The Common Application essay––often referred to as your personal statement, or just “your college essay”––is an integral piece of your total application. The role of the essay is to help admissions’ officers get an idea of how you think. Once they know that, they can craft a well-rounded group of kids. That means your job in your essay is to show how you think and what kind of person you are. Colleges can already see your grades and your test scores. They can read the things your teachers say about you. They can look at a list of extracurriculars you’ve been involved in from the beginning of Time. But the bottom line is that as much as those things paint a picture, the basic point of your college essay is to answer, in your voice, the broadest question of all: “Who Am I?”
There is literally only one requirement of this essay, which is that it must be between 250 and 650 words. That’s it. Between 250 and 650 words, you can write on whatever topic in the universe you want, as long as it attempts to answer that fundamental question. (Note that there are seven total prompts. For tips on how to go about choosing/answering each prompt, check out our individualized posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
But seriously––who am I???
We get it. This is an unfair question––no matter who you are or how old. You might feel like you’ve had tons of transformational events in your life, so it feels impossible to choose just one to write about. Or maybe you feel like there isn’t anything that sticks out that strongly at all. Ultimately, though, what you need to know is that you don’t have to get everything down about yourself. Your best bet is to choose an idea that you want colleges to know about yourself that they cannot know or assume from the rest of your application.
Sometimes our automatic response here is to jump to hardship––to show how difficult something in your life has been and how you’ve been affected by that or moved through it. That can definitely make for a powerful essay, but you don’t need to bare your soul to get into college. You also definitely don’t need to write about your trauma here if that is not what you want to do. (And remember, if there is crucial information about a hardship that you do feel the need to share, there is always room in the Additional Information section.)
What to write about, then?
To start, we suggest honing in on a specific characteristic. Who am I? Well, I’m silly. I’m intense. I’m a reader. I’m a good friend. I like taking care of others. Whatever you are, there’s a good chance you already know these things about yourself. If you can’t think of descriptive words, then try reaching out to your support networks––your friends, family, bosses, teachers, mentors, etc. Ask these people to describe you in five words. As you start to collect these characteristics, notice the patterns.
Once you’ve landed on a personal quality that you think feels right or that you want to examine further, start thinking about stories you can remember that exemplify that quality. We know it’s a Common App “essay,” a personal “statement,” but whatever it is, it has to be a story––one with a beginning, middle, and end. The story doesn’t need to seem BIG at first glance. Try thinking about your routines, or your ideal days. What do you do when the things you have to do are all done, when you’re alone in your room and rehearsal is over and you’ve eaten dinner and taken out the trash?
We know a student named Reba whose friends always told her she was adventurous. She couldn’t think of many stories that exemplified that because she hadn’t gone on any “big” trips and didn’t like the outdoors or anything. After talking with her dad, Reba was reminded of a tradition they had together where they visited a different neighborhood in New York City every Sunday afternoon for a year. When her dad eventually moved, Reba carried on the tradition for the two of them by herself. She took notes and photos in every place and made them into a digital scrapbook for him.
That’s just one example. You have plenty to write about too. And if you’re having a hard time thinking of stories, try reaching right back out to those people who you asked for help describing you in the first place.
So what next?
Go try this out. Write it all down. Then edit it, edit it, edit it. Edit it. Leave for a while, pick it back up, edit it again. In the process, don’t feel afraid to change everything around or to scrap something that feels wrong or is boxing you in. At the end of the day, you can do this better than anyone else can.
Getting stuck and need help brainstorming your essay one-on-one? Shoot us a line here.