For a high school senior, the Common Application personal statement essay may seem like the most important 650 words he or she will ever write. Throughout high school, students are coached to write the perfect "personal essay" to show why they are qualified to extend their academic careers to colleges and universities. There is intense pressure to make sure that this essay accurately represents one's intelligence, insight, experiences, and qualifications -- all in a concise, well-articulated format. So, how then, is a student supposed to represent him or herself in fewer words than an average newspaper editorial?
With some of the most competitive schools in the country, such as UCLA, UC Berkeley, and NYU, all receiving over 40,000 applications each year, there is clear pressure for applicants to stand out, and the personal essay is often the time to do so. It is understandable for students to draw from unique, and often unfortunate, experiences to appeal to admissions staff. However, in the midst of trying to set themselves apart, many students can be found competing for the most tragic story for their essay, rather than for a holistic representation of themselves as students and human beings. A seemingly beautiful opportunity to express oneself often takes a negative turn when students try to justify their mistakes or a poor grade through the telling of personal tragedies.
This is not to say that students shouldn't write about challenging experiences. We are all entitled to feel proud of our accomplishments, as well as overcoming adversity. The open-ended nature and variety of prompts allow students to truly write about what ever they please. In fact, one of the Common App's essay prompts asks students to recall an experience of failure.
What truly matters is how applicants address writing about hardship. When I was writing my college essay, I thought about discussing the many moves my family made across the country through my childhood. It was certainly difficult moving to new a new place where I knew no one, but these experiences were also incredibly enlightening. I learned to appreciate diversity in many forms and I gained a unique perspective on life. I ended up writing about how these experiences and others combined with my passion for writing inspired me to begin writing a memoir-like book of essays. My essay was far from perfect, although through the college application process, I learned how to use my passion for writing to express my feelings about experiences of my life, both difficult and joyous.
Undoubtedly a better example of a college essay comes from Kwasi Enin, the Long Island teenager who was accepted to all eight Ivy League schools this year and has since committed to Yale University. In his essay, excerpts of which can be found here, Enin shares his passion for the violin and how his love of music has influenced his life.
"The most important task of a leader is to create harmony between each member of the group, which reveals the group's maximum potential. With improvement and balance comes success and music taught me all of these virtues." Drawing from his own experience as a musician, Enin relates his musical passion to leadership and working as part of a team, showing how playing the violin has shaped his identity and values.
Writing about hardships, while it is easy to focus on the negatives, can actually be a positive healing experience. This type of writing allows students to realize their own resiliency and passions. Regardless of one's interests, whether it be writing, a sport, or music like Enin, passion will shine through in an essay. Through writing about both challenging and positive experiences, students should not sell themselves short and rather emphasize their passions as a result of these experiences, not despite them.