Friday, November 30, 2012

Your College Essay: How to Express Uniqueness When You Think You Have None

US Navy 070823-N-3271W-004 Two young brothers ...
US Navy 070823-N-3271W-004 Two young brothers enjoy a spin in the Navy's Accelerate Your Life Experience that was on hand for a Back to School Bash at Julian Coleman Middle School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Lynell Engelmyer

You're not the best athlete in the region. You haven't started your own charity. Frankly, you've never had to overcome any significant life obstacles.

So, what do you write about that doesn't sound like millions of teens could have written the same exact 500 word essay?

Alas, there's hope, but first, put the pen and paper, err, keyboard away. It's time for some introspection.

In helping students identify what to write about, I ask them to answer the following question, "What have you done that you are truly proud of"? Your answer isn't limited to something school related. Really do some soul searching. Before you answer, here are a few ground rules:

- Your answer can't be vague, so an answer like "I'm proud of my grades" won't really help you, but talking about the fact that your GPA, or a grade in a class is much more than meets the eye because of what might have happened behind the scenes that your transcript doesn't reflect.

- Be very, very specific. You're 17 or 18 years old, no one is really expecting you to have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro or have won a Nobel Prize. Sometimes, however, a small anecdote about your life can reveal a lot about you. One student told me all he did on an extracurricular basis was babysit. After some prying, I found out that he babysat for his baby cousin so the baby's young, unmarried mother could continue with her college education. That's pretty powerful.

- SHOW, DON'T TELL - don't tell me that you're hardworking ... SHOW me. Tell me a vivid story, it will make a much more lasting impact on your reader and it will make your story more convincing, engaging and memorable.

Here are some anecdotes that will illustrate these points and demonstrate what does or does not work.

Example #1: Writing about your family

This isn't typically an earth shattering subject. We all have a family. You haven't necessarily been through any monumentally challenging times together, but how do you uniquely express their importance to you?

Compare these two openers:

My family is very important to me. My younger brother, mother and father are all very special to me, and I value our relationship. My parents are very supportive of all that my brother and I do.

The phone rings. It's Tommy calling to indicate that our friends are going to see the new James Bond movie tonight. I've been eagerly awaiting this new flick, but before I blurt out my excited acceptance, I stop myself. This is the same night that my family has been planning to get our Christmas tree. This is always a special event. We pick out the tree as a family, bring it home, decorate it while consuming hot chocolate and my mom's outstanding homemade cookies while my dad bellows off-key Christmas carols. I have not missed this event in 16 years, and I certainly was not going to start now. The same movie would be playing tomorrow night.

The first example tells while the second example shows.

Example #2: The supermarket cashier

Let's suppose you don't have a significant number of extracurricular activities. Perhaps it's because you work hard at your job as a cashier at the supermarket. There are thousands of teens who do this same job. How do you write about this uniquely? Here are the stories of two people who did:

Joe started his 1000 character extracurricular activity essay on the Common Application talking about how he missed some gatherings with his friends and how sometimes he had to get up much earlier than he'd like, but that his job at the Supermarket had taught him a tremendous amount. He learned discipline because absences and lateness aren't tolerated if he's going to keep his job. He learned the value of a dollar since it takes quite a number of hours for his earnings to accumulate, so he spends his money wisely. He's also talked about the friends he has made and how he considers this group to be like a second family.


Another student worked as a cashier at a grocery store, and discussed her experiences like a sociological observation. She learned an awful lot about people based on their behavior as they stood in line or how they treated the cashiers. She shared some of these stories and told of how it made her more tolerant and more appreciative of small acts of civility and common courtesy.

Example #3: Community Service

A lot of students are engaged in community service, and a great number of students who choose to write about their civic involvement tend to employ some pretty overused expressions in conveying their thoughts. "It was very fulfilling", "I enjoy the feeling that I get when I help other people" or "it makes me feel good to help people who are less fortunate" are vague and overused. Again, tell me a story that SHOWS me how this work has impacted you. Examine the following example:

Nathan volunteered to help recovery efforts after serious flooding in a neighboring community. Nathan opens by describing himself as a 6 foot tall, 200 pound athlete, and, amidst the destruction, the sight that struck him most was a girl's tiny pink Barbie purse found in a mud pile. After seeing that, it really hit him that a little girl and her family, had lost so much. He then goes on to describe the work he did including carrying mold infested wood to dumpsters and how he learned to sand wood floors, install vinyl siding, and more. He also talked about learning how to comfort people who have lost everything.

No vague, over-arching statements could have made Nathan's story as vivid and as descriptive as his telling us what he saw through his own eyes. Breaking your story down into anecdotes is a fantastic strategy and will make your story much more engaging to your reader. Your reader will understand that your small story is probably an example of a greater whole, and your anecdotes will make your story much more memorable.

I'll leave you with a final anecdote that was one of my favorite college essays, but not because anything the writer did was so earth-shattering, but instead, I like it because she showed me that she's incredibly hard-working. This is something many of us can say, but how do we show it?

Cari was a solidly strong high school student. She was on the track team, but was not a standout athlete. She was also in some clubs. Her junior year was rough. She suffered a severe case of mononucleosis (Mono) and missed a good bit of school. She suffered a stress fracture in her leg and was unable to participate in track which was her main social outlet, and then there was the crowning glory of her terrible year and she started her essay with this story.

She describes a feeling of nausea. She mentions looking out the window and breathing deeply to try to keep it at bay, but there was just nothing she could do, so in the middle of the SAT's, she threw up. She goes on to talk about the mono, the missed school, the broken leg and anything else that went wrong during her junior year. She describes how the adults in her life suggested she drop her AP class because she was far behind in her work, but she refused. She talks about how hard she had to work to climb out of the hole she was in, but she just chipped away at it.

In the end, her grades were as strong as always and no one would have known anything went wrong by looking at her transcript. She even was elected president of a club for her senior year. Then, in her closing sentence, she said, "In case you're wondering, yes, I did make it to the bathroom during the SATs.

Lynell Engelmyer is the co-founder of College Application Wizard, a unique and sanity-saving college admission and financial aid application management tool. Check it out at

Lynell has over 20 years of experience in college admissions and financial aid. She has made several guest appearances on a local National Public Radio affiliate call-in show and speaks to groups of middle and high school students and their families. She currently has her own independent college counseling practice and volunteers with under-represented students through community based organizations locally and nationally.

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