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Articles / Applying to College / The Essay: Detailing Who You Are

The Essay: Detailing Who You Are

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Sept. 27, 2018
The Essay: Detailing Who You Are

The main Common Application (CA) essay can be a challenge, especially for those of you who view writing as one of your lesser talents. There are myriad articles, especially here on College Confidential, to help you negotiate creating a winning CA essay. Coming up with a convincing statement takes time and thought.

In addition to the 650-word-limit CA essay, many colleges require an additional essay or two beyond that. These essays appear on the colleges' CA supplement. Forget about applying to all participating CA schools with just the CA. Lots of colleges, especially the more competitive ones, require additional information.

Some of you college-bound seniors may have been working on your CA essays over the summer. Others of you (perhaps the majority) may be just now confronting them here in late September. To use political campaign terminology, the “October Surprise" for those unfamiliar with college application protocol occurs when the CA “supplements" (complete with their supplemental essays) make their appearance. They pop into view just when many applicants think they've exhausted the last shred of their writing talent.

Let's take a look at how to handle one of the more frequent supplemental prompts that opens the door for you to shift into major marketing mode: “Tell us something about yourself that we can't find elsewhere on your application." One of the frequent themes that runs through my admissions advice here on CC is what I call “student profile marketing." This point bears repeating.

Show Your Talents

Believe it or not, you are a worthy college applicant. Yes, there are colleges out there that would absolutely love to have you (and your tuition dollars) on campus. So adjust your thinking and start viewing yourself as a desirable draft pick!

One variation of the “Tell us something about yourself…" prompt might go something like “What makes you unique?" This requires you to dig deep into your self awareness and come up with still more interesting aspects of who you are, as if you already haven't put enough effort into the rest of your CA information! I have seen many highly accomplished seniors struggle mightily with this question. Why is that?

First of all, many high school seniors don't think they actually are unique. They view themselves as fortunate just to be able to get through the tough courses they're taking while having enough time left for all their activities. Add to this sleep deprivation. A surprising number high academic performers I've seen get five (sometimes fewer) hours of sleep during school year nights. That's not a prudent practice for a growing teenager.

So, let me share with you aspiring collegians a few tips on how to approach the “Anything else?"/"Unique" supplemental essay. By the way, some non-CA-subscribing colleges may also ask this question as part of their regular applications. Again, keep in mind that there's no one else like you in the world, right? You are an original and have much to tell a college about who you are that won't appear on the rest of your application.

Remember — if you don't speak up for yourself in this essay, no one else will. These prompts look something like this:

Beyond your impressive academic credentials and extracurricular accomplishments, what else makes you unique and colorful? We know nobody fits neatly into 500 words or less, but you can provide us with some suggestion of the type of person you are. Anything goes! Inspire us, impress us or just make us laugh. Think of this optional opportunity as show and tell by proxy and with attitude.

[This was an actual, official essay prompt, by the way. I'm tempted to send a note to the college that wrote it and remind them that the proper usage is “500 words or fewer." Maybe they were just trying to be colloquial. Go figure.]

This is a wonderfully wide-open prompt. I especially like this part: “Anything goes! Inspire us, impress us or just make us laugh. Think of this optional opportunity as show and tell by proxy and with attitude." Eureka: “... make us laugh." Humor -- one of my favorite essay elements!

Even if the version of your “Anything else?"/"Unique" prompt doesn't reference humor, keep that approach in mind. If you can make an admissions reader smile (or even laugh), you'll score some points in your favor. Don't believe me? Try to imagine the hundreds (maybe thousands) of deadly dull essays these people read every admissions season. If you can make an impression with some genuine humor, then you've gone a long way in accomplishing your mission.

Humor Helps

An example of applying humor came from one of my clients some years ago. The prompt asked about uniqueness, so I asked this senior to send me a list of aspects that, in her view, made her unique. From our communications, I sensed that she had a good sense of humor. She sent me her list and I had to laugh at a few of her answers to my questionnaire, especially these two: “I'm also the best lie detector when it comes to my brother" and “I can recite the script of any SpongeBob or PowerPuff Girls episode on request."

I can almost guarantee that the admissions offices across America wouldn't be seeing an applicant almost any year who would make those intriguing claims. So, I was right. My client not only had a good sense of humor, but she was also “unique" in entertaining ways.

After reading her list, I suggested that she consider using a humorous approach to this “Anything else …" essay. I'm not talking about a Jimmy Kimmel stand-up routine, but writing about herself in a manner that showed she was someone who had aspects other than stellar academic and EC accomplishments.

She agreed with my strategy for an approach, so I gave her suggestions on how to get started:

Re: “I'm also the best lie detector when it comes to my brother." I asked her if she was an intuitively good judge of others, too. In other words, could she tell a lot about a person quickly, even if she had just met them? This young woman's goal was to become a doctor. I told her that having good instincts and sensitivity about people is also a big plus for physicians in dealing with their patients.

I advised her not to mention being a doctor in this essay, though, since that information was abundantly clear in other parts of her application. I anticipated that her readers, especially those involved with her admission to BS/MD programs, would likely pick up on this trait of intuition and it could be a plus for her, in their eyes.

Next, I suggested a possible structure for the essay:

– Introduction: I thought a great opening sentence might go something like, “When it comes to my brother, I'm the world's best lie detector." From there, she could explain why this is true. First, she could write a little about her brother. What kind of a person is he and what is it about him that makes him so easy to read? To end this paragraph, I suggested mentioning an example or two of when she was able to catch him in an “untruth" (that sounds better than “lie"). Length of paragraph: 100-150 words.

– Following paragraphs: The opening sentence of her second paragraph could be a transition into the broader area of her ability to read other people intuitively. Maybe something like, “My abilities as a walking polygraph have served me well in circumstances outside my home, when I'm (thankfully) away from my brother." This would open the door for her to tell us about her experiences “reading" others. Those “others" could be her friends, classmates, relatives (dare we say “parents"?), even characters in movies or TV shows. Writing about these experiences can occupy several hundred words (maybe two or three more paragraphs).

As for movies and TV, she could spin off on her “I can recite the script of any SpongeBob or Powerpuff Girls episode on request" remark. She could mention how she was sometimes able to anticipate a character's actions or words because of her “detection" instincts. This may sound silly, but again, keep in mind all the predictable drivel admissions readers see in the tons of applications they receive every year.

Remember what the prompt says: “Anything goes! Inspire us, impress us or just make us laugh. Think of this optional opportunity as show and tell by proxy and with attitude." Or something similar to that, depending on the college. Using a similar approach, with the proper “attitude," you should be able to come up with three or four quality paragraphs that total 400-450 words, all of which will culminate in:

– The close: One of the most overlooked weapons in college essays involves its final words. In my view, the best close is a short paragraph comprising just a few sentences. Give them something by which to remember you! A great close also refers back to what you said in the opening. I call this “circularity." For example, I suggested that my client's close might say something like this:

“So, those are the advantages of being a detector of untruths and the natures of others. I could have written more about this, but my brother just said that SpongeBob is on. He wouldn't lie about that! Would he?"

At least from my perspective, this is how to approach and get started on your “Anything else?"/"Unique" essay. The bonus from writing this essay is that you'll then have great material with which to form your response for other colleges' “What makes you you?" prompts.

Try to have some fun with this. Don't view it as drudgery. You'll be glad you did and hopefully improve your chances of getting into those colleges on your list.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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