A smart dad sent me an email recently asking how college-bound students could work in related achievements and accomplishments into their personal, narrative-style essay, without sounding like they were blowing their own horn.

It’s definitely a fine line. Students write these first-person essays as part of the application process to convince colleges to admit them.

How can they not strut their best stuff? 

The whole challenge reminded me of  humblebragging.

If you live on a different planet (or don’t use social media) and haven’t heard of this word for phony humility, it’s basically the fine art of boasting about yourself and making it sound like an accident.

The trick is to cloak your bragging with other comments, which make it seem as though the impressive part just kind of slipped out.

The more subtle, the better.

Did I mention how much my hand hurts from signing copies of my new book?

Even though I promote a more soft sell in these essays, I believe students can still use them as an opportunity to share details about their impressive activities, interests and accomplishments.

It’s all how you present them.


When casting around for a topic for a personal narrative (core essay), I usually start by identifying a student’s core or defining qualities.

After we land on a good one, we root around for interesting stories, moments, experiences or incidents that the writer can use as a real-life example of that quality to start the essay (called an anecdote.)

The whole idea is that the writer shares examples of that core quality in action, instead of simply explaining how they are that way and making a case for why it’s so impressive.

This is hard to explain. Hmmm. See if you can tell the difference between these two approaches by a student writing about a core quality. Let’s say he was a “resilient” (bounce back after defeat) guy.

A. I’ve always been a resilient person.

I pride myself in my ability to pull myself back up even after I fail. I have a positive attitude and always try to set new goals, and not let minor setbacks get in my way.

Even when I failed my driver’s license test five times, I went back with a new determination to pass it. I always succeed when I decide not to let anything stop me.

B. It was my sixth attempt to pass my driver’s license test. The first time I made two left turns without using my blinker. The second time I ran over a traffic cone and didn’t even notice.

During my latest attempt, I accidentally punched the gas instead of the brake, and I just sat there and cried.

But weeks later, I was back, hands on the wheel at 10 and 2. Not even the pounding rain was going to stop me.



So that’s the difference between A. talking about what you did in order to impress the reader and B. sharing examples of what you did. 
If this writer was writing a personal essay that showcased his resilience, and started with this anecdote of “the time” he took his driver’s license test under duress, he most likely will have opportunities later in the essay to weave in other examples of his ability to recover from setbacks.
This is how you can work in related accomplishments in your essay without sounding like you’re bragging.

* * *

Later in the essay, this writer might share some other areas in his life or in his recent past where he got knocked down–in his social life, academic life, sports or other activities–but recovered because of his resiliency.
He is not sharing these accomplishments, achievement or activities just because they are impressive, but because he just happened to be doing them when he got knocked down–and recovered.
See the difference?


In your essay, simply relate what you did, and why–not that you were the one who did something impressive.

If what you did and why were impressive, so be it!

Or if what you were doing when you faced a setback and were then resilient just happened to be impressive (you were working on your hand-built battery for your AP Chemistry lab or you were sewing quilts to give away to children in the local hospital), so be it!

These examples do have a hint of humblebragging to them, but you can’t help it if you are involved in impressive activities, right?


Just don’t force in activities or accomplishments that you think are impressive just to, well, impress readers. They will see through that in a heartbeat.

The examples you share need to support the larger point you are making about yourself in the essay.

If you stick to that, you most likely won’t cross the line into showing off.

(Also, definitely don’t waste precious words trying to work in an activity or accomplishment in your essay if the college will learn about it somewhere else in your application.)



In your essay, let the impressive activities fall into the background, or serve as a backdrop.

They do this naturally if you stick to what you were doing (the specifics), why you were doing it, what you thought about at the time, and what you learned in the process.

Another example: If you are writing about “the time” a tree that crashed on the roof of the church you were helping build in Malaysia, focus on what you did to keep others safe, or how you figured out how to get it off the roof–and just let the impressive fact that you were in Malaysia helping build a church fall in the background.

Truly impressive facts pop off the page all by themselves.

You want to show that you were too busy demonstrating your core quality (problem solver? resourceful? leadership?) to worry about how you came across.

If it happens to be impressive, so be it!

A lot of my students have no idea that they are sounding boastful until we read their essay out loud together, and I flag parts that cross the line.

Just ask whoever you have read your essay to look for parts where you might sound like you are bragging or come across as unlikeable.

Insist that they be honest with you! Often, you just need to tone it down.

I would love to help you more, but I have to catch up on my accounting records for my booming book sales to keep up with the demand!

Sometimes it’s really hard and overwhelming when so many people are knocking down my door for my help and advice 24/7.  ; )