What do admissions officers look for when reading a college essay? Admissions officers read your essay to gain a deeper understanding of who you are and how you might fit into the campus community. Your college application offers insight into who you are in many ways—through your activity list, your letters of recommendation, and even the classes you’ve chosen to take in high school.
But your personal statement offers a unique opportunity: it allows you to share who you are in a more profound way by reflecting on what you’ve learned and the personal growth you’ve experienced in your life so far.
The importance of reflection
If you’ve taken any of our college essay classes or read any advice about writing a college essay, you’ve probably encountered the idea of reflection. Reflection involves going beneath the surface of the story you’re telling to explain not just what you experienced but how and why it mattered to you and changed you. You’ll see encouragement to reflect built into the Common Application essay prompts, several of which ask you to share what you’ve learned from challenges or failures, how your understanding of yourself or others has changed, and what happened when you questioned a particular idea or belief.
In our free Jumpstart webinar, we offer questions you can ask yourself to figure out whether your essay incorporates enough reflection. Those questions include:
- Does the essay make sense of an experience after the fact, looking back on what happened to analyze its meaning?
- Does the essay explain something’s significance or importance?
- Does the essay describe how an experience has changed the applicant or what it has taught them?
- Does the essay invite admissions officers into the applicant’s mind and perspective and show how the applicant makes sense of the world?
You can incorporate reflection into any essay, no matter the topic—and if you can answer some of these questions about your potential topic, it’s a good sign that it’s an idea you can turn into a successful college essay.
Once you’ve drafted your essay, it can also help to read it again with these questions in mind. If you aren’t able to answer “yes” to at least a few of these questions, it’s time to go deeper.
How to add reflection to an essay
If you find that the essay you’ve drafted doesn’t include enough about how you’ve changed or grown, start by reading through it again and asking yourself questions about the experience you’ve described. These questions might include:
- What did this experience mean to you? When you brainstormed topics for your essay, why did this one jump out to you as the one you wanted to write?
- What do you do differently in your life now that you’ve had the experience you describe in this essay? Or how have your beliefs or opinions changed because of this experience?
- How might you bring what you learned from the experience you describe in this essay with you to college? You don’t need to answer this question directly in the essay, but thinking it through might bring additional clarity to your writing as you revise.
Once you’ve generated a first round of answers to these questions, you can even go back and ask yourself the same questions again, to get deeper beneath the surface of the experience you wrote about. You can also try asking a close friend or family member how they think the experience you wrote about has affected or changed you. While your essay should be your own interpretation of your experiences, sometimes our friends, family members, and other loved ones can offer a helpful perspective on how we’ve grown or see changes in us that we can’t always easily see in ourselves.
Balancing reflection and narrative
Often, our first drafts focus more on storytelling than reflection. But you might find that you have the opposite problem—you’ve written an essay that reflects deeply on an important moment or experience without grounding the reader in what actually happened to make that moment so crucial or life-changing for you.
If you find that your essay draft is more reflection than story, it can be helpful to go back through your draft in search of ways to weave in specifics and narrative. For example, if you’re describing a specific change you went through, try to identify the moment that change took root for you. Where were you? What were you doing? Who was with you? Try describing this scene—that might be the central moment of the story you’re telling in your essay.
If you find that your story is heavy on narrative and light on reflection, don’t worry: While reflection is one of the most important aspects of the college essay, small amounts of reflection can go a long way in giving the admissions committee a picture of who you are. The strongest essays strike a balance between telling a story and reflecting on it. If you aren’t sure where to place the reflection in your essay, experiment with adding a sentence or two of reflection after a longer narrative scene or with writing one reflective paragraph toward the end of the essay. Then reread your essay with an eye on the questions above. Have you done a clearer job making sense of an experience or explaining its significance? If not, keep sprinkling in additional reflection until you’ve gotten to the heart of what this experience meant to you.
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About the Author:
Sara Polsky is a writer and editor based in New York City. She has a master’s in education degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has worked as a journalist, editor, and college admissions application reader. As an Expert Advisor in our College Essay Program, Sara loves helping people share their stories.