No matter what the prompt asks for, almost any effective college essay should showcase one or several of what I call your “defining qualities.”
If the prompt asks you to write a personal statement (for The Common App), tell about yourself or wants to know why you are a fit for their university, you will need a clear idea of the core qualities or characteristics that make you who you are—that “define” you.
Once you know those, you can write an essay that helps the reader understand how you are that way, and why it matters.
Of course, along the way, you will also mention your related interests, passions, idiosyncrasies, talents, experiences, accomplishments and even your endearing flaws.
(If you are confused at this point, you might want to check out my Quickie Jumpstart Guide to better understand the role these “defining qualities” play in a college admissions essay or personal statement.)
Here’s what I ask my tutoring students to help them start corralling their defining qualities—especially when many of them have no idea what I’m talking about at first:
“If your mom or dad were talking to a friend or relative who didn’t know you well and asked what you were all about now that you were all grown up, how would they describe you to that person?
What are some of the words or phrases they might use to sum you up?”
If you think about it, you can almost hear them, I bet: “Well, Sarah, she’s still very driven, and hard-working, and focused.”
Or “Oh Sam, he’s still a free spirit, and creative and imaginative, and he’s also very social and outgoing.”
or “Mike, he’s our problem solver, very logical, but he’s also so humble and generous.”
I’m not saying that your parents are always right about you, but in general, they have a pretty decent idea of what makes you tick.
Of course, include qualities that you think you have, or ask some of your friends. You don’t need a long list; anywhere between three to five solid qualities are plenty.
Once you find a quality or characteristic, you just need to think of a real-life story (called an anecdote) from your past that illustrates that descriptor—and you are well on your way to writing an effective essay!
Another trick when digging for your personal quality or characteristic is to try to focus them as much as possible.
For example, if you say you are “social,” try to think of qualities that are even more specific to exactly how you are social.
Are you open, talkative, friendly, funny, easy to talk to, accepting, empathetic, flirty, etc.
If you say you are smart, you need to be more specific.
Narrow it down; specifically how are you smart?: insightful, observant, logical, analytical, fast learner, critical thinker, problem solver, etc.
One more tip: If you’re among the students who already have a subject path in mind for your college, such as engineering or medicine or law, it doesn’t hurt to identify what qualities you have that would make you effective in that field.
But if you are like most students, and still have no clue, don’t worry about lining up your qualities with any goal other than finding those that are true to who you are.
When flaws are good: Although most of your defining qualities or characteristics will be viewed as attributes or strengths, it doesn’t hurt if you have one in there that could be viewed as a flaw or weakness.
Don’t overlook those. They can be very powerful when writing college admissions essays or personal statements.
Make sure those more negative qualities have an up side for you.
For example, if you have a stubborn streak, that could make you a persistent person (future lawyer? haha).
Also, sometimes, if we have a weakness, you have developed another quality to help compensate for it.
Flaws are fine as long as you can turn them around and show how they make you even more effective at being who you are.
If you are like some of my students who freeze up or go blank when I put them on the spot and ask them to jot down their “defining qualities,” I know it always helps to have a list to get you started.
