If you’re struggling to come up with a way to describe your whole life and who you are in a nutshell for universities, you’re not alone!

Writing personal essays to impress Harvard, Princeton and Stanford can be a daunting task. Having applied to Harvard successfully myself and after working with hundreds of students applying to top schools, I have answered this question often.

These are a few tips that I share with my students for writing an essay that relies on personal insights. This could include the common application essay, the coalition application essay, the UC essays, and so on.

Not all college essays are the same; if you are writing a 100-word essay about why you want to attend a particular school, for example, your approach would be different. But if asked to talk about yourself:

1. Embrace the more unusual aspects of yourself.

Try to avoid topics that many others will be writing on unless you are sure you have a unique spin on it.

For example, Indian classical dance has been talked about to death, and no one wants to read another essay on that.

But if you are comparing it to a completely different style of dance – let’s just say flamenco – and you are really passionate about it as well (flamenco should not just be a gimmick to help you stand out), then the topic becomes a bit more interesting.

Of course, the real topic should still actually be you; dancing is just the lens through which you’re exploring certain aspects of yourself.

How do you know if the topic you have in mind is very popular and often explored? One indicator is how many of your classmates have had similar experiences. Are there subjects that you geek out over and that others find a bit (or incredibly) absurd? If so, you might want to consider those topics, and whether they can serve as a vehicle to tell your story.

Admissions committees would love to read an essay about something most people find quite random – dinosaurs, Yugi-oh duelling, the works of Joss Whedon, the search for life on other planets, 80s glam rock, basket weaving in Uganda – the options are endless! So brainstorm widely about what has shaped you and what you see in your future.

Another way to determine if something is often written about is to consult with someone who reads hundreds of these essays every year – your school staff, an admissions consultant, etc. You would especially want to stand out against applicants coming from the same country, city, and school. For example, if you attend a large international school, then mentioning diversity of classmates or the fact that you are well travelled is not helpful; it is assumed by the reader already, and it is something most of your classmates could also say – go beyond this and highlight something specific and different.

We do predict a lot of applicants will be writing about their COVID-19 experiences, so please do brainstorm other topics as well, and see if you can bring something different to the table!

2. Tell a story.

If you find yourself writing a list of things you have done or simply writing random thoughts about why something matters to you, or how you have grown, consider that a starting point, but not the ideal format for a personal essay. It can be difficult for a reader to get invested in purely reflective writing, and it might be difficult for you to set yourself apart through musings that are perhaps not that specific. A story is a way to give a specific, concrete example of a larger point.

What should you include when telling stories? We should see character development (how did you grow), interesting relationships, moments of choice and decision making. We should also get a good sense for what motivates you (and others). In addition, you don’t have to come across as perfect. Even heroes make mistakes or change their minds – that’s how they learn and grow. Lastly, when describing the actions you took, pay attention to cause-and-effect relationships. Describe your realizations or reasons for doing what you did.

3. Exercise your critical thinking muscles.

Universities love to see all kinds of traits in applicants – leadership, teamwork, creative thinking, international outlook, empathy, communication skills, etc. – but one trait that students often overlook is critical thinking skills. The law may not be perfect as it is – what problems have you seen, and how would you change it? Your coach or teacher may not have a comprehensive view of something – what are you sceptical of, what would you want to explore further? What assumptions of society or your family do you question or struggle with? Show an eagerness to engage in independent and critical thinking. Show off your spirit of intellectual inquiry! This trait tends to lead to identifying and solving problems, so it can be tied to leadership and creativity.

We hope this helps! Stay safe, and keep reading and writing.

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