, persuade, direct, and work effectively with others. This adds much needed energy to your essay.                

Think about how you have worked with other people – how you led a team, what you learned, and so on. What specifically did you do to demonstrate leadership skills? What did you learn about leadership, and how have you grown as a leader through the experience?

In this next example, the writer’s accomplishment through leadership seemed almost accidental:

My job teaching in a private school began uneventfully. I had a class of bright 4th graders, with only a handful expected to be “challenging.” I loved my supervisor, Monica, who was a gifted teacher but new to her role as a team lead overseeing the 3rd and 4th grades. In addition to having one class of her own, Monica was supposed to create interventions for struggling students, incentivize specific behavior or achievements, plan events and trips, and offer guidance to teachers. 

Monica quickly showed that her skill set was strong in the classroom but not in administration. She let requests from teachers for interventions or advice pile up, and she got testy when I reminded her that I was waiting for her feedback. I wanted to work with her and not against her, so I offered to help. I suggested we meet twice a week after school to review her in-box, which was when I discovered that just by having me sit and listen to her discuss the situations, she focused much better. Although I only had two years’ experience as a teacher, Monica still seemed to value my opinion on handling awkward situations, such as when a wealthy parent who was on the school’s board of directors refused to face the reality of her daughter’s chronically aggressive behavior in class. This case was bigger than the both of us. We agreed that Monica needed to bring it to the headmistress of the school for her intervention.

About halfway through the year, Monica and I were still meeting regularly. It was an unexpected partnership, and it was clear to both of us that she wanted to return to full-time teaching. I realized that the administrative tasks and decision-making came more naturally to me than to her, and that after a few more years of teaching experience and a master’s degree in education, I might enjoy having a job like hers. 

Another person in her situation might have simply become angry or resentful at my trying to play a role in her job. She could have shut me out completely. But Monica and I became friends, and I learned a lot from watching her dynamism in the classroom. Additionally, she courageously told the headmistress about our arrangement and asked if the school could pay me for my extra hours – which it did. 

This was a totally unexpected situation that helped me realize that I wanted to take a fork in the road of my career in education. 

Finding the experiences in your life where you have shown initiative and impact, overcome obstacles, and demonstrated leadership will help you write an essay deserving of a chef’s kiss!

Are you thinking about what you could include in a winning accomplishments essay? Team up with Accepted’s consultants for help identifying your best material. As your partner and guide in this process, we will ensure that your selections make you stand out for all the right reasons!

Judy Gruen

By Judy Gruen, former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University. She is also the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!

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