Defining Qualities Rock College Application Essays!

Defining Qualities Rock College Application Essays!

Some of my tutoring students skim through a college application essay prompt ( such as the five options for The Common Application essay requirement), and in a flash, find one that speaks to them.

Others come armed with a long list of topic ideas they have been toying with for weeks.

But most, I would say more than 80 percent, have no clue where to start.

And it’s a terrible feeling.

‘There’s nothing special about me,’ is the common refrain from these glum and anxious rising seniors.

‘ I’m just normal and boring,’ they say.

I listen for a bit. And try to assure them they’ll find an awesome topic ( because they all do!).

Once they calm down, I introduce them to my sure-fire topic finding bag of tricks.

I almost always start by looking for what I call their ‘defining qualities.’ Sometimes I throw in their ‘defining traits’ and ‘core values’ as well.

Why does this work?

If you start brainstorming your topic ideas around one of your defining qualities, you automatically direct your essay writing process in the right direction, on many levels.

And your essay will be focused and help you stand out from the competition!

Here Are 5 Explanations Why Defining Qualitiesare The Best Place to Start

If you start with ONE defining quality, your college application will…

  1. Have a sharp FOCUS!By directing your brainstorming around ONE of your defining qualities, you effectively focus your topic. Rather than trying to write about many parts of your wonderful self, and risking an overly broad and dull essay, you pick one to concentrate everything around.With this one move, you catapult your essay topic over and beyond the tens and thousands of boring essays where students try to pack in too many ideas and information about themselves.
  2. Feature engaging STORIES!Once you pick ONE defining quality to write about, you have a starting point to brainstorm real-life experiences and min-stories you can use to illustrate that quality. Stories are the best way to power narrative style personal essays.If you generate these real-life examples from ONE defining quality, you make sure you share only stories, experiences and moments that support your overarching point, rather than random ones that are all over the place.
  3. Is likely to be about YOU! If you showcase only ONE defining quality in your essay, you are making certain that your essay will likely to be about you, even if you include or mention others from you life in that essay. a common mistake students make with these essays is to use a real-life story about someone else, and their essay ends up being too much about that other person instead of themselves.The whole point of a personal statement essay is for the college to get to know YOU, and not your grandma or teacher or tutoring student. Stick with your ONE defining quality, and you won’t need to worry an excessive amount of about this pitfall.
  4. Your stories will likely to be RELEVANT!If you start brainstorming real-life stories around your ONE defining quality, you’re 100 percent guaranteed to find good ones. Think about it: If you picked ONE defining quality that is a big part of what move you to unique and special, then can’t help but have had experiences and moments in your past that happened to you that were somehow associated with that quality.So trust that picking only ONE quality will yield loads of terrific ideas and experiences you can use in your essay to talk about, explain, analyze and reflect upon.
  5. Your essay will likely to be PERSONAL!If you write about a defining quality, yous essay has the best chance possible of being highly personal. I believe personal essays are most effective because they engage and relate solely to readers, as they are the most memorable. This is everything you want in a college application essay.Writing about ONE defining quality makes an essay personal because that quality is one that helps define you meaning it plays a big role in making you . What’s more personal than that? And the little moments and experiences you use to illustrate that quality will likely to be equally personal. Hurrah!!

racism theme statements

In order for should be a powerful enough case to convince you to start by coming up with a list of your defining qualities or traits.

This entire blog has helpful posts to teach you how to spin that quality into a killer essay! So does my writing guide, Escape Essay Hell!, and my online essay writing course.

Even almost all the sample essays written by former students in my collection, called Heavenly Essays, started making use of their defining qualities.

So what are you waiting for? Stop all your worrying and get started!

Find Your Defining Qualities and Characteristics in this post!

Still confused or have any questions? Ask away in the opinions section. I favor to hear from you!

No doubt about it.

Supplemental essays are the nasty little vexation of the college application process. ( And you thought the Common App essay was a pain!)

I suggest students first tackle writing their core essay for The Common Application, or other applications that require a longer, personal-statement type of essay.

Get that out of the way first. It’s the hardest and most important.

But it’s never too early to start knocking off those pesky shorter essays, known as supplemental essays.

Many colleges and universities have already released the prompts for their required supplemental essays for 2016-17.

First, collect a list of all the supplemental essays you need to answer in one place ( find the prompts for the supplemental essays required by each of your target schools on their web sites or on The Common Application.).

Look for ones that ask for common topics or themes, even though the actual questions might vary.

Generally, supplemental essays fall under three categories:

  1. The prompts that are asked probably the most often by many schools. These include those that ask:a. Why are you a fit for our college or university?b. Tell us about your intended major or field of study.c. Write about one of your extracurricular interests, or a academic interest, or a talent/accomplishment/passion/goal, etc.d. Tell us about your ‘world,’ or cultural background, family, community, neighborhood, etc.
  2. The other common types of supps ask more specific questions, and often provide a famous quote or statement and ask you to respond to it.Here’s an example from Tufts University 2016-17 supps:’There is a Quaker saying: ‘Let your life speak.’ Describe the environment in which you were raised your family, home, neighborhood, or community and how it influenced the person you’re today. (200 250 words)
  3. The new kid on the supp block are the prompts that are ‘out-of-the-box’ as they are trying to get students to showcase their imagination, personality and creativity.Some examples: a. Where’s Waldo? b. Create a class c. What’s your favorite word? d. What is square one?

