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  • Writer's pictureHollis Bischoff

Column: Communicating a student's unique personality through college essays

Republished with permission from the Los Altos Town Crier. Originally appeared in the August 14, 2019 edition.


As the long days of summer vacation come to a close, a college-bound rising senior’s thoughts turn to application essays.

The most stressed-over essay is the personal statement for the Common Application (and its cousin, the Coalition Application). These essays are personal narratives, insights into who a student is beyond the grades, test scores and brief list of activities allowed.

So, students, what are the colleges looking for? They are looking for your intellectual curiosity, your commitment (to anything), your unique persona and your growth and taking action on that growth.

Any topic, and I do mean any topic, can communicate this. I’ve seen great essays written about origami paper folding, birdwatching, bus riding, cooking clubs and fantasy football.

But there are a number of approaches admissions counselors have seen over and over again that prevent them from seeing you as a unique individual. This does not negate your experience or indicate in any way that your experience is not valued, but it does indicate that you are not alone or unique in experiencing them, and that admissions counselors are looking for your unique story, one that is not so commonly shared with others.

Therefore, I would strongly recommend avoiding the following tropes.

  • The Athlete. All serious athletes dedicate significant hours toward their sports, so it is no surprise they want to write about their experiences. However, discussing the hard work that pays off and the feeling of worth when the game is won is the signature of every athlete and doesn’t provide unique insight into who you are as a person. If you want to use your sport as a springboard for your essay, look at it outside of the sport itself and instead focus on how you apply what you learn on the field off the field.

  • The Mission Trip. Every student who goes on a mission trip talks about how it has changed them, but when pressed to describe the change speaks to their awareness of their privilege and how others live. Only those who return and take action such as changing the way they live, starting a nonprofit or helping those by significant action upon returning should consider writing about a mission trip. In fact, instead of spending that money on a mission trip, considering donating the money and significant time to a local nonprofit, which will more clearly demonstrate your dedication and commitment.

  • The Hero. Everyone has a hero, and writing about that hero gives insight into the hero, but the university isn’t looking to admit the hero, it is looking to admit you. Make the essay about you.

  • The Resume Redux. The colleges have already seen your brief activities list and may even allow you to upload a resume, so restating your accomplishments and activities here would not be in your best interest. Focusing on one or two significant activities in the context of your own growth or values would be a much better option.

  • Torn Between Two Cultures. Nearly everyone who comes from a culturally or ethnically mixed household will find themselves torn between choosing one path over another. If your culture is important to you and helps define who you are, choose an aspect that defines you and show your individuality.

When thinking of your essay topic, think first about the personal characteristics you would like the college to know about you, then think of the things you do or experiences you’ve had to tell the story of you. Successful essays are those that provide the best window into discovering who you are.

Hollis Bischoff is college admissions adviser for CollegeUnlocked. She earned a graduate certificate in college and career counseling from UCLA and is a Certified Educational Planner. She blogs about college admissions at and tweets at @collegeunlocked. For more information, email

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