Only You Can Do You: Writing Your Most Authentic Personal Essay
Last October, JM Farkas, a college essay consultant, wrote a piece for The New York Times titled, “How I Know You Wrote Your Kid’s College Essay.” Farkas broke down exactly how well-meaning parents sometimes sabotage their children’s college success by taking over the essay-writing process. The result is a personal essay that sounds like a parent wrote it (or at least heavily influenced it), which is super noticeable to anyone who reads college essays for a living.
According to Farkas, “Unlike the other parts of the application, where high grade point averages and SAT scores reign supreme, the essay is less about being impressive than it is about being authentic…college admissions officers care about who students are. The essays should reveal their personalities, passions, dreams, weird talents, favorite foods, sickest playlists, inexplicable loves and undeniable quirks.” (Emphasis mine.)
I couldn’t agree more. As an independent college consultant who specializes in essay writing and using mindfulness in the college admissions, I constantly remind applicants that your essay needs to be as authentically YOU as possible. What you choose to write about and how you choose to write it is as individual to you as your fingerprints, and a sharp reader can tell when an essay has multiple writers.
But AdmissionsMom, you might say, essays are so intimidating. What should I write about? Why can’t I get someone more experienced to help me come up with something good? What if my parents/teachers/friends hate the topic I’ve chosen to write about?
That’s where I come in.
Brainstorm a Topic
Before picking a topic, think about the reader’s goal in reading your essay. The reader wants to connect with you, not be impressed by you. If I’m reading your essay, I need to be able to identify the one important thing about you. I don’t want to read a list of your ECs. I need to be able to understand the essence of your “youness.” I want to learn about the inner you. Not the surface you. I won’t get there if your essay is mostly narrative and little commentary.
This means you’ll need to peel back the onion layers of your personality and find your Inner Shrek. Search for the bitter, funny, sweet, sarcastic, interesting, mellow, cool, nervous, scared, serious, personal, authentic you. OWN your story.
To explore yourself, write out answers to these questions:
- What’s my superpower?
- What’s my greatest fear?
- Who are my heroes?
- What’s my secret sauce?
- What do I believe?
- What is important to me?
- What’s my favorite guilty-pleasure movie? TV Show? Book?
- What makes me feel safe?
- What’s an object that reminds me of home?
- What’s a food that reminds me of my family?
- What’s my motto?
- What’s the first thing I think about when I wake up?
- What’s my bad habit?
- What am I willing to fight for?
- Again, what do I believe in?
Look through your answers to the previous questions for common themes. What do they say about you? What kind of value or belief represents you and who you are? What is one belief you have?
Get Comfortable Inside Yourself
Now that you’ve practiced introspection, you need to hold onto the authenticity and honesty you’ve uncovered. Because YOU and your belief are the conceit of your narrative — not the made-up person you think will impress admissions officers — your personality must shine through. The Personal Essay is not about your accomplishments or a restatement of your recommendations, applications, and ECs. The prompt you choose isn’t even that important, because the topic is YOU.
So make the admissions officer like you. Engage them so that they will want to meet you. They want to imagine you on campus. In the library. At the cafeteria. They want to see you as a roommate and classmate. Be your charming but genuine teenage self -– who and whatever that is.
Remember: the key is more expressing, less impressing.
Don’t Worry About Sounding “Authentic”
It sounds counterintuitive, especially since I’m telling you to embrace your authentic self, but PLEASE don’t try to sound “unique” or “honest.” The trap here is “trying” — you don’t want to try being someone else when you could be yourself. It’s like riding a bike, speaking a language, or playing your favorite game: the more you think about how you should do things instead of just doing them, the more a disconnect develops between you and the activity.
When I review essays, I look for sincerity, a sense of the writer’s voice that I can see and hear. I look for playfulness, fun, or an earnest feeling that tells me how much the writer has invested in their words. How much it means for them to share this with me.
For now, when you’re drafting your personal essay, trust your voice. Have faith in your ability to express yourself. Just get it out in as unfiltered a way as possible. Don’t overthink it. Just let it flow. (That’s not to say you won’t need to edit your essay later. You will. We’ll get to that in an upcoming post.)
Do Not Read “Accepted” Essays
When you read other people’s essays, you might get too focused on what a college essay “should be” and “should sound like.” The truth is there is no one way to write a personal essay. Don’t get caught up on what others are doing or have done.
Remember, you are the expert on you. Your job is to learn about yourself and then teach the Admissions Counselors what you learned. No one else can figure out what you have to say about yourself with your sense of style. That’s why it’s important NOT to overload on “accepted essays.” Just say no.
However, you should spend time looking at these websites. They have lots of fantastic info about writing personal essays:
Again, the personal essay is about who you are, not what you do. In all my years reading college essays, the essays that have stuck with me the most were the ones with honest and real voices. These were the essays where the writers bared their souls but didn’t try to impress me. It’s a hard and scary thing to accomplish, but it’s worth it. In the end, you’ll have not only a great personal essay, but you’ll also have a better understanding of yourself. That’s the whole point of the college admissions process.
If you want to more personal essay advice, head over to Amazon and pick up a copy of my book, Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit. You can also find me on r/ApplyingToCollege, drop into the comments, or reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram.
Good luck, and stay awesome!
Carolyn Caplan is an independent college counselor, a moderator on r/ApplyingToCollege, and the author of Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit. She’s on a one-woman mission to bring mindfulness to college admissions.