Telling Compelling Stories about our Experiences and Achievements

One of the hardest things for people to talk or write about is themselves, and why they are uniquely well suited for a particular opportunity or honor. I have been noting this challenge at the University as I work with some of our most outstanding students. Despite the fact that they have so much to offer- travel, research, academics, the whole package- they often blank when asked to write a personal statement or to be interviewed about their experiences. Invariably, they insist that they’re not good at talking about themselves or bragging about their achievements. And yet ironically, they have spent so much of their time and effort collecting these very accomplishments.

Perhaps part of the issue is that we’re all in such a hurry. Students rush through high school trying to get into college, and then once in college we hurry them through as quickly as possible in an effort to save them money and get them into the work force. In our haste, perhaps we are failing to support their critical reflection- namely, helping them understand and articulate what it is that they’ve experienced and accomplished, what they can offer that is uniquely theirs. And yet, these are the very skills that will move them to the next level, allowing them to create and secure opportunities for growth, advancement and expansion. And perhaps most importantly, these are the skills that will help them self-correct when they find themselves in positions and situations that no longer connect with their cores values, interests or goals.

How can we help students get better at talking about themselves and their experiences? (Although intended for students, these techniques can be used by anyone for virtually any opportunity or goal.)

  1. Begin by listing the categories of skills and competencies that are of critical importance to your intended audience. You can usually find these in the specific posting but I encourage you to dig deeper. Look at reports, press pieces, or profiles of individuals who have held the position/opportunity (or similar position/opportunity) in the past. Allow yourself to imagine the perfect recipient/employee or candidate. What types of categories of skills and competencies would they possess and why are these important given the demands/honors of the opportunity of interest?
  2. Once you have a good list, allow yourself to reflect on your own positions, experiences and achievements and begin to note these under the specific categories with which they correspond. While you can start with specific responsibilities or activities, also note actual experiences that connect with these- both good and bad. Allow yourself to reflect around these experiences and note any big lessons, developments or growth. Ask yourself, “why was it important, what did I learn, and how did it impact me or those around me?” Keep going with this exercise until you have an extensive outline of key skills, experiences and competencies that you can reference and expand upon. Hopefully, at this point you can take some satisfaction in noting the abundance of experiences upon which you can draw.
  3. Now it’s time to look for patterns. Everyone has unique patterns that help describe the ways they approach choices in life and work. Patterns often reveal themselves over time and diversity of experiences. Once you can recognize and articulate these, they can be extremely helpful in telling compelling stories about you and what you will bring to any particular opportunity, along with how you will respond to challenging situations or contexts. Consider using critical questions to help reveal your defining patterns. What drives you? How do you define growth or success? How do you add value to challenging contexts? Consider how these patterns have propelled you on your path and have led to your current interest in this particular opportunity.
  4. The fourth step is perhaps the most important. It involves flipping your lens and focusing not on yourself and your accomplishments, but instead on what you can uniquely contribute to the potential employer, organization, opportunity, or broader community via your efforts. Through succinctly articulating how your unique skill set and experiences can complement and benefit the recipient, you can assure the decision makers that you have strong potential and are worthy of their investment.

Once you have worked through these exercises, allow yourself to practice talking about your experiences in relation to your signature patterns and sense of broader impacts/contributions. You can move between these levels of reflection, making connections, bringing up specific examples/evidence, but always tying it back to the specific opportunity and what you have to offer.

The most exciting aspect of helping students master these skills, is seeing them discover and internalize their signature patterns for the first time. There is something quite powerful in recognizing the unique ways in which we approach our lives and work. When these patterns resonate strongly with employers and the needs of the world around us, we feel empowered and more confident, and begin to seek out opportunities and choices that further strengthen our potential contributions. It is when these internal and external narratives strongly align that we can be our most impactful.

Changing the SAT, and Opening Up Education

It’s not surprising that the impending changes to the SAT have elicited such strong reactions.  In addition to evoking nostalgia from those who were subjected to the test, the changes draw our attention to the college admissions process and related trends that warrant attention.

The College Board admits that college readiness among high school students remains steady but low, at about 43%.  And that for low-income students, the rate of attaining bachelor’s degrees has remained virtually unchanged (8%), despite steep increases in immediate enrollment following high school graduation (from 23% to 55%).

These findings suggest that while getting into college remains a challenge for the majority of high school students, the goal of persisting and completing a degree is even more daunting- especially for those from low-income backgrounds.

While I am skeptical that changes to the SAT will single-handedly result in improved college admission and retention rates, I am heartened by the partnership between the College Board and the Kahn Academy that will make SAT preparation free and accessible via the internet.

By opening up the industry of SAT preparation and making it both transparent and accessible, it will- at least in theory- remove major barriers to empower individual students with the knowledge and tools needed to gain access to and succeed in college.

This move away from the “mystery” and need for consultants, strategists, and specialized fee-based preparation, represents a potentially monumental shift within education, one that may have far-reaching impacts in both directions of the pipeline.

Colleges and universities have long benefited from a level of opacity that has left students and parents to gauge quality through indirect lenses and measures.  Through web-based evaluation, social media, accreditation, and rankings, external metrics of quality are becoming more available, with much more innovation to come.  In the near future, web-based tools will allow parents and students to search for and select colleges based on individualized fit as well as likelihood of graduating and securing jobs or advanced degrees.  

As parents and students, and the money that follows them, become more sensitive to these variables, higher education will in turn respond, making strategic investments in programs and amenities that align with market demands, especially as they compete for increasingly precious enrollments.

Higher education can and will change, but the implications for Prek-12 are less clear.  As knowledge and information become more open and accessible to individual students and parents, the role of schools and their guidance counselors/ offices must be re-envisioned, or at least re-engineered.

Perhaps once the tools are available, parents and students will begin to see college acceptance not as an end (or accomplishment) in itself, but as a vehicle to propel them toward some higher destination.  Ideally, guidance counselors (and parents) will assume the responsibility and privilege of helping students find their place in the larger world, clarifying their strengths and interests, while exploring various applications and career paths. 

The opening up of education is already happening whether we choose to be aware of it or not.  Hopefully, we can fully embrace its potential and benefit from the unprecedented opportunity it will afford.