So you want your college essay to show admissions how amazing you are, but you don’t want to say, “Hey admissions—I’m amazing!”
Displaying your accomplishments without bravado is harder than most people think, especially in an assignment like the college application essay, which, when done well, can be a vehicle for highlighting some of your best assets and triumphs. Admissions truly wants to know what distinguishes you from the competition, but who wants to read 650 words of someone tooting his or her own horn? (Not me!) Talking about yourself requires a fine balance between humility and horn tooting.
Over the course of my 12 years of essay advising, I have worked with teenagers of all styles and comfort levels when it comes to presenting their talents and achievements. There are those who routinely undersell themselves (“Sure, I raised $10,000 for cancer research last year, but it’s not a big deal.”), and those would fill a sheet of paper long enough to reach the moon with the details of their every last exploit if you gave them the chance. (“I once decided not to kill a spider in the house and released it back into the wild instead, because I have so much respect for other living things.”) In between these extreme ends of the spectrum, fall the many students who feel moderately comfortable talking about themselves and their successes, but don’t know how to do it in a way that doesn’t feel braggy or self-important.
But it is absolutely possible to land in that sweet spot between overly humble and obnoxiously self-congratulatory. Here are some tips for displaying your landmark successes and defining these moments with grace and without the risk of leaving a sour taste in the mouth of an admissions officer.
Describe your actions and let your accomplishments speak for themselves. This is an offshoot of the classic “show—don’t tell” rule. Telling is boring. Showing engages. It reveals an understanding of the event or activity in question and can reveal thoughtful details about your involvement. Are you a Model United Nations champion? Describing the process of preparing for a tournament—your methodical preparation and bizarre-but-hilarious pre-competition rituals, for example—will allow admissions to grasp your level of investment in the activity, your sense of pride in your mastery of a subject, even your sense of humor. Revealing the process behind your passions can even show an admissions officer why you are so good at what you do. Admissions officers are insightful. They don’t need you tell them how to interpret your achievements. Describe your actions and let admissions infer their value.
Don’t list your activities. Instead, detail your motivations. Providing admissions with a list of your résumé’s greatest hits is a surefire way to sound like a self-impressed blowhard. Also: Zzzzzzzzz. These activity inventories are sure to appear elsewhere on your application (like in the Activities section of the Common or Coalition applications). What admissions will find truly impressive and interesting about your service initiative or your fundraiser or your gold medal at the math fair isn’t the fact of your accomplishment or participation, but rather the reasons behind your actions. Qualities like empathy, self-reflection, and determination don’t reveal themselves on your transcript, so show admissions your personality and humanity by shedding light on why you do what you do. Is there a reason you volunteering for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society instead of, say, Memorial Sloan Kettering? Why do you wake up at 4 a.m. to dive into a freezing cold pool every morning? What drives you, and how do you apply that motivation to your interests and goals? That is what admissions wants to know.
Be grateful. Do you feel lucky to have organized a book drive that has given underserved members of your community access to some of your favorite novels? Does debating the safety of long-term cell phone use on a Sunday afternoon make you nerdily giddy? How can you show admissions that you enjoy life, that you’re invested in your commitments, and that you think about how you have come to be in the place you’re in? Expressing gratitude is a surefire way to contextualize your standout moments and signal that you understand the importance, not just of your own actions, but of their relation to the bigger picture.
Related: 3 Big College Essay Taboos—and When to Break Them Anyway
Ultimately, no matter who you are and what you have done in the first 17 years of your life, representing yourself with confidence in the college essay is crucial. You don’t have to have a heavy hand with the self-praise (and probably shouldn’t), but this is the time to give yourself some credit and show admissions what you’re made of beyond your transcript, test scores, and activity lists. There is a balance to be found in the presentation of your finest qualities and most impressive triumphs. I know you can achieve it because—as admissions will soon find out through your own subtle cues—you’re pretty amazing.
Stacey Brook is a writer, admissions expert, and the founder and chief advisor of College Essay Advisors, an education company that offers online courses and in-person college essay advising to students around the world. Brook has over a decade’s worth of experience and teaches the Supplemental Essay Writing course at nytEducation: The School of The New York Times. She has helped more than 1,000 students build lifelong writing skills while crafting compelling and effective admissions essays.
But Mr. Cranberg thumbed his nose at that convention, taking on the tremendous cost of the piles of mail schools send to potential students, and the waste that results from the effort. He figured that he received at least $200 worth of pitches in the past year or so.
“Why, in an era of record-high debt and unemployment, are colleges not reallocating these ludicrous funds to aid their own students instead of extending their arms far and wide to students they have never met?” he asked in the essay.
Antioch College seemed to think that was a perfectly reasonable question and accepted him, though he will attend Oberlin College instead, to which he did not submit the essay.
