How to Write a College Essay About an Influential Person

When brainstorming topics for your college essay, you’ve probably considered writing about a person who has influenced or inspired you–a parent or grandparent, a sibling, a teacher, or another significant figure in your life. You may be writing an essay of your own design or responding to the fourth prompt on this year’s Common Application: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

Writing about someone else in a college essay can be tricky—after all, your ultimate goal is still to tell admissions officers enough about you to help them decide whether to offer you admission. But there’s a way to do that even while writing a specific, insightful essay centered on another person. In this post, we’ll walk you through the process of choosing someone to write about, brainstorming, and pulling your ideas together into a finished essay.

Choosing a person to write about

One of our favorite college essays about someone other than the writer is Zoya Garg’s essay about her mother, which was published in the New York Times. Garg writes about her mother’s dreams of a career as a stand-up comedian and how a gift from Garg helped set her on the path to achieving those dreams:

“My mom finds a baffling delight from drinking from glass, hotel-grade water dispensers. Even when three-day-old lemon rinds float in stale water, drinking from the dispenser remains luxurious. Last year for her birthday, I saved enough to buy a water dispenser for our kitchen counter. However, instead of water, I filled it with handwritten notes encouraging her to chase her dreams of a career.”

One of the things that works well about Garg’s essay is how precisely Garg pinpoints the ways her mom has inspired her—Garg mentions her mother’s curiosity, her sense of humor, and her ability to “light up conversations” with and “reach the hearts of” everyone she encounters. If you’re going to write an essay about someone else, choose someone about whom you can identify these kinds of details, rather than someone who has inspired you from afar.

Inspiration doesn’t always have to be positive—perhaps you were inspired by not wanting to be like a particular person in your life. But if you choose to write about someone who inspired you in a more indirect or negative way, be mindful of the tone you’re striking in your essay and the impression it might leave on an admissions officer. Remember that your essay is an opportunity to show the kind of community member you would be if admitted to the school.

Brainstorming your essay

A successful essay about someone who has inspired you will have two key ingredients: examples and reflection. (To learn more on the importance of reflection in the college essay, check out our Complete Your College Essay Online Course.) But unlike a recipe, you don’t have to add these ingredients in any particular order—you can begin by brainstorming either one and still find your way to a powerful finished essay.

If you’d like to start with examples, spend some time thinking about moments when this person inspired or influenced you. Try to pinpoint them as precisely as possible: Did you have a conversation with your father or a driving lesson with your mother that particularly taught you something? Did time spent with an older sibling while on a family vacation show you something about the person you hope to become?

Once you have your list of moments, try writing a sentence or two about what you learned in each instance. For example: Driving with my mother, who always wanted to take the scenic route, reminded me of the importance of patience, something I have long struggled with. 

If you already know what you’ve learned from the person you’re focusing on, you can just as easily do this brainstorm in reverse. Try first writing out the “lessons” you’ve learned. Then, under each one, list as many examples as you can think of that illustrate how this person taught you what you’ve learned from them—the driving lesson, the meaningful conversation, the morning spent surfing, and more. The most evocative examples and moments on the list will be excellent material for your essay.

Beginning to write

You’ve probably spent a lot of time with the most important people in your life. (If you haven’t, that might be an essay in itself!) That can make those people even harder to describe, because we know so much more about them than can fit into a single essay.

As you begin to write, return to some of the questions you asked during the brainstorming process:

  • What one illustrative story can you tell about this person?
  • What one or two key things have you learned from them, or what one or two things have they inspired you to do?
  • Was there a specific experience one of you went through during which they inspired you?

Think back to Zoya Garg’s anecdote of a birthday gift, which tells a much larger story about her relationship with her mother and about Garg’s own ability to understand and support those around her.

Sometimes the easiest way to build this kind of essay is to work backwards. Consider this person’s traits – what does the reader need to know most about the person, and what have you learned from them? Perhaps it’s your mother’s fondness for taking the scenic route, or your sister’s willingness to try new things. Then make a list of experiences, traits, or adjectives that best capture those elements: Is it the way they laugh, how they take charge in difficult situations, how they walk into a room? In Garg’s essay, one telling detail is her mother’s “baffling delight” in drinking out of fancy glass water dispensers, which kicks off the entire story. Those are the perfect kinds of characteristics and small moments to include in your essay.

And remember—it isn’t enough just to describe this inspirational person. You’ll also need to describe how their influence shows up in your life, in big or small ways.

Revising your essay

Once you’ve drafted your essay, and perhaps taken some time away from the draft, look at your essay with fresh eyes. This is a great opportunity to check that your essay is specific and precise in the way you describe the person who inspired you, so that the admissions officers reading your essay will come away feeling like they know that person. Keep in mind that even if you’re writing about an experience of anti-inspiration, or someone who inspired you not to be like them, it’s worth trying to strike a positive tone in your essay.

And finally, remember that your ultimate goal is to give the admissions committee insight into who they might be inviting into their campus community. You want them to feel as though they’ve gotten to know you—no matter who else you introduce them to along the way.

Complete your College Essay

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Students will walk away with a complete, authentic Personal Statement that they can be proud to submit to the colleges of their dreams.

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