Writing Tips

Getting Personal in Your Application Essay

Some applications will include a question that simply asks for more information about you as a person. Although all questions are designed to help the readers learn about your character, this type of question is meant to be more open-ended. Some schools might ask what matters most to you, while others will ask for a summary of your personal background. Another common approach is to ask about the influences and experiences that have shaped your development.

While your answers to questions about diversity should make you stand out, your response to the “getting personal” questions should present you as a complete (and preferably likeable) human being. This is not to say that you should not emphasize unique qualities, but you also should not hesitate to focus on common, everyday activities. For example, many people choose to write about their families, and as long as they do so in a personal and engaging way, the result can invoke empathy and understanding in the mind of the reader.

The rule that applies everywhere is paramount in this case: be sincere. Answers that attempt to meet presumed expectations are not only transparent, but also counterproductive, because the best essay you could write is the one that you approach honestly.

Make sure to supplement your genuine ideas with personal details. If you choose to write about the family you’re raising, for example, provide stories about the time you spend with your children instead of simply telling the reader how much you care for them.

Offer a focused portrayal. Some questions will ask you to comment on one or two specific aspects of your life, but others will leave it up to you to determine the breadth of your discussion. In those cases, you should aim to convey one or two key themes. This discussion may encompass several experiences, but they should be explored in a coherent manner. This advice applies even to those questions that ask for a summary of your personal background. Instead of approaching the essay with a haphazard list of significant ideas in mind, develop a clear plan to organize your points into a logical, flowing structure. For example, you might choose to organize your essay around a defining quality and trace how it has developed and applied to different aspects of your life. On the other hand, you could choose an external point (e.g., your hometown or city) and describe how your relationship to that point has changed and grown.

Identify defining moments. Some questions will in fact use this exact phrase. A request to summarize your entire history seems daunting, but by focusing on key turning points in your life, you can convey a great deal more meaning than a shallower listing of events. You should not have to search hard for these defining moments, because if they were truly significant to you, they will hold a significant place in your memory.

Coming across as a likeable human being is not enough to get you admitted, but if you have the other relevant qualifications, this additional edge can make a significant difference.

This applicant offers a simple portrait of his family and small-town upbringing. There is nothing remarkable in the experiences he discusses, and he even notes negative elements for the sake of presenting a whole representation: “My mother was eager for me to test my aptitude in other areas as well and so involved me in art, piano, guitar, and tap dancing, none of which engaged my interest as much as sports.” Note how he identifies and reflects on “the most memorable event of [his] youth,” offering a concrete image of the moving van pulling up for the reader to grasp. Despite its apparent simplicity, the essay accomplishes its purpose of leaving us with a little more understanding of who the writer is.

This applicant takes a similar approach by focusing on his family and the rural setting in which he grew up. Note how his descriptions of family members can be revealing because they show what the writer values and offer context for the relationships he has built with them. He also does an effective job of tying his youth to his recent past: “For example, starting at age 16, I often attended cattle sales in our rural Irish community, where I would haggle with much older and extremely shrewd farmers over the price of cows. Just ten years later, I found myself using those very same negotiating skills in the conference rooms of the U.S. Senate.” The connection is intriguing but doesn’t sound forced, because the writer has so effectively brought us into his world.

The applicant also does not hesitate to explore conflict and sensitive issues. Because he places such an emphasis on the positive aspects of his upbringing, he can discuss past struggles in a way that invites compassion without seeking pity. Showing how you coped with difficulties, even if they’re on a smaller scale than the Ireland conflict, can be a very effective way to convey your greatest strengths.

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