Two qualities of a great college personal essay

Last Updated on October 21, 2020 by Leigh Moore

This week, I called on our essay advisor, Ryan Perry, to share some thoughts about good writing for the Common App college personal essay.  Ryan is a young actor and filmmaker whose affinity for storytelling also makes him a stellar essay coach.  He earned a BA in Government from the College of William and Mary and also holds an MS from UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. To hear more from Ryan, listen to his interview on our podcast.

Detail and authenticity

All great stories share two qualities: detail and authenticity. Detail allows readers to engage specific parts of their imagination based on the precise road map provided. Authenticity, meanwhile, brings energy to the piece. We all know people who can discuss a favorite topic with overwhelming energy because of their authentic interest. These two features drive any story to answer the inherent question of why. Why this story matters. Why the audience should care. Why this person deserves to tell this story.

I often work with students as they craft their college essays. This opportunity affords me a peek into the process of writing with high stakes. As someone who enjoys a daily journal or the occasional blog post, most of my writing falls into the “leisure” category. These students, however, feel that their work will make or break their chances at gaining admission into highly selective schools. The perceived importance of the exercise adds pressure to an already tense time in a young person’s life, so I drive our conversation toward the answer of one question: what is your why?

I want to be a doctor, or I work to gain a scholarship so I can attend the college of my dreams, or I study hard because my parents invest in my education, so I feel the need to repay them. The best students have a why that drives them to put in the extra time and preparation for their schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and sports. I don’t create a “why” for a student because young people usually have their own answer; some of them just need some guidance articulating it. 

Admission officiers

I believe college admissions officers look to answer three main questions when evaluating a student’s application profile: 1) Can this student think critically about the topic at hand? 2) Does this student have a perspective bigger than himself or herself? 3) Does this student have the type of values and morals that we value at our institution? If a student’s application leads to a “yes” for each of those questions, then I feel good about their essay.

If you’re reading this blog as a student, trust yourself. If you’re reading it as a parent, trust your child. Students don’t need to use buzzwords, such as passion, insight, or growth; they have plenty of stories to tell. We just have to ask the right questions.

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