Students looking for ideas and inspiration on their college application essays should check out the “This I Believe” web site.

It’s an international organization set up in 2004 to help students and adults identify and express through writing personal essays the core values that guide their lives.

Thousands have been collected and published on their site and in books.

Most of these essays could easily double as college application essays, such as for the Common Application or others that ask for personal statements.

In both, you use real-life stories to share your personal philosophy.

In my blog and writing guides, I show students how to start with one of their defining qualities or characteristics, and craft anecdotes (mini stories) from real-life moments that illustrate them to power their essays.

Defining qualities and characteristics shape or reflect our core values or personal philosophies. So you can see how we are talking about the same ideas—there are just different angles to find and share them.


 Another Way to Find Your Perfect Topic!

If you are still scouring your life for a great topic for your college admissions essay, see if the “This I Believe” approach might spark some great ideas.

On their web site, they have a page outlining “essay writing guidelines,” which are almost identical to the approach I advise in my blog and books. Start with a story from your own life. Write in words and phrases that are comfortable for you to speak. Be personal.

These essays almost always share something the writer has learned about his or her self. Often called a “life lesson.”

These are some of the best tips for brainstorming and writing a killer personal essay. Check out their essay writing guidelines.

They include THE BEST storytelling advice:

“Tell a story about you: Be specific. Take your belief out of the ether and ground it in the events that have shaped your core values. Consider moments when belief was formed or tested or changed. Think of your own experience, work, and family, and tell of the things you know that no one else does. Your story need not be heart-warming or gut-wrenching—it can even be funny—but it should be real. Make sure your story ties to the essence of your daily life philosophy and the shaping of your beliefs.”

Did you catch that golden nugget of advice? “Consider moments when belief was formed or tested of changed.”

In your essay, you do not need to tell a story from start to finish. Instead, find a “moment” that illustrates your quality or value or personal philosophy and share that as an anecdote (mini story). A moment when it was formed. A moment it was tested. A moment when it changed.

Start with an anecdote about that significant moment, and go from there to explain what it meant to you, why it mattered and what you learned about yourself from it. BOOM. Awesome college application essay.

Treasure Trove of Sample Personal Essays!

The I Believe folks also share thousands of terrific sample personal essays

I say over and over again how much you can learn from reading other people’s essays. Look for the I Believe essays written by students your age.

You can see the familiar, casual style of these essays as well as check out the wide range of stories and topics that make great essays.

Edward R. Murrow

Background About “This I Believe” from their Web Site

“This I Believe, Inc., was founded in 2004 as an independent, not-for-profit organization that engages youth and adults from all walks of life in writing, sharing, and discussing brief essays about the core values that guide their daily lives.

This I Believe is based on a 1950s radio program of the same name, hosted by acclaimed journalist Edward R. Murrow. Each day, Americans gathered by their radios to hear compelling essays from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller, and Harry Truman as well as corporate leaders, cab drivers, scientists, and secretaries—anyone able to distill into a few minutes the guiding principles by which they lived. These essayists’ words brought comfort and inspiration to a country worried about the Cold War, McCarthyism, and racial division.

In reviving This I Believe, executive producer Dan Gediman said, ‘The goal is not to persuade Americans to agree on the same beliefs. Rather, the hope is to encourage people to begin the much more difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from their own.’ ”

Attention English Teachers!

“Teachers around the country—and around the world—have embraced This I Believe as a powerful educational tool. They have downloaded our educational curricula, posters, and brochures for using This I Believe in middle and high school classrooms and in college courses. These curricula help teachers guide students through exploring their beliefs and then composing personal essays about them. The students learn about themselves and their peers, and experience the delight of realizing their views and voices have value.”

So if you already use this as an educational tool in your classroom, you could easily apply it to helping students write their college application essays!