Admissions officers want to get to know you personally through your essays. How can they get to know who you really are if you yourself are not really sure? Here are some self-discovery tools and techniques that will help ensure that the schools are meeting the real you through your essays.
This can be a tough but very useful exercise. Use the following five questions, and encourage your interview subjects to be brutally honest:
Most sixteen- and seventeen-year-old students are usually not as concerned with geopolitics and medieval literature as they are about more personal issues such as:
Set aside some time every day to be alone and reflect on your own thoughts and feelings about these issues. If you keep a diary or journal, excerpts from these writings may very well provide the genesis of a highly effective essay.
This is the easiest and most basic exercise to use to develop ideas for your essay. Think back to your earliest memories and recount your experiences since childhood. What stands out in your mind? In the minds of family members and friends? Record the details around these experiences: what you achieved, what you learned, how you succeeded, and how you failed. This exercise will serve as a springboard for most of your essay question topics, since your experiences will involve personal growth, future goals, role models, accomplishments, failures, hobbies, etc. Whatever you choose to write about, make sure it has personal meaning to you. Do not write about what you think admissions officers want to hear. An honest, personal essay about how your first successful bicycle ride without training wheels served as the catalyst for your marked independence can be better than discussing how volunteering at your local soup kitchen has moved you to save the world.
Admissions officers will want to see that there is more to you than your SAT scores and GPA. Therefore, it is important for you to find a way to differentiate yourself from the other qualified applicants. You can demonstrate that you are not just another pretty transcript by showing a completely different side of yourself through the nonacademic experiences, interests, and values that make you the person you are.
The key here is to get your reader to know and like you. Focus on what your experiences mean to you and how you have grown. Tie in relevant aspects of your personal or family life—without unloading embarrassing or intimate details on your reader. Show your strengths in new ways without restating the obvious. If you can demonstrate unusual maturity, sensitivity, and direction in your essay, you will be ahead of the game.
Whether you apply to one or several colleges, the odds are quite high that you will be asked to discuss your strengths and weaknesses. Think of all different kinds of strengths. If you are good at math, consider discussing your keen analytical abilities. However, do not simply limit yourself to your technical ability. Show how you are also good at helping others understand math by tutoring your friends or leading group projects. Outside of school, think about your extracurricular activities. Write about your excellent writing skills by relating an anecdote about a front-page story you wrote for the school newspaper. Think about personal qualities, too. Most of all, do not be modest, since you are using the essay to sell yourself to people who have never met you.
Now for the hard part. When an essay prompt asks about your weaknesses, admissions officers want you to be candid and honest. However, remember that you are trying to be positive. Therefore, any time you write about a weakness, you should be able to state what you are doing about it. Do not make excuses for a weakness. Instead, tell the reader about what you are doing to fix it.
Before you choose to draw attention to a special interest or talent, be sure the school wants what you have to offer. Your finesse with a lacrosse stick will buy you nothing if you are applying to a college with no lacrosse team. Similarly, a college may have an orchestra but no need for cellists this year.
When you write about your talent, show your strengths without restating the obvious. Instead of rehashing the facts about the special lessons you take or the awards you have won, give the reader insight into your passion. For example, you can discuss:
In some instances, you may be able to demonstrate your talent firsthand. For example, you may want to send slides of your artwork or a taped recording of your musical ability. A trusted teacher in your area of special talent can help you prepare your demonstration.
Influences and Role Models
Begin by brainstorming with the people in your life that have impacted you the most. Chances are, you will have some obvious individuals on that list, including your mother, father, sister, brother, or teacher. Maybe you had a football coach who taught you to push yourself harder to succeed. Perhaps your minister helped you realize how worthwhile organizing a Thanksgiving food drive was to your community. The point is to stay away from people you think admissions officers will be impressed by, such as a noted politician or businessman who happens to be a family friend. Unless that person has made a significant impact on you, stay away from name-dropping.
Some applications will prompt you to discuss an influence or role model directly. For example:
Whatever person or people you choose, the point is the same. There are obvious answers that anyone could come up with, and it can be hard to find an original take on a familiar subject. As much as you admire Abraham Lincoln, did he really influence you in a personal way? Focus on how the person has impacted you, not on what he or she has done for others or for society in general.
EssayEdge Extra: Words of Wisdom from Admissions Officers
"The college admission process forces a student, probably for the first time, to be self-reflective. The admission process can be exciting because of the self-discovery and self-exploration it requires. You are provided with an opportunity to think carefully about yourself and to assess who you are and what you think you are becoming. Self-assessment and self-discovery are not easy, however. Recognize that this process is going to take time. Approach the admission process not as a hurdle but rather as an opportunity to learn about yourself."—Admissions Officer, Grinnell College
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