Langston Hughes begins his poem “Theme for English B” this way:
The instructor said:
Go home and write a page tonight. And let that page come out of you- Then it will be true. I wonder if it’s that simple?
“Tell us about yourself”
When colleges instruct you to “Tell us about yourself,” it may sound simple, but it is not. Sarah Myers McGinty, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted a study in 1998 to determine the importance of the college application essay and students’ ability to complete it successfully. She found that while admissions officials viewed the essay as “somewhat important,” students found themselves unprepared to write it. In The Chronicle of Higher Education (1/25/02), McGinty says, “I knew that students felt comfortable talking about the most significant event in the life of Jay Gatsby. But many felt ill-at-ease when asked about the most significant event in their own lives.” After all, as many students will attest, they have never done anything like this before. Students are rarely asked to write personal narratives.
So how do you tell admissions officers about yourself in a true and convincing way? First, you need to “mine” various areas of your identity to discover what makes you an individual. We’re not talking strip-mining, where you just pull up whatever’s on the surface. We’re talking about digging to see what’s below the surface. That takes time and commitment, but in the end, you may strike gold.
Writing is discovery. You cannot write an essay without first discovering what you have to say. You are setting out to discover what has made you who you are. Keep a journal as you explore your past and your present. These jottings and written wanderings are not your essay, but some will serve as the essay’s building materials. (Others might be valuable points for reflection more generally!)
9 aspects of identity
Some areas of your identity to explore include:
Events in a college essay
The events of your life, whether big and small, successful or failed, shape you as an individual.
In other words, your identity is, in part, formed through a series of events, which can be narrated to tell a story that gives the reader a glimpse of who you are. Telling a good story involves strong description (including the colors, sounds, and smells of your life), action (including movement, dialogue or internal monologue, etc); and reflection (including decisions you made, thoughts or feelings you had during an event, and your reflection afterwards).
Help transport your reader into your story by showing what it was like. And, tell the reader what this anecdote says about you as a person.
Which experience to pick? Looking at a few colleges’ essay questions may provide you with some ideas (emphases added):
- The Common Application asks you to: “Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?’
- The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?
- Dartmouth: The Hawaiian word mo’olelo is often translated as “story” but it can also refer to history, legend, genealogy, and tradition. Use one of these translations to introduce yourself.
- Columbia students take an active role in improving their community, whether in their residence hall, classes or throughout New York City. Their actions, small or large, work to positively impact the lives of others. Share one contribution that you have made to your family, school, friend group or another community that surrounds you.
Your experience does not have to be massively life-altering (not all of us have huge turning points in our lives), but can be one of the many little events in our lives that make us see ourselves and the world a bit differently. The time your classmates offered you a stolen test and you refused it. Seeing the ocean for the first time at age 15. Learning to drive or ski or swim. Notice, too, that all of the essay questions ask you both to tell the story of an experience and also to reflect on the significance or impact of the event.
Passions in a college essay
Your passion for certain causes or issues, as well as your hobbies or interests, show who you are. How do you spend your free time? What excites you? Concerns you? Enrages you? What have you done to translate this passion into action? I know a student whose concern over the Middle East conflict led him to distribute to all of his classmates bracelets commemorating those who have died in the conflict. His essay on the topic worked because his passion led him to action, and his writing conveyed his passion. Another student explored how his childhood Lego hobby was a springboard to his building robots in national competitions. I taught a young woman whose frustration over male-female relations in her school led her to start a Gender Issues discussion group. I know people who could write fascinating essays on their obsession with beads, their rock collection, or bike riding. Perhaps you think it’s less-than-admirable to say that you spend every Saturday afternoon watching classic movies, but if you can intelligently reflect on why you love old movies and what it shows about you, it could be a worthwhile topic.
People in a college essay
Begin by listing people in your life who have nurtured your identity. In addition to your family members, you may list instructors, coaches, teachers, or neighbors. After you make a list, decide which person or people you could write about most engagingly. Some applications ask you to write about a person; some just leave the door open for you by telling you to explore a topic of choice. You might begin your exploration by reflecting on your family and how it has affected who you have become. Focus on the details of one or two members of your family-their appearance, their habits, their activities, and their interactions with you. Think of a story that encapsulates a relationship. Consider exploring your family’s cultural heritage, traditions, or foods. Bring the people you depict to life, and give them color, personality, a voice. Provide anecdotes about these family members or other important people in your life.
Places in a college essay
Perhaps a place has gotten under your skin because you’ve spent so much time there. Perhaps you’ve worked on your grandfather’s farm in Wisconsin each summer since you were ten. Perhaps you attend a school unlike most schools in the nation, one in an unusual setting or with an unusual philosophy. Perhaps you spent a semester on sabbatical with your parents in Zimbabwe, and once you came back, everything looked different. Place can be a character, and you can tell a vivid story about how it helped shape you. Conversely, you might have spent time in a place only briefly (one night on a camping trip, for example); or, the place you visited or lived in might have been lousy: decrepit, dirty, scary, upsetting. All of the above are fair game: the point is to use the experience as a vehicle for talking about who you are and how you experience the world around you.
Religion in a college essay
For some people, religion is integral to their lives and identities. Even so, you may consider religion a “touchy” subject. You may fear that the reader won’t like your religion. Don’t let that stop you if you have honest stories and reflections to relate. Consider writing a personal statement that reveals your thoughts about religion through a vivid story or series of anecdotes.
Race in a college essay
For some, their racial identity- and perhaps the persecution they’ve experienced or the minority status they have had- is an important part of who they are. Writing about moments of challenges and what you did to be a leader, to hold your ground, or to educate others, can let the reader get a glimpse of your strongest qualities. Colleges seek students from diverse backgrounds and in possession of strong characters, so don’t be afraid to let both of those qualities shine through.
Gender in a college essay
Does your gender identity feel significant to who you are– to your experiences, your community, your identity? For some, being a woman, being transgender, or being genderqueer can be essential to who they are and their experiences. You might consider writing an essay about going to an all girls’ Catholic school; being the only boy in a household of many sisters; experimenting with multiple pronouns. Just remember: this essay should be about more than a certain experience alone; it is also about what your thoughts, decisions, and actions say about who you are and what is important to you.
Disability/different abilities in a college essay
While so often viewed as a setback, your life with a disability– whether since birth or due to an illness or an event later in life– can help distinguish you or a sea of similarly-abled peers. How have you embraced, overcome, or given voice to your disability or those of others? What abilities have you cultivated or discovered because of it? How have you both coped, and strived, with your disability, and what does this say about your character and commitments?
Sexual orientation in a college essay
Perhaps your sexual identity has played a role in your life, inspiring you to form interests in certain writers or ideas; to work on an inclusive marriage campaign; to lead your school’s Gay Straight Alliance. Whether your identity or that of a loved one, be sure to keep yourself center-stage as you use the idea of sexual orientation to speak to your values, passions, and interests.
You care about your essay because it will help you get into Wonderful U. Fair enough. But you will also gain a bonus along the way: self-realization as you step across the threshold from childhood to adulthood; A sense of who you are and what made you that way; some insight into your desires for the future. Happy digging.
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