First tip: You should definitely be filling out your app dataset if you haven’t started that already!
Second tip: Only do that for your FIRST SCHOOL — not all of them — else you’re likely going to set yourself up for a very muddy process. Why? Because you don’t currently know what your full strategy will be. So committing your answers to a bunch of questions across a whole bunch of apps will only make things harder later on, when you realize that the way you were answering them wasn’t right, and you’ve built out stronger content to better capture impact and meaning for your adcom readers on individual questions.
So this advice is: Start on ONE app dataset now, and go as far as you can with it. For other schools, open an app on the schools’ systems but don’t actually start dataentry on them yet. Go through them and create notes on what you might need, and pay attention to the deltas from one app to the next. Many schools require slightly different things, or they ask questions in different ways. The way you answer on one app might work well for another, but it’s not guaranteed to work universally.
You want to get familiar with what the schools are looking for, and also you want to be aware of which ones are outliers (Duke tends to be a long application, compared to some others) — but don’t get ahead of yourself and go too crazy on actually providing answers, since you could end up having to go back and doublecheck, and redo, and triple check again once you’ve realized that you weren’t answering them the right way the first time.
So there’s that.
And then a specific tip for schools like Harvard that ask:
What is your key accomplishment from this position?
What was your most significant challenge?
As we’ve warned elsewhere on this blahg in posts about the app dataset, you should not be copy/pasting from your resume to fill in any of these responses. You need to write responses in new language, even if they’re touching on the same things that are already in bullets on the resume. At minimum, reword them — but often, going into some new angle completely is warranted.
For these two questions in particular, we need to caution you about inadvertently answering with the same thing. It’s easy to do this without noticing, and it would be a shame ify ou did.
If you had a steep learning curve at your job, then it may be tempting to say that your biggest accomplishment was in getting up to speed quickly when you didn’t have a background in that sector.
And then it seems natural to also say that your most significant challenge was this steep learning curve.
But then you’ve proceeded to tell the adcom one thing only — and that one thing isn’t even that useful to the admissions reviewer.
Any adcom person will see at a glance what your background is.
If you studied English literature in college and then your first job out of school was as an equities analyst at Merrill Lynch, the adcom person sees that you didn’t study finance in college. They will know that you probably had a tough time entering that first job. They will also see that you were successful at it, based on the promotions or subsequent jobs that you landed thereafter.
So how much does it convey to them to say that your biggest accomplishment was getting up to speed quickly?
Not much — and definitely not if you’re answering ostensibly the same answer for both of those questions.
So watch out for repetition like this, where you’re cheating yourself of the opportunity to say more about your background to the adcoms.
The ideal approach for these in-app questions is to give additional color, flavor and texture on items that the reader will already have from the resume (or, in more rare cases, to go beyond the resume completely into uncharted territory and talk about something totally new or different than what’s already reflected there). That’s why, at minimum, it’s important to write the content fresh, instead of doing that lame copy/paste thing from what you’re already telling them on the resume.
Each component of your app is a distinct opportunity. You can use it wisely and convey more insight and useful info to your reader. Or you can just say the same thing over and over and end up leaving money on the table by not helping them see your full multi-dimensional self.