Most students are used to writing essays about big, impersonal topics: what factors led to World War I, the symbolism in a Jane Austen novel, the role of the Krebs cycle. Good admissions essays, by contrast, are usually about small topics and they are always about personal topics. “I try to encourage students to sort of hone in maybe on one experience, one extracurricular,” says an Assistant Admissions Director at Yale, “and use that as a lens through which we can get to see the way that you think, the way that your world operates, and also who you might be on our campus.”
These specific situations help draw the reader in because they are memorable, and they bring your theme to life, avoiding what could be dry abstractions. You should narrate at least one specific moment or event. One of my students told about a monologue he performed for his classmates weeks after moving to a new school in a new country, and how it helped him to see that in a sense he is always playing a role—and now tries to let people get to know the real him. Another student of mine described her meticulous cultivation of succulent plants, as a way of reflecting about her parents cultivated her development, and how she now cultivates her own.
Whether you tell one anecdote or several, make sure it should star you, not someone else! Describing a student’s otherwise excellent essay about his grandfather, a Brown admissions officer says that “by the end of the essay, I wanted to admit the student’s grandfather, because it was all about him.”