How to talk about accomplishments without feeling like bragging
I work with students to help them write their scholarship applications. I teach them how to highlight their accomplishments, and when we’re working on this part, it’s not uncommon for them to ask, “Isn’t that bragging?” or, “How do I say that without sounding like I’m bragging?”.
Some students are in the mindset that any time they draw attention to their accomplishments, it’s bragging.
In our society, we value humility and modesty. There are social norms that tell us not to show-off. Teenagers are especially loath to call attention to their accomplishments for fear of being called out by peers.
And it’s true – no one likes a braggart.
But being too humble can mean disaster when it comes to scholarships. A scholarship application is not the time or place to be too humble. This is your opportunity to communicate your achievements, whatever they are, big or small.
But for some students, it’s not easy to know how to do it without feeling like you’re bragging. And so writing them down, and discussing how you did it, and how it felt, can be an excruciating task.
Some students are at a total loss of how to approach it.
But here’s the thing – they need to get some level of comfort with it. They’ll need to be able to determine what their accomplishments, qualities and skills are not only for scholarships, but later on for preparing resumes, cover letters, and especially for job interviews. This is a life skill. Learning how to communicate your skills and accomplishments now, for scholarships, is good practice for those interviews in the future.
Rather watch me discuss this topic as a video?
Here are SEVEN TIPS to help your child feel more comfortable when describing their accomplishments:
1. What you are telling the scholarship committee on the application is true – you’re not making it up, you’re not going to embellish, or go on and on. You’re simply providing factual information of what you did.
2. People want to hear success stories – they’re interesting, especially when they involve a struggle and then a win, and they give us hope.
3. Show some vulnerability – a person who is boasting says they climbed the mountain and never were scared, no way, not once. A person who is merely sharing their accomplishment admits they were scared, but they did it anyway.
And, it’s OK to admit mistakes. When you’re writing a scholarship essay, it’s actually a good thing to admit to fear, or to admit to early failure, and that you had problems along the way – as long as you then say how you overcame them.
4. Focus on the skills you used to accomplish the task, event, goal. Tell the who, what, where, when and why, but then add some personal story to it. Similar to that, focus on the work you did to achieve the goal.
So maybe you’re applying for a scholarship for students entering a computer science degree.
And maybe you built an app to help students find used sports gear in their city, you could say,
“I spent two hours a week for ten weeks working on developing the app. But before I started actually developing it, I researched it for several weeks and watched a lot of YouTube videos, and I took free online course on app development. I got stuck at one point ,and I thought about quitting, but I knew I could do it if I just had some help. So I contacted the computer science department at my local university for assistance, and they helped me get back on track. Then ,I got friends and family to test it out over several weeks and give me ideas on how to improve it. It’s still not where I want it to be, but it works and I’m proud I achieved the goal I set for myself.”
Let the reader know you spent time and energy on this task, and you were dedicated and persevered through problems.
5. Focus on what you’ve learned and how you’ll use it in future. Using that same example I just mentioned, you could say something like, “I learned how much I enjoy working on a large project, especially with computers. I learned how to plan my time, do things step-by-step, and to really focus on a task. And I learned I need to ask people for help when I get stuck. I’m really excited about using my new skills at The University of Waterloo, and to learn more about programming.”
6. Trade off with a friend – both of you come up with 3 accomplishments for the other person. Tell them why you think they’re amazing, or why you admire them for doing it.
For example, you might not even remember a great thing you did, but to the other person it meant something, and they remember it well, and they can give you a different perspective on it. Sometimes we need an objective opinion to help us see things in a different, or clearer, way.
7. Finally, here's a general tip to help change this mindset about how discussing accomplishments means bragging. The goal with this tip is to help your child become more comfortable with taking appropriate pride in their achievements, and in accepting praise:
suggest to your child they practice giving compliments to people and, more importantly, receiving them. And to do it gratefully, and gracefully.
For example, teach them that when someone gives them a compliment, they can simply say, “Thank-you; I appreciate that.” And then button it. Zip it. Don’t shrug it off and say, "Ah, it was nothing." or, "Oh, it’s not a big deal."
Take the compliment, acknowledge it gratefully and gracefully, and move on.
Is your child ready to tackle this limiting mindset about discussing their accomplishments?
Here’s an idea to put this skill into practice right now. You don’t need a scholarship app in hand, the idea is just to practice.
Have you student discuss one of their accomplishments in writing. Remember to frame it by asking them to do 3 things:
1. Show some vulnerability – talk about the challenge they faced, or the problem they encountered, and their fear, or failure, if applicable (don’t manufacture it, though), and then discuss how they overcame it.
2. Describe the work and the skills involved to accomplishment.
3. Focus on what you learned, and how you will use the learning in the future (in university, in life or both!).
When it’s done, have them read it as if they were a different person, like a scholarship judge. I know this part isn’t easy, but try it out. I think they'll find it sounds pretty good, and not "braggy" at all.
Final thoughts: If your student is feeling some pride in their accomplishments, tell them to allow themselves to feel it. It’s OK! Being proud of your accomplishments is not a bad thing, and it doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s a normal, natural human feeling. Try to enjoy it!
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About the author
Janet MacDonald is a Scholarship Coach with mycampusGPS Education Consulting. She is a former Canadian university admissions officer. For seven years, she was the coordinator of a scholarship program at a major Canadian university. Janet has helped her student clients win hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.