Just two days ago, I met a future applicant to Northwestern Law, and he asked me to give him a few pointers on how to stand out in his application and how to talk about his past achievements in his personal statement. Similarly, just yesterday, a buddy of mine asked me to review some essays for HBS, including their staple essay “What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such?” Like the gentleman applying to law school, he also wanted help quantifying his past achievements. And just today, I met with a JD-MBA prospect at Northwestern. I chatted with him for over an hour about his application, and he told me about some of the things he had achieved since graduating back in 2005.  And so moving into the first week of October, “Achievement” seems to be a big theme for lots of people I know.

I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about my own achievements recently. Having recently returned to the life of a student again, it’s hard not to wonder what type of grades I’ll get, what types of jobs I’ll have over the next few years, and ultimately what I’ll be doing many years from now. Every day, I’m working to achieve as much as possible. Doing so, I can’t help but think a lot about my classmates who are going through the same process. Northwestern Law has a lot of sharp kids, and it’s pretty clear that many of them will achieve a lot in their careers. My entire section spends a lot of time in the library, and as a whole everyone seems pretty motivated. I have one friend in particular who I chat with quite a bit. She has as much discipline as anyone I know in the class. She has a 5am early morning study schedule, a laser focus on getting good grades, an ability to block out all the social chaos that comes with law school, and a commitment to doing what it takes to get a great job upon graduation. I am pretty impressed, and I have no doubt that she’ll do really well and achieve everything she’s hoping to.

My point is that thinking about your achievements is something that successful people do for a large part of their lives. It’s inevitable. Although it seems a bit counterintuitive in environments like Northwestern, where the culture is overwhelmingly team-based and where most people come to leave their egos at the door, Northwestern is no exception to the rule. People here think and talk all the time about what they want to individually achieve.

I remember almost 12 months ago when I first began thinking about my achievements. I had just begun my business school applications. My first step after narrowing down the schools I wanted to apply to was thinking long and hard about every single one of my accomplishments. I was forced brainstorm all my major things I’d done in my life, decide which ones were most important to me, analyze which ones had the broadest impact, quantify how each one impacted the people and organizations around me, and finally sum up all the things I learned from the experiences. I took the process pretty seriously, especially in a year full of b-school applicants, and it took months to organize all my thoughts. But this process really paid off, and I recommend all current applicants do the same. I’ll tell you why.

Conventional wisdom says that your past performance (i.e. achievements) is the best indicator of future performance. The theory is that if you’ve achieved a lot in the past, than you’re more likely to do so in the future. Graduate schools bank on this fact when they’re making admissions decisions, especially MBA programs . For example, if you’ve done well in a relevant job, earned good grades in a relevant major, and received strong reviews in a competitive work environment, then odds are you’re more likely to be better prepared to do well in graduate school and eventually in the workforce again.

But this concept doesn’t just apply to admissions, it also applies to job searching. Right now, all of my business school counterparts at Kellogg are currently re-thinking through their accomplishments, as they’re starting the recruiting process. They’re being asked questions such as What was your role at your last job? What have accomplished so far in school? What did you do as club president? and Why should we hire you? The number of behavioral questions can be really challenging, and during an interview you don’t have time to think about your response and you don’t have the leeway to improvise on the spot. You’ve got to come prepared to talk. And if you can do that well, then you’ll probably do quite well in the interview. But don’t be fooled, once my classmates get a job, it doesn’t end there. They’ll still be doing the same after school when they’re interviewing for their second and third jobs and when they’re marketing their companies, offering their services to clients, running political campaigns, and going through performance reviews.

Ultimately, what I’ve learned since starting my application process more than 15 months ago is that being successful necessitates a very high level of reflection. Reflection on past achievements and reflecting on how to use those to ensure success in the future.  It requires being self aware and understanding how your environments effect your ability to succeed. Your abilities and pitfalls. Your blind spots and the things that you excel in. And also the things that are most important to you no matter what your skill level is.

In my own experience, the more I’ve thought about my experiences ahead of time, the better off I’ve been.  That’s because I believe that the best leaders reflect on past experiences all the time. And not only do they think about their successes but they think about their failures. And that’s why they so often have compelling stories, a grand vision for the future, and are able to achieve seemingly impossible results. And in the end, their reflection gives them an arsenal to draw on … not only to achieve a high level of success but also to help others do the same.

2 Comments to Achievement

October 13, 2009

This was a very beautiful post. I'm in the middle of applying to business school and can certainly relate to your reflections regarding the flagship HBS essay. It's interesting how much I realized that I actually don't take enough time to sit and think back on my experiences, how they've shaped me, what I've learned about myself, and what it may mean for my future. As exhausting as the essay writing is, there is actually something nice about forcing yourself to take the time to reflect.

October 14, 2009

@JC–Thanks for the nice words about my post. I'm glad you're starting to think a lot more about reflection now. I think the applicants who turn in applications without doing this are definitely at a disadvantage when decision time rolls around and again at a disadvantage when school begins.

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Jeremy C Wilson is a JD-MBA alumni using his site to share information on education, the social enterprise revolution, entrepreneurship, and doing things differently. Feel free to send along questions or comments as you read.

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