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Sharing your story with the admissions teams

Whether you are an undergraduate, a corps member in a term-of-service program, or a full-time member of staff at an organization, you should prepare to share the story of your accomplishments and values for the graduate admissions team (or prospective employer). After preparing your story, you can share it in writing (personal statement, resume, etc.) or in conversation (during an interview or more casual meetings with admissions staff).

Sharing the story of your values and accomplishments is important because it will show—not tell—the admissions team why you are right for this program and why you are ready right now.

Admissions staff do not simply want to ensure that you have the potential to succeed in grad school. They also want to know that upon graduation from their program, you will succeed in your career and be an alum they can be proud of. Additionally, they also want to ensure that you are a person who will contribute to the education—and careers—of your classmates. Because they want to build the strongest cohort of learners, what you will bring to your classmates is the story you must share with them.

What's the difference between telling and showing?

Here is an example of each that we hope will illustrate:

Telling:

"I have fabulous networking and facilitation skills!"

Showing:

"I bring people together from the community to create productive collaborations. For example, in my position as program assistant for the nonprofit Art in Schools, I reached out to seven community leaders—including the county sheriff, a former mayor, the artistic director of the local ballet, a librarian, a radio show host, and school board members—to plan the first-ever city-wide children's arts symposium. I led the small team that I assembled in months of planning, and helped members identify key ways to contribute. For example, the ballet director donated space and the radio host publicized the event. In your program, I will put my networking and facilitation skills to work both in the classroom and in the field—and will continue to network with community leaders for the benefit of my work and that of my classmates. My love of bringing people together for a cause will hopefully also help me succeed as the head of a nonprofit one day."

Showing something about yourself, rather than telling, induces your audience to draw conclusions about you. For example, instead of hearing you say how smart you are, they will conclude that you are smart.

How to prepare the story of your values and beliefs

  1. List 5-10 of your closest held values that shape your daily life and your choices.
  2. Separately, consider two or three of the most defining moments of your life, and what you learned from them—about yourself, about what you believe, and about the world.
  3. Choose the one moment that best encapsulates some of the values you listed earlier.
  4. Write the story of that moment, detailing the effect it had on you, how it shaped your values, and who you are as a result. How does this story reveal what you will do in grad school and in your career?

How to prepare the story of your skills

  1. Look at your target school's promotional materials and if you have a chance, chat politely but subtly with an admissions officer.
  2. Identify about 5-10 qualities, skills, or experiences the school is looking for in incoming students. (Typically instructions for recommendation letters ask for comments on qualities that the school is looking for, too.)
  3. Circle the qualities, skills, or experiences on your list that you possess. This is also a good way to assess whether this program is a good fit for you. If you're having difficulty matching your own qualities, skills, or experiences to what a school is looking for, then you will have a difficult time making a case for yourself when applying. Grad schools are looking for a good fit because it is often a strong indicator of the student's potential for success.

Conversely if this program is a highly quantitative program and you have neither the current skills, aptitude, or desire to learn the quantitative aspects, why apply?

  1. For each of these, think of one or two anecdotes that illustrate your expression of the quality, your use of the skill, or your experience.
  2. Write up a summary of each anecdote to use in essays or a personal statement, and practice telling your anecdotes orally for the interview or informational conversations.

At the end of your anecdote remember to mention how your skill will be useful as a grad student (or in the position you are applying for) and/or as a professional in the field later on.

The practice part doesn't just mean reciting your anecdote once or twice. You want it to sound natural, have an economical use of words, and be as captivating as possible while also clearly conveying your point.

Practicing these anecdotes is akin to practicing an elevator pitch during networking situations. See the section on elevator pitches in Chapter Four of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for First-time Job Seekers.

Where to share your story

Use the following application pieces to share the story of your values and accomplishments. You don't need to tell your whole story each time, but pick and choose parts of your story that seem most relevant. For example, if you are prompted to explain why you have chosen this field, you might share the story of a defining life moment that led you here.

Interviews and conversations with admissions staff: When prompted with a question about a skill or experience, share a relevant anecdote you've practiced whenever possible.

Resume: Share your story as a list of bullets, not as paragraphs which are harder to read.

Essays or personal statement: Share your values, beliefs, and skills here, which will allow you to link your paper persona to your in-person presence.

Letters of recommendation: Although you are not writing these letters, be proactive in reminding your references of your accomplishments when you are preparing them to write a good letter for you.

Conclusion and further resources

Following the steps outlined above, you can successfully share the story of your values and your experience with the graduate admissions team. A clear narrative about who you are, what you stand for, and what you have done can save you and the admissions team time. By translating what you have done in the past and how that makes you a good fit for their graduate program, you'll have your talking points for an interview already prepared. Moreover, since the team won't have to piece together your story for themselves, hopefully the time you save them will help convince them more quickly that you are the right candidate for their program.

Coming prepared to an interview, or researching what they are looking for before you apply, you will come across as the confident and collected person they'd like to admit to their program. Finally, remember that the admissions committee needs to attract the best pool of applicants. They want to impress you, too.