You’ve likely heard that your college application is your time to “sell” yourself. For most of us we translate “sell” to “brag” and that just feels uncomfortable or slightly obnoxious.
But, selling can span a spectrum somewhere between telling and boasting. The key for you is to find the right spot on that spectrum–to tell your story without seeming to boast too much about your own accomplishments.
Essay writing tip: Tell but don’t boast
Instead of boasting, think of selling as “telling convincingly”.
Keep in mind that the college application (and perhaps interview) are the only ways a college gets to know about you, and they know only what you tell them.
So, while it may seem awkward to go on and on about yourself, remember that the essay is one of only a couple of chances that a college has to understand what you’re like and who you are as a person. Your ability to tell–to communicate about yourself–is absolutely critical.
If you don’t communicate your strengths, accomplishments and life stories effectively, you put yourself at a disadvantage.
There are, however, some good rules of thumb to help guide you.
State the facts
There’s one thing to keep in mind when you start to feel like might be tooting your own horn too much: If it is a fact, it’s not bragging.
- If you won an award, that’s a fact. List it.
- If you made honor roll while also working an after-school job, that’s a fact. List it.
- If you created, built, managed or organized something, that’s a fact. List it.
Remember this point, because it’s important for you to share your strengths without feeling guilty about it.
If you keep your descriptions factual, you’d be surprised at the context you can provide to your reader. The extra information will tell them a lot about you, and it can all be done without bragging!
Quantify your accomplishments whenever possible
Several years ago, I had a student who was the President of his school’s recycling club. I thought that was nice, but I certainly wasn’t blown away by the originality of this activity until he quantified for me the volume of recyclable materials that he and his fellow students collected each week.
It was a staggering number, and I immediately had a much clearer picture of the amount of work and effort that went into his role.
The point here is that numbers say a lot. Stating that you did something can be impressive, but stating how much of something you did–especially if it’s a huge number–can really make you stand out.
One student had a very respectable GPA and was a soccer player at her high school. Her grades were good, but she was applying to some very competitive schools.
But, what made her story even more compelling was that her parents were also in the process of a very nasty divorce that necessitated police intervention and restraining orders.
This may seem like an over-share on the surface, but knowing what was going on behind the scenes, really made her GPA and her own grit and determination that much more impressive. So, if you’re comfortable sharing personal details about your life that will help an admissions officer fully understand your situation, it can be helpful for you.
These tips will make it easier to dig in and craft a message that paints a good picture of you as a person, and as a student. Both of these components are key to giving colleges a very full picture of who you are.
My father takes me down to the arroyo when I am so small that I do not yet reach his waist. My feet fumble across flaking desert skin and he pulls me along gently by my hand and tells me to be careful of small cacti and the bones of dead jack rabbits. He does not let me straddle the rift where the earth divides into repelling mounds of sand. Instead, he slips his hands beneath my arms and swings me around in a half circle, his red face wrinkling into a smile.
That morning, my father had crept into my room with the sun and shaken me into consciousness. “Get your sneakers,” he had whispered. “We’re going on a treasure hunt.”
It is minutes later now and we are trudging down an overgrown trail, tactfully descending the deep slopes of New Mexican land. Everything smells strongly of mud and salt and soaked manure from the horse barn down the road. I almost trip over a weed, but my father steadies me and says, “Almost there, baby.”
The arroyo is different than I have ever seen it. It is scattered with long, silver puddles. In the pink glow of the rising sun, the sand looks shiny and slippery. Around us, green tufts of vegetation burst from the earth in unpredictable patterns and yellow wildflowers with thin stems knock softly against each other in the wind.
My father tells me to wait and he steps down into the wet sand. I watch as his sandals sink deep into the ground and leave long footsteps. He crouches suddenly, and digs into the earth with a discarded stick. Then he stands, approaches me, and places in my hand something slimy and smooth.
“A pottery shard,” he says, in explanation. “From the Native Americans, who lived right here a thousand years ago. The rain washes them up. If we’re lucky, we’ll find all the pieces of an entire pot.”
I look down at the strange triangular stone and wipe the sand from its surface. He lifts me up in his arms, carries me back toward the house.
My father gives me a book about Georgia O’Keeffe for my fifth birthday. We read it together and he bounces me on his knee and licks his fingertips before turning the pages. He points at a landscape that looks like a rumpled tablecloth and tells me, “This is why we’re here.” I steal a flashlight and flip through the book under my covers at night. I touch the same glossy picture and whisper, “This is why we’re here.”
When I am 6 years old, the Sunday school teacher asks me what my father does for a living. I tell her he is an artist like Georgia O’Keeffe. I do not know that I am lying. I do not know that he hasn’t sold a piece in months. I do not know that my mother sits at the kitchen table after I go to sleep and cries because the mortgage is past due and she can’t figure out a way to tell me that this year, Santa Claus just might not make it.
For Christmas, my father gives me a sparkling blue stone he found in the arroyo. I say thank you and pretend I mean it. Later, I stand on the edge of our brick patio and wind up my arm and throw the rock as far as it will go. It disappears inside the bristles of a pine tree.
I do not say goodbye to the arroyo before shutting the car door and stretching the seatbelt across my chest. I do not say goodbye because I think that I won’t miss it. We are leaving New Mexico. We are going to New York where my father will get a real job and we will become a real family. We drive alongside a cliff, the rock rough and jagged and sprinkled with a thousand tiny diamonds. I press my finger against the glass. This is why we’re here.
When I am 16 years old, my father takes me back to New Mexico and we go once more to the arroyo. The neglected trail is long gone now and we stumble in our tennis shoes over dried up cacti and colorless desert flowers. I am too old now to hold my father’s hand. He walks a few steps ahead of me and I do not see his face.
The arroyo is bone-dry, littered with dented soda cans, beaten strips of tire and mud-stained garbage bags. Many monsoon seasons have left the sides of the arroyo tall and smooth, except for the dried roots of long-dead plants, still lodged in the dirt, which reach out toward us like skeleton hands.
My father crouches over and his shirt draws taut across his back. He delicately parts the earth with his fingers and searches for something that he will never find again.
“No more pottery,” he says. He looks at me and squints his eyes against the sun. “It must have washed far away by now.”
Suddenly comes to me the vague image of my father in ripped jeans, pressing a pottery shard into my palm.
I wonder if he, too, has washed far away.