Writing your college admissions essay (often called the “personal statement”) is hard. I get it. (More than you know.) You’ve spent your high school career writing the traditional five-paragraph essay — stating your thesis, spending three paragraphs defending that thesis, and wrapping up while hoping you’ve swayed your reader.
And your admissions essay doesn’t (and shouldn’t) do any of that. In this essay, there are no points to prove. No audience to convince. No “as you can see” or “therefore” or “in conclusion” or any of the other formalities of a school essay. It’s simply 650 words about you. Who you are (and who you’re becoming). What you love. How you spend your time. What you’ve learned from what you’ve done. What it is that is making (and has made) you who you are. That's where you're adding value to your admission essay.
If you’re thinking that I just did a terrible job of making writing the personal statement sound less intimidating, first, I'm sorry (but stick with me). Second, it’s likely because:
I’ll let you in on a little secret: This type of writing can be intimidating for adults, too. In fact, I recently participated in a workshop where I was tasked with brainstorming, drafting, editing, and perfecting my own 650-word personal statement. And I’ll tell you: I struggled with the topic. Just like you might be doing.
I wondered: What’s really interesting about me? What can I share that would pique the reader’s interest and make them believe I would be a good fit for their organization? That's were I was going to find that I could be adding value to the admission essay.
So I got to work, thinking about the things I love to do, why I love them, and what I’ve learned from them.
Now, I haven’t found a cure for cancer or solved the world’s most pressing ecological problems or launched a nonprofit that’s transforming lives in Africa, so those were out as impressive topics.
And you know what? That’s OK. Because right now, that’s just not who I am or what I’ve done. But it also doesn’t mean I'm not capable of doing one of those things someday, and it certainly doesn’t lessen any of the things I have done.
In the end, I wrote an essay that’s clearly and unapologetically me. It’s so “me” that if I dropped this essay in a crowded hallway without my name on it, I’m pretty sure my friends and family would know exactly who wrote it after they read it.
Why? Because I’ve told my story in the way that only I can, and I’m proud of what it shows about me. And that comes through.
If I tried comparing my essay against someone else’s, I might get down on myself. I’m smart, but maybe not as deep and philosophical as others. I’m funny, but I’d never hold my own at a comedy club. But these essays aren’t a contest (even though it sure seems like it sometimes). Instead, they’re an opportunity. To let you learn something about me that you wouldn’t have known from a resume.
So tell me. When you read my essay (which I’ve included below), can you identify:
If you can pick those things out, then my essay has done its job. And I can help you ensure your essay does the same.
If you’re starting to think about writing your admissions essay and you don’t know how or where to start, you might consider working with an essay coach like myself. I encourage you to do your research and find someone you connect with and can trust — and maybe who’s even written their own personal statement. After all, you’ll probably be having some deep conversations with that partner and working closely with them, and it helps when you know that the other person has gone through what you're about to.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you and I might be able to collaborate on finding ways to start adding value to your admission essay, just fill out and submit this contact form. I’ll reach out to schedule a time to talk.
As promised, here’s my Common App essay, which answers this prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
I was excited to reach the end of the red-carpeted aisle, yet it meant leaving a lot behind. As my father gave me away, I expected an “I love you” from him; instead, he whispered, “Don’t be a stranger.” While this wedding day advice surprised me, it turned out to be the words I didn’t know I needed.
Moving to Belgium a few short years later was the perfect opportunity to take his advice. My Neunreiter ancestors had settled in St. Louis more than a century ago from Alsace-Lorraine, and few had ever left — finding comfort in the familiarity the French-founded city offered. I, too, craved predictability, and relocating overseas offered none.
Stepping foot on foreign ground required a choice: mourn the loss of the familiar or embrace a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I chose to let curiosity be stronger than fear. I went to markets, inhaling the scent of tulips and waffles. I stood baffled when the only thing required at an ER visit was my contact information scribbled on a paper towel. I admired the brilliance and convenience of boxed milk. While embracing this life meant no longer being a stranger in my new country, I worried my absence would make me one to those back home. And with my children young and changing fast, I didn’t want them to become strangers, either.
So with social media barely a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, I started blogging regularly about the minutiae of expat life. I documented how life had changed, how I’d floundered, and how I’d grown. Yet I didn’t realize how much I’d grown until I made a return visit to Brussels five years later, confidently navigated the terrain that had once been so unfamiliar, and was greeted by our waffle vendor as if I’d never left. Finally, I was no longer a stranger.
Although I was secretly fond of the opportunity to subtly reinvent myself with each move, returning to the United States, and subsequently relocating from Virginia to Texas, was challenging. I didn’t listen to country music or eat crawfish, and “y’all” didn’t roll off my tongue. I struggled with how to fit in. Yet this, too, couldn’t be unfamiliar forever. I summoned my inner extrovert and pitched my writing services to local magazines. They bit. I reveled in spending hours with neighbors, learning how they’d built an airplane at 18 or beat cancer at 60. I toured local businesses, hearing stories about starting wineries and producing movies. I went from not knowing anything about my new home to knowing the most obscure of details. But it wasn’t the knowing that mattered. It was the sharing. Learning. Connecting.
Still, I was so busy trying not to be a stranger to people and places that I became one to myself. I’d transformed from “Julia” into “Mia’s mom” and “Jack’s mom” (wonderful titles, for sure) — but who else was I? I wanted to find out. A chance conversation with a neighbor nudged me in a new direction: I’d help students improve their writing. But it became more than that. This quiet stranger loved developing relationships with other strangers. Finding out what they enjoyed and what they didn’t. What made them light up and shut down.
I’ve learned more about myself than I expected to. I’m more inquisitive than I thought. More insightful, too. From them, I’ve also learned more about what I don’t know. About mental health. About social injustices. About the young people working to transform the world and right the wrongs. I started this journey as a stranger — to me and to them. But every day, I’m making sure that changes.
Nearly 20 years later, my father’s words remain clear, and I’ve taken them to heart. I’m never a stranger. To my family. To those who count on me. Even to those I haven’t met yet. Instead, I take on the novel, making it familiar — and mine.
As we finish up one admission cycle and head into the next, I'm taking some time to read Ethan Sawyer's College Admission Essentials. He's always been one of my go-to resources for the admissions essay, and this book offers some insight on how students can craft their college applications to maximize their opportunities. (Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small percentage from qualifying purchases. This doesn't affect the price you pay on Amazon.)