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Ask One Simple Question to Improve Your College Application Essay

By Rachel, IvyWise Master College Admissions Counselor

There is more to a great personal statement than the right topic. In fact, there’s more to it than being about yourself – a tip that most people will readily offer. While application readers, college admissions officers, and committees use your essay as a chance to get to know you, they are also looking for evidence that you can think critically, and being able to do so indicates a certain level of preparedness for education at the college level.

Critical thinking, in its most simple form, is synthesizing information and drawing a warranted conclusion. Examining any belief. Putting everyday ideas to the test. It’s the kind of thinking required in discussion-based courses and research papers. Any time you’ve explored a concept or dug a little deeper into an idea, you were most likely thinking critically. So if thinking critically is something you do without being aware of it, how do you apply it to writing your personal statement? When writing your personal statement, there’s one question that you should ask that will help you to not only demonstrate your critical thinking but also can be the difference between a nice story and a strong evaluation of who you are.

The Question
The Common Application sets you up nicely with its prompts, which are “designed to invite unencumbered discussions of character and community, identity, and aspiration.” They are meaty prompts, whose sub-questions encourage depth. You don’t just get to write about “a time when you faced a challenge,” for example. You must also detail how it affected you and what you learned from the experience.

The analysis is arguably more important than the experience itself and this is where critical thinking comes into play. By the end of your essay, your reader should have a full grasp not only on the ways that you were challenged but also how you came out a changed person. How do you get there? By asking yourself one question that can improve your college application essay. That question is “Why?”

How to Apply The Question to Your Writing
Imagine a precocious toddler striving to understand the world (or push her parent’s buttons.) For every bit of information she receives, she asks, “Why?” Before long the adult is exclaiming, “Because that’s the way it is!” But we know there is more to explore if you take the time to dig. Using the “failure prompt,” as we counselors call it, let’s examine “why.”

Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.

First, why is failure fundamental to success? Because it teaches you that you can get back up and try again. Why is it important to get back up and try again? Because you shouldn’t be deterred when you don’t succeed the first time. Why shouldn’t you be deterred by a failure? Because you’ll never accomplish anything. Why should you try to accomplish things in the first place? Why did you want to accomplish whatever it was you set out to do? Because I want to be a leader/do good in the world/try new things. Why, why, why? Answering this all-important question will ensure that your essay is a thorough examination of the beliefs you hold, the experiences you’ve had – in short, the person you are. In the context of college admissions, this is the ultimate achievement.

Try out the “Why?” test as soon as a potential topic comes to mind. Participation in marching band has been the most influential part of my high school experience. Why? Because I found a community of people with whom I worked hard to achieve things. Why? Because we learned how to work together. Why? Because that’s what we do every day. Why? Because that’s part of what performing music means.

This is where I would say, hey, that’s a great topic – learning to perform music in band taught me how to work with others toward a common goal. But don’t stop there! Why do you need to work with others? Why is community important? Remember, many people will write about the same topics but not everyone will be able to wrestle with what it means for you and your reader the way you will if you just keep asking “Why?”

Without “Why?” you may fall into the dreaded “So?” category. The last thing you want is for the reader to arrive at the end of your essay and think “So?” as in “So what?” or “Why does that matter?” When they ask that question, you have not achieved the best result; you have not explained why your topic, your exploration, is relevant to you. As you work your way toward the conclusion of your essay, make your “why?” questions a little broader. Why is this relevant to me? Why is it relevant to the reader? Why are people influenced by this? Why was I influenced by this? Answering these questions in your writing will keep you out of the “So?” category and make for a meaningful personal statement.

The next time you’re grappling with a topic, searching for a conclusion, or wondering if your essay is ready to submit, read through it and ask yourself “Why?” at every major point. It’s a great practice that will sharpen your critical thinking skills – and drive your parents crazy.

Ready to get started on your college application essays? Learn more about our programs for rising seniors here, and contact us today for more information on how IvyWise’s team of expert counselors can help you reach your college admissions goals.


Want to learn more about Rachel? Read her biography and watch additional videos here.

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