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Q&A

How do I brainstorm for writing positively about myself?

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I've always struggled writing about myself, but I need to apply for a program and the application has a lot of very broad but personal questions like,

  • Tell us why you would be a good leader
  • Explain a time you helped drive an organizational change

What are some tips for a) coming up with good examples and b) presenting myself positively without braggadocio?

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2 answers

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Writing positively about yourself can be hard. It feels like bragging, which feels rude. What I've found helps is to frame it as a specific marketing project. It's not that I would go around boasting in general, but this year-end performance self-assessment is where I have to show my value and accomplishments to my employer (via my manager). If I do it well I might get a better raise. It's a business proposition.

With that frame of mind, I can block out the nagging feelings of boastfulness and write stuff.

On an application for a program, "tell us why you're a good candidate" is a request for you to write the "pro" side of a self-assessment. It's a pitch and the reader doesn't know you like your boss does, so approach it with facts and examples. Tell them about your track record, your accomplishments, and your related experience; that will be more powerful than asserting things about your character. To me it also feels less "braggy". When I applied for a program in a different field, I gave examples from my field and explained how they mapped to my target field -- why being good at X in domain A would make me good at doing something similar to X in domain B.

"Tell us about a time when you did X" is what's called a "behavioral" question in job-interview contexts. People ask those kinds of questions in interviews, and in application essays, because anybody can say "I have these qualities" or "I would do X in this situation", but what you actually did in a past situation is a better indicator. In an interview the question is the beginning of a discussion, and the interviewee best approaches it as an opportunity tell a story. (A true story, of course!) On a written application you don't have the back-and-forth of a conversation, but they're still asking you to tell a story. You've probably told stories from work (with the serial numbers filed off) to friends and family, filling in context where needed. Approach it like that, but with a more formal style.

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Tell us why you would be a good leader

Typical interview question, they are hoping that you will say certain things they are looking for... but what those are will be different from case to case. So instead of trying to guess what they want to hear, just tell them what you are good at.

Basically leadership boils down to two broad categories: people skills and organisational skills. Focus on those.

Are you good at listening, or to enthusiast, or to solve conflicts, dealing with troublesome employees etc? Are you good at managing project schedules, writing specifications, keeping track of what everyone is doing and what they should be doing next? "Risk assessment" is a proper buzzword, but this is always something you do with experience. What can go wrong in this project, what are the uncertainties, do we need to add margins before setting a deadline etc.

And so on - you'd naturally have to adapt this to reflect whatever you are doing, more specifically. For example, a HR manager and a technical project manager would put emphasis on quite different things.

Bragging will usually not do much good, though this is a bit cultural. Always be honest - it makes you come across as a serious candidate.

Explain a time you helped drive an organizational change

Generally, you would make examples of past events or projects you were involved in that went well. Explain your role, the aim of the project, how it progressed and the end result. This can be done without dragging in anything subjective, just tell it like it was.

In this case it seems they are looking for some change of routines. So it's just about coming up with a good anecdote of a point when you identified some sort of problem, then pushed for a change in routines, then describe the new routines and how they solved the problem.

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