“It’s a bold move to critique the very institution he was applying to,” said Mr. Bauld, who also teaches English at in . “But here’s somebody who knows he can make it work with intelligence and humor.”
Indeed, Mr. Cranberg’s essay includes asides about applicants’ gullibility and the college that sent him a DHL “priority” envelope, noting inside that he was a priority to the college. “The humor here is not in the jokes,” Mr. Bauld added. “It originates in a critical habit of mind, and the kind of mind that is in this essay is going to play out extremely well in any class that he’s in.”
Admissions professionals often warn people not to think that they can write their way into the freshman class. “The essay is one document that, even in the best of circumstances, is written by an individual telling one story,” said Shawn Abbott, the assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions at . “I don’t believe that any one writing sample should trump what they did over four years.”
Still, he acknowledged that his staff had been taken with the story told by Lyle Li, a 19-year-old resident who applied this year. He wrote about his family’s restaurant and his mother, an immigrant from who once wanted to be a doctor and now works behind a cash register.
“When I visit my friends, I see the names of elite institutions adorning the living room walls,” wrote Mr. Li, a senior at Regis High School in . “I am conscious that these framed diplomas are testaments to the hard work and accomplishments of my friends’ parents and siblings. Nevertheless, the sight of them was an irritating reminder of the disparity between our households. I was not the upper-middle-class kid on Park Avenue. Truth be told, I am just some kid from Brooklyn. Instead of diplomas and accolades, my parents’ room emits a smell from the restaurant uniforms they wear seven days a week, all year round.”
Mr. Abbott said that N.Y.U. received plenty of essays about the immigrant experience. So Mr. Li risked writing one of many stories about long odds and hard work in an unfamiliar, unforgiving place.
But he did not fall into that trap and will be attending N.Y.U. this fall. “His essay brought his family’s circumstance and background into Technicolor,” Mr. Abbott said. “He paints a very vivid picture of what life is really like in his home. I think he’s proud of his accomplishments and work ethic, but there’s also a humility each day when he takes off his preppy blue blazer in front of his mom.”
The essay by Ana Castro, an 18-year-old senior at the Doane Stuart School in Rensselaer, N.Y., is about not quite arriving, in spite of having been born in the United States. And her essay for , which she will attend in the fall, centers on her desire to serve in the . It opens with a joke about her hating clowns and leeches and tells a sad story of a visit to the , where her father refused to let her play with the destitute boy next door. “My heart broke, not because I was now stuck eating plantains by myself in the stinging sun, but because that boy experienced a level of poor I never knew.”
Then she makes a startling statement that stopped both me and Mr. Bauld as we were reading it for the first time. “I have never seen the United States as my country,” Ms. Castro wrote. “I have never felt total patriotism to any country. I do not instantly think of staying here to help ‘my home,’ because I do not consider the United States my home. The Earth is ‘my home.’ ”
To Monica Inzer, Hamilton’s dean of admission and financial aid, bold declarations like this one are a strong sign of authenticity if nothing else. “Lots of essays have been doctored or written by other people,” she said. “You know that a parent didn’t write this. I don’t know how I know, but I do.”
Mr. Bauld knows how he knows. “There’s always an attempt in some of these college admissions factories to smooth out a student’s edges,” he said. “But what I loved about this piece is that there is no attempt to smooth out anything.”
As for Ms. Kumar, the 18-year-old Princeton applicant, her essay wasn’t so much smooth as it was slick, gliding effortlessly from her breakfast table to the manicured campus of Princeton to the “occidental bubble” of her school classroom. There’s a detour onto the city bus and then a quick trip to before coming back to the “towering turrets” of again.
Nevertheless, Princeton rejected her, and when I approached the university to find out if it had anything to do with her essay, it cited its policy of not commenting on any applicants or admissions decisions. I told its spokesman, Martin Mbugua, that other schools had commented on their own applicants once the students gave them permission, but he was unmoved.
Ms. Kumar suggested that her grades might not have been quite high enough, but Mr. Bauld contended that Princeton should have been swayed by her words.
“One of the things that makes this essay is her tone,” he said. “It could have been, ‘Princeton should be poorer,’ but she opens it as an inquiry. What she does is that she listens very carefully to what you have assigned her to do, and as a response to that, she says, ‘Well, let me ask you this!’ ”
Next week, Ms. Kumar will take the stage as Marty in the Science production of and she’ll collect her diploma on June 21. In the fall, she’ll attend , for which she wrote no essays about the university’s level of affluence.
To Mr. Bauld, that’s Princeton’s loss. “She is that person who is always going to give an interesting answer, even to the most boring question,” he said. “That’s my confidence in reading it, and I’d want that person in my class as a teacher.”Continue reading the main story