Globally, students, from ages 17 to 70, are having difficulty with the required personal essay for admission to college as well as graduate and professional schools. When they contact me for coaching, I say three words: Make it personal.
The lion's share of the drafts I review are not personal. They are stuck in the data and cliches which frightened applicants assume they have to present. Those include challenging courses taken, awards, community service, passion for the institution they are applying to, and how well suited they are to be admitted. Not even sandwiched among all that is any indication of who this human being is.
Schools want to know who they're admitting for a growing number of reasons. One is to provide a reasonable amount of diversity in the program. I had a hunch and I was right that I would be admitted to Harvard Law School because I was about two decades older than the traditional applicant.
Therefore, applicants must dig within their lives and pull out what experiences make their unique. Those could be overcoming adversity such as the death of a parent at an early age, functioning despite a disability, immigrating to a strange land without language skills, and/or working full time when attending school full time. There could also be unusual professional accomplishments such as helping save the family retail business by putting it online or touring Asia with a group of mimes.
Another reason is that institutions of higher learning want a sense of the strength of the human being in order to have some assurance that person will complete the program and not hightail it in a few months.
It's bad for class morale to have someone leave. That means explaining coping with academic setbacks, disappointments, and choices that were a bad fit. One woman who was admitted to a top medical school chronicled how she failed her first semester in college, figured out what was interfering with her studies, and went on to become an honors student. Did you change majors and have to invest six more months in college?
A third reason is that admissions wants to detect some kind of fire in the belly. Passion is contagious. Drive can manifest itself not only in academics but also sports, leadership positions, and, yes, starting up a business on the side. Research shows that we human beings directly influence each other cell by cell. That field of force is called mirror neurons.
A useful way to start out the search for that authentic self is to ask about 10 people in your life to describe you. Listen, take notes. Then, as with Lego blocks, play with the pieces. What you come up with could be the first step in the educational process you are going to embrace.