These are all one-word descriptors, but you can also include short phrases:
Able, Accepting, Accurate, Achieving, Adaptable, Adorable, Adventurous, Affectionate, Alert, Alive, Altruistic, Amazing, Ambitious, Analytical, Appreciative, Appealing, Artistic, Assertive, Astonishing, Attentive, Attractive, Authentic, Aware, Awesome, Balanced, Beautiful, Blissful, Blooming, Bold, Bountiful, Brave, Breath-Taking, Bright, Calm, Capable, Careful, Carefree, Caring, Cautious, Centered, Certain, Charitable, Charming, Cheeky, Cheerful, Chirpy, Civic-Minded, Clean, Colorful, Competitive, Clear-Thinking, Communicative, Compassionate, Compatible, Competitive, Complete, Confident, Conscientious, Considerate, Conservative, Consistent, Content, Co-operative, Courageous, Conscientious, Courteous, Creative, Cuddly, Curious, Cultural, Cute, Decisive, Deliberate, Delicate, Delicious, Delightful, Dependable, Desirable, Determined, Devoted, Disciplined, Discrete, Discriminating, Dynamic, Easy-Going, Eager, Efficient, Elegant, Empathetic, Enduring, Energetic, Enlightened, Enthusiastic, Entrepreneurial, Excellent, Exciting, Experienced, Fair-Minded, Faithful, Farsighted, Fast-learner, Feeling, Fierce, Flexible, Flourishing, Focused, Forgiving, Fortuitous, Free, Fresh, Friendly, Frugal, Funny, Generous, Gentle, Good, Glorious, Graceful, Gratuitous, Great, Groovy, Handsome, Happy, Harmonious, Healthy, Heavenly, Helpful, Holistic, Hopeful, Humble, Humorous, Honest, Humble, Idealistic, Imaginative, Having Integrity, Independent, Individualistic, Industrious, Innovative, Insightful, Inspirational, Interesting, Intelligent, Intense, Intuitive, Inventive, Invigorating, Joyful, Juicy, Just, Kind, Leading or Leader, Learned, Loving, Loyal, Lucky, Luscious, Luxurious, Macho, Magical, Manly, Magnificent, Masculine, Mature, Moral, Motivating, Natural, Neat, Needed, Noticeable, Nurturing, Obedient, Objective, Open, Optimistic, Original, Organized, Outgoing, Outstanding, Passionate, Patient, Peaceful, Perceptive, Persevering, Persistent, Persuasive, Playful, Poetic, Polite, Popular, Powerful, Practical, Precious, Precise, Profound, Progressive, Proud, Professional, Punctual, Pure, Purposeful, Questioning, Quick-witted, Ravishing, Realistic, Refreshing, Reliable, Resilient, Resourceful, Respectful, Responsible, Rich, Romantic, Rosy, Seductive, Selfless, Self-Aware, Self-Confident, Self-Disciplined, Sensitive, Serene, Sexy, Sharp, Simple, Sincere, Sizzling, Skilled, Smart, Smooth, Soft, Special, Spectacular, Spiritual, Splendid, Spontaneous, Stable, Steadfast, Strategic, Stunning, Strong, Strongwilled, Stylish, Successful, Supportive, Supreme, Sympathetic, Tactful, Talented, Tasty, Tenacious, Tender, Terrific, Thinking, Thorough, Thoughtful, Thrifty, Thriving, Tolerant, Tough, Trusting, Trustworthy, Unassuming, Understanding, Unwavering, Uplifting, Useful, Valuable, Verbal, Vibrant, Vital, Warm, Wholesome, Willing, Wise, Worthy, Youthful, Yummy.
Once you have your personal collection of defining qualities, you are armed to write a college essay that reveals your true character.
In most essays, you will typically focus on one main quality at at time, otherwise they will end up too general and not as powerful.
If you are starting an essay, read the prompt closely and see if it is trying to get you to share your core qualities.
Sometimes a prompt will ask you to write about someone other than yourself–a role model, leader or mentor in your life.
In these essays, the trick is to identify the qualities they demonstrated and what you learned from them.
Here’s my Jumpstart Guide to help you start most college application essays or personal statements, such as those that ask you to describe an experience, talent, accomplishment, achievement, dilemma, risk, etc. (It’s perfect for any of the Common App prompts as well as the UC prompts.)
Also, any prompt that asks you to show how something has influenced you–whether it’s a person, an issue or even a fictional character–you can’t go wrong by linking that influence to your defining qualities.
Once you have a defining quality you want to write about, all you need are some examples of how you developed, refined or applied that quality, and then why it was important to yourself, to someone else and/or to the world, and BOOM, you have a great college essay!
Want to know the best way to relate an example of your defining qualities in your essays?
Read about how to write an anecdote to show the reader about your defining/core quality. Usually one of the best ways to share your defining quality is to tell a story about it.
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
In How to Tell a Story, you will learn how to show your defining quality instead of just tell about it.