Writing A Personal Essay – Plant Your Seed

Application essays can be tough.  The questions for the common application are particularly difficult because they are so broad and far-reaching; it almost seems like anything is fair game.  But a good college essay lets the admission officer know who YOU are.  The best essays allow a student to become a real-life person.

You are not just grades and scores!

Most of the other information in a student’s file is quantitative data, and the essay is the only part of the application where a student gets to speak on his or her own behalf.  ACT, SAT, PSAT or ISSE scores, grades and activity lists do not make a person.  They are just statistics… they make it easier to determine if a student can do the work of a school, but really they don’t offer any real clues about the thoughts, feeling and values of the student.  Teacher recommendations and interview reports also help give a sense of who you are, but they are other people’s impressions.  Answering the essay question allows the admissions officers to get to know YOU.  What do you think and care about?  Once they have a chance to “meet you” through your essay, they begin to see why YOU belong at “Bliss U.”

Don't say what everyone else thinks too!

Why have I started to refer students to the VIA Strengths Inventory?  Well, it is simple really.  When I started working with students writing personal essays, I noticed that they lacked a certain vocabulary.  Joan Bress and Charlotte Klaar explained it best in their talk at this year’s IECA Summer Training Institute.  Often students are tempted to write essays about “Universal Truths.”  A personal essay that has the punch line:  “I learned that winning is not always the most important thing” is a yawn, especially if you have read thirty other essays with the same conclusion that day.  Reading facts of life is very different than reading about the qualities that make you a special, unique and interesting individual.

How do the strengths help?  Well, they are twenty-four concepts that should be part of everyone’s vocabulary, and they give us words to talk about our best traits.  What are the strengths?  As I have mentioned there are 24 of them, and they fall into 6 categories:

Strengths and Virtures

Yes, strengths are big ideas, but don’t be intimidated by them.  The thing about the strengths is that they help give you a context and a language to talk about how you have shown strength in a given circumstance.  An essay that says:  “I am a funny, fair and curious person” is a total yawn for an admissions officer.

Plant your seed

Instead, familiarity with the strengths allows a student identify and describe a situation or event that allowed them to use his or her humor, fairness and curiosity.  Once you have learned about the strengths in general, and perhaps identified your top strengths, then they should go right into the back of your mind.  Stories, not strengths, make for good application essays.  Story-telling allows you to that demonstrate how you used the strength(s) that ways that are unique and personal.  Stories sprout ideas in the readers heads, and hopefully they make the (admissions) reader like you and see a place for you at their school.

bedtime story or newspaper article - keep 'em interested!

Think about the characters in the movies.  Many of the characters exemplified lots of the strengths, including bravery, open-mindedness, love, forgiveness and humor.  But it wasn’t those strengths alone that made you want to see the movie, right?  The plot and situations created a framework for the characters to demonstrate those different traits, and the way they all got woven together into a beautiful story made Avatar a great movie and a huge blockbuster success.  So, this is the reason we use stories for personal essays, as a backdrop for letting a reader understand what strengths we possess and use.  There is a famous saying for writers that says: “Show, don’t tell.”  Again, lists of traits are ultimately boring.  But when you use a story from your life well to explain why you are so strong and interesting, you capture your reader’s attention– you want it to be as captivating as a good bedtime story or newspaper article.

The Goal - "Bliss" University

Why is the story about your piano recital/football game/summer vacation your sophomore year so important to you?  What happened, and what STRENGTHS did you use or discover in that moment?  No one else has your story or those strengths in that combination.  That’s what makes you a unique individual, and that’s exactly what the folks at “Bliss U” want to read all about.


You are not just grades and scores courtesy of HikingArtist.com

Don’t say what everyone else thinks too! courtesy of HikingArtist.com

Plant your seed courtesy of HikingArtist.com

bedtime story or newspaper article courtesy of ralphhogaboom

“Bliss” University courtesy of Steve-h

One thought on “Writing A Personal Essay – Plant Your Seed

  1. Aren,

    Lovely blog post! I haven’t heard that answer before, and it makes so much sense – that if a student is considering what to write in the application essay, then starting from one’s strengths as a basis is a terrific strategy. I mean it does both – makes the essay interesting to you and interesting to the admissions reader.

    I enjoyed reading the post, Best wishes on a continued rockin’ blog!

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