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10 Tips for Writing a College Essay About Yourself

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What’s Covered:


Most students who apply to top-tier colleges have exceptional grades, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities. How do admissions officers decide which applicants to choose among all these stellar students? One way is with the college essay.


This personal statement, along with other qualitative factors like teacher recommendations, helps the admissions committee see who you really are — the person behind the transcript. So, it’s obviously important to write a great one.


What Is the Purpose of the College Essay?


As you might imagine, your college essay will help you stand out in a pool of qualified candidates. If effective, it will also show the admissions committee more of your personality so they can get a sense of how you’ll fit in with and contribute to the student body and institution. Additionally, it will show the school that you can express yourself persuasively and clearly in writing, which is an important part of most careers, no matter where you end up.


Typically, students must submit a main essay (usually the Common App essay) along with school-specific supplements. Some students are surprised to learn that essays typically count for around 25 percent of your entire application at the top 250 schools. That’s an enormous chunk, especially considering that unlike your transcript and extracurriculars, it isn’t an assessment of your entire high school career. 


How to Stand Out Without Showing Off


It’s important to strike a balancing between exploring your achievements while demonstrating humility. Your aim should be to focus on the meaning behind the experience and how it changed your outlook, not the accomplishment itself.


You can be confident without being cocky — that’s the key here. This shouldn’t be a catalog of your achievements; you have other areas on your application to share them. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t mention your achievements if they’re critical to the story you’re telling, but that shouldn’t be the focal point. 


Take this essay excerpt, for example:


My parents’ separation allowed me the space to explore my own strengths and interests as each of them became individually busier. As early as middle school, I was riding the light rail train by myself, reading maps to get myself home, and applying to special academic programs without urging from my parents. Even as I took more initiatives on my own, my parents both continued to see me as somewhat immature. All of that changed three years ago, when I applied and was accepted to the SNYI-L summer exchange program in Morocco. I would be studying Arabic and learning my way around the city of Marrakesh. Although I think my parents were a little surprised when I told them my news, the addition of a fully-funded scholarship convinced them to let me go.


Instead of saying “I received this scholarship and participated in this prestigious program,” the author tells a story, demonstrating her growth and initiative through specific actions (riding the train alone, applying academic programs on her own, etc.) — effectively showing rather than telling.


10 Tips for Writing an Essay About Yourself


1. Choose a topic that’s meaningful to you.


The foundation of a great essay is selecting a topic that has real meaning for you. If you’re passionate about the subject, the reader will feel it. Alternatively, choosing a topic you think the admissions committee is looking for, but isn’t all that important to you, won’t make for a compelling essay; it will be obvious that you’re not very invested in it.


2. Show your personality.


One of the main points of your college essay is to convey your personality. Admissions officers will see your transcript and read about the awards you’ve won, but the essay will help them get to know you as a person. Make sure your personality is evident in each part. You friends should be able to pick your essay from an anonymous pile, read it, and recognize it as yours. In that same vein, someone who doesn’t know you at all should feel like they understand your personality after reading your essay.


3. Write in your own voice.


In order to bring authenticity to your essay, you’ll need to write in your own voice. Don’t be overly formal (but don’t be too casual, either). Remember: you want the reader to get to know the real you, not a version of you that comes across as overly stiff or stilted. You should feel free to use contractions, incorporate dialogue, and employ vocabulary that comes naturally to you.


4. Use specific examples.


Real, concrete stories and examples will help your essay come to life. They’ll add color to your narrative and make it more compelling for the reader. The goal, after all, is to engage your audience — the admissions committee. 


For example, instead of stating that you care about animals, you should tell us a story about how you took care of an injured stray cat.


Consider this side-by-side comparison:


Example 1: I care deeply about animals and even once rescued a stray cat. The cat had an injured leg, and I helped nurse it back to health.


Example 2: I lost many nights of sleep trying to nurse the stray cat back to health. Its leg infection was extremely painful, and it meowed in distress up until the wee hours of the morning. I didn’t mind it though; what mattered was that the cat regained its strength. So, I stayed awake to administer its medicine and soothe it with loving ear rubs.


The second example helps us visualize this situation and is more illustrative of the writer’s personality. Because she stayed awake to care for the cat, we can infer that she is a compassionate person who cares about animals. We don’t get the same depth with the first example.


5. Don’t be afraid to show off…


You should always put your best foot forward — the whole point of your essay is to market yourself to colleges. This isn’t the time to be shy about your accomplishments, skills, or qualities.


6. …While also maintaining humility.


But don’t brag. Be humble when discussing your achievements. In the example above, for instance, the author discusses her accomplishments while still noting that her parents still thought of her as immature. This is a great way to show humility while still noting that she was able to prove her parents wrong.

7. Be vulnerable.


Vulnerability goes hand in hand with humility and authenticity. Don’t shy away from exploring how your experience affected you and the feelings you experienced. This, too, will help your story come to life.


Here’s an excerpt of a Common App essay that demonstrates vulnerability and allows us to connect with the writer: 


“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.


Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.


In this essay, the writer isn’t afraid to share his insecurities and feelings with us. He states that he had been “appallingly ignorant” of his brother’s pain, that he “often felt out of step” compared to his brother, and that he had felt more and more alone over time. These are all emotions that you may not necessarily share with someone you just met, but it’s exactly this vulnerability that makes the essay more raw and relatable.


8. Don’t lie or hyperbolize.


This essay is about the authentic you. Lying or hyperbolizing to make yourself sound better will not only make your essay — and entire application — less genuine, but it will also weaken it. More than likely, it will be obvious that you’re at least exaggerating. Plus, if colleges find out later that you haven’t been truthful in any part of your application, it’s grounds for revoking your acceptance or even expulsion if you’ve already matriculated.


9. Avoid cliches.


How the COVID-19 pandemic changed your life. A sports victory as a metaphor for your journey. How pet death altered your entire outlook. Admissions officers have seen more essays on these topics than they can possibly count. Unless you have a truly unique angle, then it’s in your best interest to avoid them. Learn which topics are cliche and how to fix them.


10. Proofread.


This is a critical step. Even a small error can break your essay, however amazing it is otherwise. Make sure you read it over carefully, and get another set of eyes (or two or three other sets of eyes), just in case.


Where to Get Free Feedback on Your College Essay 


Before you send off your application, make sure you get feedback from a trusted source on your essay. CollegeVine’s free peer essay review will give you the support you need to refine your writing and ensure you’re sending off your best work. 


Since a peer you don’t personally know will be reviewing your essay, you can ask them to give objective feedback on the way you’ve presented your personality and accomplishments. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays!


Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.