How to write about yourself in a college essay

An insightful college admissions essay requires deep self-reflection, authenticity, and a balance between confidence and vulnerability. Your essay shouldn’t be a resume of your experiences, but instead should tell a story that demonstrates your most important values and qualities.

To write about your achievements and qualities without sounding arrogant, use specific stories to illustrate them. You can also write about challenges you’ve faced or mistakes you’ve made to show vulnerability and personal growth.

Start with self-reflection

Before you start writing, spend some time reflecting to identify your values and qualities. You should do a comprehensive brainstorming session, but here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What are three words your friends or family would use to describe you, and why would they choose them?
  • Whom do you admire most and why?
  • What are the top five things you are thankful for?
  • What has inspired your hobbies or future goals?
  • What are you most proud of? Ashamed of?

As you self-reflect, consider how your values and goals reflect your prospective university’s program and culture, and brainstorm stories that demonstrate the fit between the two.

How to write about challenges and mistakes

Writing about difficult experiences can be an effective way to show authenticity and create an emotional connection to the reader, but choose carefully which details to share, and aim to demonstrate how the experience helped you learn and grow.

Be vulnerable

It’s not necessary to have a tragic story or a huge confession. But you should openly share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences to evoke an emotional response from the reader. Even a cliché or mundane topic can be made interesting with honest reflection. This honesty is a preface to self-reflection and insight in the essay’s conclusion.

Bad example
My mother’s death taught me that life is short.
Good example
Losing my mother was like losing my breath. An empty chair at the dinner table, my father’s inability to find where my mother kept the coffee filters, or even routine trips to the grocery store一these were just a few reminders of her absence. My father started road biking to deal with his grief, and every Saturday morning, he invited me to come along. Although the darkness of 5 a.m. always tempted me to fall back into a slumber I would later regret, I would jump out of bed and throw on my awkwardly padded uniform and clunky bike shoes. Initially, I hated road biking, especially the stopping part. At every red light, I would frantically struggle to unclip my bike shoes from the pedals, often leaning the wrong way and falling sideways to the ground while still clipped into the bike. Though frustrated with a bruised ego and scraped knees, I would always get back up to try again.

Don’t overshare

With difficult topics, you shouldn’t focus too much on negative aspects. Instead, use your challenging circumstances as a brief introduction to how you responded positively.

Bad example
I had a tough senior year after my girlfriend and I broke up because she cheated on me.
Good example
After a messy breakup, I had trouble focusing on my AP classes, band practice, and debate club. But at my after-school restaurant job, I felt a sense of peace from simple, mindless tasks such as folding napkins or wiping tables. My coworkers sensed I was troubled and always offered kind words to me, usually in a mixture of broken English sprinkled with Spanish. Inspired by their effort to comfort me in English, I started learning Spanish.

Share what you have learned

It’s okay to include your failure or mistakes in your essay if you include a lesson learned. After telling a descriptive, honest story, you should explain what you learned and how you applied it to your life.

Reflecting on a lesson learned
When I first arrived in St. Petersburg for a semester abroad, my knowledge of Russia was limited to stereotypes of cold winters, vodka-loving people, and communism. I had taken two semesters of Russian and was excited to practice. In the first few days, I was impressed by my own ability to say good morning or ask where the bathroom was. But during the first family dinner with my host family, I addressed my host mother Natanya as babushka, thinking that it was a sign of respect. My host brother Peter burst out laughing and roared in English, “Yes, pass the bread, grandma!” My host mother’s cheeks grew redder than Ron Weasley’s hair. I felt so ashamed. However, my unfamiliarity with Russian didn’t deter my good-natured host mother from teaching me proper terms for addressing elders or how to make homemade blini or beef stroganoff. On the other hand, my host sister Sofia took it upon herself to teach me how to flirt and swear in Russian. Despite my countless language mistakes, the Petrov family always corrected me with kindness and patience.

After returning to Chicago, I began volunteering at a free legal clinic that specializes in immigration cases. Every Monday night, I cherish the laughs and smiles from people who attend the free English tutorial I host at the clinic. Whenever they make a grammar mistake, I always smile and encourage them, knowing how hard it is to learn a new language. We bond over homemade chocolate chip cookies and freshly brewed coffee that I bring in the hopes that these people will feel treated as friends, not foreigners.

