Essay Brainstorming — Lesson #2: Who are YOU?

Phoebe Keyes, Senior College Admission Advisor Jun 2020

After you’ve completed our first brainstorming exercise, make a list of every trait you want colleges to know about you. (Sometimes, this is easier to do with someone who knows you really well.) Cast a wide net, and don’t be afraid to get specific. 

Some of these traits might be obviously college-related and could include everything from your work ethic to your writing ability, organizational skills, and successes with your high school debate team. These traits tend to be the easiest to come up with, though, so push yourself further. What are you like as a friend? As a sibling? As a son or daughter? What sets you apart from your peer group? Are you funny? Polite? Cool under pressure? How would your third grade teacher describe you? (And how might that differ from the way your current teachers would describe you?) 

Then, dig deeper still. What are the tiny qualities that make you you? Think small and specific. What traits are unique to your personality and perspective? What do you care about that most people don’t? How is your experience of the world slightly different from those around you? Do you hate something everyone loves? Love something everyone hates? What are your most ingrained habits? What do you like most about yourself?  

Once your list feels complete, start at the top, and put an asterisks next to every quality that couldn’t be gleaned from other sections of your application. For example, colleges can infer that you’re a dedicated student from your GPA. They’ll know you’re a champion debater or talented baseball player from the activities section of the application. And your recommendation letters will likely speak to your organizational abilities. Don’t cross out these traits yet, but focus on the smaller, less obvious qualities. 

Though it might not always feel like it, college applications are pretty short. You have limited space, so you want to use every section to its fullest, and you never want to repeat yourself. Remember, colleges don’t just want to admit star students with stellar extracurriculars. They want to admit engaged community members who make good roommates and push class discussion in interesting and productive directions. Your personal statement is the best place show schools who you really are and the kind of impact you’ll make on campus and in the world. Most importantly, the more specific and authentic your essay, the more likely you are to be remembered when it comes time for schools to make their decisions. 

Keep this list somewhere safe (along with the list from our first brainstorming exercise). You’ll need both for our next final brainstorming post. Stay tuned.

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