• M. Christine Benner Dixon

The College Essay, Part II: Authenticity

There’s something about authenticity. Have you ever met someone at a party who is totally genuine and self-possessed, and it’s insanely attractive? I’m not talking sexy, necessarily. They are just so natural and easy that you want to hang around them all night. Well, I’m here to tell you that if your college essay possesses that kind of frank self-awareness, it can make you a more attractive applicant.


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In Part I of this series on the college essay, we looked at the Common App prompts and talked through some of the topics you could write on. Across the board, the prompts ask you to put yourself into the essay. In Part II, we’re going to talk about how to translate yourself into words.


But before we get to the how we have to address the who. Who are you? One essay can’t encapsulate the entirety of your personality and experience. To express the full extent of you it would take . . . well, how old are you? It would take that long. The essay will contain only a select sliver of all that you are, but that sliver should be 100% authentically you.


It can be hard to know exactly what schools are looking for in an applicant beyond test scores and extracurriculars. The truth is, it varies. Some colleges are looking for driven, highly ambitious students. Some are looking for well-rounded, interdisciplinary students. Some are looking for socially conscious students who will go out and change the world for the better. You aren’t going to be the best fit for every school.


unconnected puzzle pieces

And vice versa. Hopefully, your top choice schools are ones that offer programs that can nurture your particular talents and challenge your thinking and that will help launch you into a fulfilling career. On the other hand, factors like comfort, convenience, and/or social status might play a part in your decision-making. Or your financial situation might mean you can’t apply to your dream school. College might just be a thing you get through on your way to somewhere else. Honestly, that’s okay. You don’t need to be in love with your college. But finding the best fit among the schools you are applying to is still to your advantage, and your essay helps you do that.


So, let’s talk about who “you” are. Your identity is made up of a lot of intersecting facets, some that you’ve chosen and some that you haven’t. Try making a list of your identifiers: age, race, gender, personality, religion, sense of humor, position on the soccer team, etc. Fill in the phrase “I am _____________” until you can’t think of any more identifiers for yourself. Take a moment to reflect on that list. What were the first things you wrote down? What did you have to think hard about?


Now play with those labels a little. Look at the intersections of your identity. How has your experience of being bilingual at 17 years old impacted your thinking? How do you think your experience of being female differs because of your hearing impairment? If you could someone shed half of these labels, which would be the first to go? Which would you never surrender? The points in this process where you feel the strongest emotion may be fruitful areas for your essay. Another approach is to ask which of these parts of your identity are engaged when you’re at your best as a student? If you’ve already chosen your topic for the college essay, consider how your identity appears in that story. Take some notes.


A busy intersection in timelapse, showing lots of activity.
How do the pieces of your identity connect?

I do want to make one thing clear, especially if aspects of your identity have been targeted by bigots and oppressors: you do not have to write about your trauma. Obviously, you can if you want to, but you are not obligated to tell a story that hurts you to tell. The bad, sad, and painful things that have happened to you are yours, and they can remain private for as long as you need them to. No one “deserves” this kind of story from you. Furthermore, you are worthy of admission to college even if you don’t write about your trauma.


Determining what specific elements of yourself you want to mention in the essay is important, but there’s more. Being authentically you in your essay has to do both with what you write and how you write. Your voice in the essay is also part of how “you” appear on the page.


The metaphor of a writing “voice” draws on audible speech, and it’s a decent analogy, but if you aren’t already a confident writer, the metaphor can be confusing. How do you write loudly or raspily or melodically?

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There are ways to do that, but if voice is a relatively new concept to you, here are some things to think about:

  • Word choice: Your vocabulary should be natural to you. If you would never say, “My hair flitted in the rambling zephyr,” in real life, then don’t write it in your essay. That doesn’t mean that you use boring language. Choose words that are precise, vivid, and true to your experience, but be sure they are your words, not the words you think someone else wants to hear.

  • Style: For this essay, your style doesn’t have to stay strictly within the bounds of formal academic writing. If you’re a funny person, allow yourself some humorous touches. If you’re a romantic, a poetic turn of phrase here and there will not be out of place. If you’re a no-nonsense stoic, go ahead and employ a terse writing style in line with your personality.

  • Imagery: Employ well-chosen detail to bring the reader into the story with you. Don’t go overboard and describe every blasted outfit of everyone in the room, but let us see the face of your beloved babysitter. Let us hear the screech and hubbub of the court. Let us taste the disastrous batch of cookies. Humans are physical beings, and your readers will respond to this kind of concrete detail with empathy, which is what you want.

  • Perspective: You are not an objective reporter in this essay. You are the story, so permit your thoughts and assessments, your worry and your enjoyment to enter the essay. Several of the prompts ask to see an internal change take place; let us see enough of you at every stage so that we can witness this transformation.

Writing yourself honestly and accurately doesn’t mean confessing ugly secrets or disparaging yourself. It means being a real person who nerds out about stuff and has a goofy laugh. Be one of those people at the party who knows themselves and tells good stories. Put yourself into this essay as you really are, and your readers might just invite you to their party—a four-year long party, that is, with homework and term papers and weird traditions involving fountains and dish soap.


A fountain on a college campus.
No fountain in the world is safe.

Stay tuned for Part III, all about the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of writing the college essay.