You've probably seen some form of this prompt a million times:
"Tell us about yourself. What makes you you?
Be careful — this prompt is a trap!
You should very rarely be telling a college how great you are. Instead, do what’s worked for countless successful applicants and show them!
By the time an admissions reader has reached your personal essay, they’ve read about all of your activities and accolades, skills and strengths.
The “tell me about yourself” essay is the opportunity to put the resume away and begin revealing more personally insightful information.
Many applicants can fill-in correct bubbles on a Scantron sheet just like you, many applicants can sit down at a piano and play Debussy’s Clair de Lune just like you, and many applicants can recount their high school service projects just like you.
But these other applicants don’t handle adversity just like you.
They don’t have a special relationship to their father just like you.
They don’t interpret moments of formative introspection and personal development just like you...
These types of experiences and, especially, relationships, are fantastic insights into your character, your identity, and the exact sort of personality-sculpting topics which university admissions officers are dying to know about.
Here’s a personal example of my own successful application to Harvard: I have a tremendously special relationship with my brother.
Although we grew up sleeping just three feet away every night, eating breakfast at the same kitchen counter, the unpredictable and often regrettable events of life have granted each of us vastly different arrays of opportunities, capacities, and limitations.
My closeness with him has guided me to reshape how I define and am aware of my privilege, and he inspires me to approach every day with an enhanced sense of gratitude and a desire to become a champion for the improvement and support of special education programs.
The key in an essay such as this one was to show rather than tell about this relationship through anecdotes and concrete instances that shaped how I view the world.
In my essay, I focused on demonstrating a capacity for introspection, gratitude, empathy, and selflessness, and the vehicle by which I did that was through this personal subject and the lens of my brother and my relationship.
I emphasized how I was striving towards a better version of myself rather than arrogantly stating that I was always that better self.
I demonstrated vulnerability that neared on self-deprecation in revealing the often difficult realization that I benefited from a host of great privileges that I have not outright earned but rather have been arbitrarily granted.
These themes of humility, gratitude, vulnerability, personal progress are essential for a strong personal essay.
These ideals are often best achieved, almost counterintuitively, by writing about someone else.
The personal essay should transcend arrogance without arriving at self-pity, and writing about a significant relationship allows you to walk that line tactfully.
Here’s a condensed but generally effective set of guiding questions:
What is an experience or relationship that significantly changed the course of your personal development?
What path were you on before?
What path have you made efforts to follow now?