If you wish to get super organized, sort your list of supplemental essays into these 3 categories to aid identify commonalities and overlapping questions.

This should help you see how you can use similar ideas, experiences, details, topics and answers for your short essay responses.

You will likely find the most crossover in supps in the category No. 1 since those are the most typical supp questions.

But you might be surprised how you can reuse from all three categories. (Notice how the Tufts prompts about that Quaker quote actually is asking you about your ‘world’ or community. This topic also is probably the most common prompts for supplemental essays from the first No. 1 group. See how they overlap?)

The idea is that you make your life easier by recycling your best ideas in these supps. It’s totally kosher to repeat answers and themes because each college or university has their particular separate supplemental essays and does not see or care about what you send to the others.

For example, if you had a unique experience where you learned something important, chances are you can mine that experience to help answer more than one supplemental essay.

The key is to identify what lessons you gleaned from that experience, and zero in on specific examples that you can share in your supplemental essay about it.

It wouldn’t hurt to brainstorm and collect ideas and experiences on a piece of paper or computer file that you can develop and refer back into when working on these supplemental essays. Maybe pull out your resume or any other list of your activities and accomplishments to spark ideas.

You will definitely start to see how certain experiences and activities line up with the different supplemental essay prompts.


Say, for example, you are interested in science, and at this point, think you might want to study marine biology.

Great! This self-knowledge should help you answer questions from No. 1, such as what you intend to study and why you are a fit at a certain school.

The trick is to identify details from past, related experiences that first inspired your interest in this subject, as well as research details from your target schools that would help you develop that interest further.

Also, if you are asked to write about an extracurricular or academic activity or interest or talent or accomplishment, start by brainstorming any experiences associated with your interest in science and specifically marine biology.


If you are a student who still has no clue really what you want to major in or study in college, don’t worry! You are in the majority of college-bound kids.

What I recommend for you is to focus more on your defining qualities and core values and brainstorm related experiences to help you find details to help answer those same prompts in No. 1. (Find your defining qualities HERE.)

Rather than lining up your responses according to a specific interest, you will definitely use a quality or value to identify related moments or experiences that illustrate them.

For example, if you are telling a college why it’s perfect for you, talk about one specific core value you hold and explain how and why you developed it (using specific details from your past), and how and why (also using details) that target school has programs, course, facilities, etc. that would help you continue to develop it.

A more specific example of this?

Say one of your defining qualities is being innovative. Think of ‘times’ and experiences from your past when you have used this quality, such as the time you helped run a fundraiser for orphaned iguanas at your school, or the time you interned at a hospital and helped adapt a wheelchair for a blind patient.

After that you can discuss these specific experiences to answer all sorts of prompts, including the Why You at Our School? ( because your target school also encourages innovation…) to talk about an accomplishment (recount one of these ‘times’ you did something innovative) to tell us about your ‘world’ (talk about the wheelchair in that hospital ‘world’ or community).

I know this is a lot to take in. (Keep breathing! This will make more sense once you get started.)

To simplify, brainstorm two lists to spur ideas for these supplemental essays:

1. list of interesting activities/experiences/moments…2. shorts list of core values and defining personal qualities

From there, start to dig up those KEY details and specific experiences that will give you something interesting and original to include in your supplemental essays other than the typical, over-general dribble.

All you need is one juicy detail to make all the difference. Why? These are generally so short!! (And most students don’t do this.)


Okay, I have one more nifty tip for you on these supplemental essays.

For almost any of these prompts, even the most ‘crazy’ ones, this works wonders:

  1. Read the prompt and think of what you general answer would be. Then think some more to find something specific that happened to you that was related in some way to your general answer.
  2. Chances are that thing that happened involved some type of problem (challenge, obstacle, change, failure, setback, accident, etc.). It doesn’t have to be a huge crises. Any little, related problem will do.
  3. Think about what you learned from handling that problem.

See if you can use that life lesson in your supplemental essay. Chances are that incident or experience can work as a specific example of a larger point you make about yourself in that essay. And it will make your essay more personal, which you want!

The big secret to bumping up a generic supplemental essay is to consist of details and specific examples. Of course, you will probably have to consist of some broad, sweeping statements, but make sure to pop in those smaller details to prove or support your points.


The ‘Why Do You Fit?’ Supplemental Essay Prompt: Don’t just say how you love the team spirit at your target school. Tell them how you have a collection of over 30 over their sports team’s hats, including a vintage one that you only take off at church.

The Extracurricular Supplemental Essay Prompt: Don’t tell them how you really are a talented piano player and also have won many awards. Talk about the time you slipped off the bench during a competition, but jumped right back without losing a beat (and what you learned from that experience.)

The ‘ What’s Your Major?’ Supplemental Essay Prompt: Don’t just tell them you want to study marine biology because you love dolphins as they are worried about global warming. Describe the time during your summer job at the community pool where you practiced holding your breath so you could earn your deep sea diving certificate and someday work for Green Peace.

I bet you have even better real-life example and moments than those I shared here. And remember, be on alert for ways you can re-use these ‘times’ and details to answer different prompts.

You will be surprised how this overwhelming task can be contained with this types of brainstorming for specific moments and experiences.

Not only will you receive your arms around these annoying little supplemental essays, you will definitely nail them!

Just give it a try.

Good luck!

Still confused? That’s ok. Just let me know you questions in the opinions. ( There are NO dumb questions!)

Here’s another post on How to Write Short Essays that you might find helpful as well!

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