As you probably already know, the point of your college application is to give admissions committees a solid sense of who you are. You’ve written a highly personal college essay, and probably some supplementals on your intellectual and extracurricular activities and your leadership experience. Maybe on your intended major and career plans as well.
But many colleges also give you the opportunity to write about other people. This year, Princeton proposes the following prompt:
“Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.”
Many other colleges ask similar questions. Some ask you to talk specifically about your peers, your family, etc.
Should you talk about a role model, a peer, a family member?
As always, you want to be strategic about selecting prompts when you’re given a selection from which to choose. If you’re applying to Princeton, take a look at the three other prompts available (you’re asked to choose one). They concern: “great challenges facing our world”; the value of culture; and a favorite quote, which you’re asked to elaborate on and relate to a value you’ve learned.
Elaborating on a quote is pretty open-ended, and could be a good choice—but be very careful when it comes to the quote. You’re going to want to have something truly interesting at the ready. Avoid anything predictable: “To be or not to be,” for example, is not a promising opening to an essay that is supposed to show your uniqueness. The culture question is essentially a “community” essay. You may want to choose this prompt if you have a unique cultural background that will help differentiate you from other applicants. I would absolutely recommend against tackling any of the “great challenges facing our world.” I personally can’t understand how high school seniors are supposed to write about major issues like this in a meaningful, personal way. If you truly believe you have something important to say, resist the temptation of trying to solve huge problems like climate change, the wage gap, the patriarchy etc. (The prompt doesn’t ask you for a solution.) Just speak from and about your own experience.
The “influence” essay may be the best choice for you here and elsewhere: often, writing an essay on someone else provides the chance for you to show something about yourself that is not already apparent in your application.
How to write the essay
Tell a story. Do not rattle off a series of general statements. (This, in my experience, is the most common mistake students make in their essays.) Before you begin worrying about whom you should write your essay on (I’ll get to that), ask yourself: what story can I tell?
For Princeton, the “influence” essay is hefty: you’ve got a word-limit of 650. You should approach it the same way you approached your college essay. Length will depend on where you’re applying, but the “role model” essay should tell a very personal story.
This essay is not about you—it’s about your role model. But it needs to say something meaningful about who you are. Your essay should describe the person who influences you, but it should tell a story only you can tell.
Great “role model” essays discuss people who have influenced you, challenged you, aggravated you in meaningful ways. Avoid morals: “And so, my friend, Jimmy, taught me the virtue of honesty, and I am a better person thanks to his influence;” “In conclusion, although I struggled initially to accept Allison’s criticism, in the end I took it to heart and became a better person as a result.” Resist the temptation to explain how this is all ultimately about you and how great you are. Tell a story about someone who is, or did something truly meaningful to you, who has changed how you think and act. You can say a lot about who you are through your choice of subject.
Whom should you write about?
Telling a great story is more important than choosing “the right” person to write about. Certain questions will restrict your choice (will ask you to write about a peer, a family member, etc.).
No topic (or, in this case, person) is ever truly off-limits, but I would avoid choosing a family member if possible. The reason is that most high school students (and I speak from my own experience of being seventeen) have a hard time regarding their parents and siblings with any real objectivity. Family member essays are often either angry rants or over-the-top panegyrics.
Famous people are also generally a poor choice. If you’re writing about someone you’ve never met, the chances are slim that your essay will turn out to be very personal, especially since folks like Oprah Winfrey, Pope Francis, and Lebron James are already role models for millions of people. On the other hand, if Ariana Grande was your babysitter (improbable scenario, I know), you may have a hard time talking about it without sounding like you’re simply bragging about the connection.
If you’re going to talk about a peer, I’d avoid relating an anecdote about a teammate during a sports game. The fact is that everyone who plays sports (and a lot of people do in high school) has meaningful connections with others on the field. The sports essay almost never comes across as particularly original or individual.
So who’s left? Peers off the sports field, for sure. Your rabbi, your cello teacher, that adult in your life who’s something of a parental figure, your boss at the gas station, the list goes on. Your choice should depend on the kind of story you think you can tell.