How to write about your achievements and qualities

While it’s good to sell your strengths, you also don’t want to come across as arrogant. Instead of just stating your extracurricular activities, achievements, or personal qualities, aim to discreetly incorporate them into your story.

Brag indirectly

Mention your extracurricular activities or awards in passing, not outright, to avoid sounding like you’re bragging from a resume.

Bad example
I am the captain of my varsity football team.
Good example
I peel off my varsity basketball uniform and jump into the shower to wash away my sweat, exhaustion, and anxiety. As the hot water relaxes my muscles from today’s 50 suicide drills, I mull over what motivating words I should say to my teammates before next week’s championship game against Westmont High.

Use stories to prove your qualities

Even if you don’t have any impressive academic achievements or extracurriculars, you can still demonstrate your academic or personal character. But you should use personal examples to provide proof. In other words, show evidence of your character instead of just telling.

Bad example
I am an honest person, even in difficult situations.
Good example
I wanted to blame it all on my brother. But I gathered my courage, said hasta la vista to my freedom, and confessed to my father that I had put a dent in his beloved ’69 Mustang when I had taken it out for a late-night drive with my friends.

How to write about a cliché experience

Many high school students write about common topics such as sports, volunteer work, or their family. Your essay topic doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, but do try to include unexpected personal details and your authentic voice to make your essay memorable.

To find an original angle, try these techniques:

  • Focus on a specific moment, and describe the scene using your five senses.
  • Mention objects that have special significance to you.
  • Instead of following a common story arc, include a surprising twist or insight.

Your unique voice can shed new perspective on a common human experience while also revealing your personality. When read out loud, the essay should sound like you are talking.

Bad example
My older brother Jacob is the person I admire the most. Even though he used to get on my nerves, I now miss him because he lives abroad.
Good example
Sometimes, Jacob makes me crazy. My AP English teacher once said, “You only truly know someone if you’ve seen them laugh and get angry.” Well, if that’s true, then my brother knows me better than all the lyrics to his favorite Pink Floyd album, Dark Side of the Moon. My brother-less friends have claimed they want an older brother to intimidate their boyfriends or protect them from danger. But my brother is far from this stereotype. During weekly Sunday dinners, he would chat incessantly with my boyfriend about fantasy football or Breaking Bad. Whenever there was a spider in the bathroom, he was the one shrieking, and I was the designated spider murderer. But now, his absence makes me even miss when he used to belt Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” in my school’s carpool lane一just to embarrass me一as he picked me up every afternoon in his faded red 2008 Corolla. For the past two years, I have had mere minutes to catch up with him on Zoom while he’s been stationed in Djibouti as a Marine.

Frequently asked questions about college application essays

What kind of self-reflection should I do for my college essay?

First, spend time reflecting on your core values and character. You can start with these questions:

  1. What are three words your friends or family would use to describe you, and why would they choose them?
  2. Whom do you admire most and why?
  3. What are you most proud of? Ashamed of?

However, you should do a comprehensive brainstorming session to fully understand your values. Also consider how your values and goals match your prospective university’s program and culture. Then, brainstorm stories that illustrate the fit between the two.

How do I write about my challenges and mistakes?

Including difficult experiences or failures can be a great way to show vulnerability and authenticity, but be careful not to overshare, and focus on showing how you matured from the experience.

How do I write about my achievements and qualities?

Through specific stories, you can weave your achievements and qualities into your essay so that it doesn’t seem like you’re bragging from a resume.

How can I make a cliché topic unique?

Include specific, personal details, and use your authentic voice to shed a new perspective on a common human experience.

Is this article helpful?
Kirsten Courault

Kirsten studied political economy at U.C. Berkeley and has seven years of experience as a writer, editor, and English teacher. She cherishes helping students unearth their unique stories for college admissions essays.

1 comment

Kirsten Courault
Kirsten Courault (Scribbr Team)
September 21, 2021 at 6:34 PM

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