Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
1. "Evaluate" -- Make Sure Your Response is Analytical Read the prompt for option #1 carefully -- you need to "evaluate" an experience, achievement, risk or dilemma. Evaluation requires you to think critically and analytically about your topic. The admissions folks are not asking you to "describe" or "summarize" an experience (although you'll need to do this a little). The heart of your essay needs to be a thoughtful discussion of how the experience affected you. Examine how the experience made you grow and change as a person.
Many students shy away from personal essay option 1 because of the word "significant." Many students feel that they are just 18 years old and nothing "significant" has ever happened to them. This isn't true. If you're 18 years old, even if your life has been smooth and comfortable, you've had significant experiences. Think about the first time you challenged authority, the first time you disappointed your parents or the first time you pushed yourself to do something outside of your comfort zone. A significant risk can be choosing to study drawing; it doesn't have to be about rappelling into an icy chasm to rescue a baby polar bear.
3. Don't Brag About an "Achievement" The admissions team gets a lot of essays from students about the winning goal, the record-breaking run, the brilliant job in the school play, the stunning violin solo or the amazing job they did as team captain. These topics are fine for essay option 1, but you want to be very careful to avoid sounding like a braggart or egoist. The tone of such essays is critical. An essay that says "the team never could have won without me" is going to rub your reader the wrong way. A college doesn't want a community of self-consumed egoists. The best essays have a generosity of spirit and an appreciation of community and team effort.
4. An "Ethical Dilemma" Doesn't Need to be Newsworthy Think broadly about what can be defined as an "ethical dilemma." This topic doesn't need to be about whether or not to support war, abortion or capital punishment. In fact, the huge topics that dominate national debate will often miss the point of the essay question -- the "impact on you." The most difficult ethical dilemmas facing high school students are often about high school. Should you turn in a friend who cheated? Is loyalty to your friends more important than honesty? Should you risk your own comfort or reputation to do what you think is right? Tackling these personal dilemmas in your essay will give the admissions folks a good sense of who you are, and you will be addressing issues that are central to being a good campus citizen.
5. Reveal Your Character Always keep in mind why colleges require admissions essays. Sure, they want to see that you can write, but the essay isn't always the best tool for that (it's obviously easy to get professional help with grammar and mechanics). The main purpose of the essay is so that the school can learn more about you. It's the only place on the application where you can really demonstrate your character, your personality, your sense of humor and your values. The admissions folks want to find evidence that you will be a contributing member of the campus community. They want to see evidence of a team spirit, humility, self-awareness and introspection. Essay option #1 works well for these goals if you thoughtfully explore the "impact on you."
Sample College Personal Statement
Like many other boys, I love to swim. Since the age of five, I have spent many summer days in the YMCA pool. When I was 13 years old, I desired something more challenging than casual swimming, so I joined the high school development team for the Badger Swim Club.
On the first day, all the team members dived into the water as soon as the coach gave the order. I was the only one who jumped in. After a few laps, I was far behind all the others. Although I was trying to catch up, I was out of breath. To make things worse, the coach was constantly correcting my technique. From my stroke to my flip turn to my dive, nothing I did seemed right to him.
The entire first week, I was stuck with the coach to work on my diving. He kept repeating that I should dive with my head instead of my whole body. While my body and my mind told me, "Quit! Quit!" in my heart, I felt that quitting was not the right response. I wanted to become as good a swimmer as my teammates.
So I continued to practice. Many times I felt as though I had pushed myself to my limit and could not continue. My goal of becoming a good swimmer was what kept me repeating, "Practice! Practice! Practice!" Finally, I conquered the physical and mental challenge of the sport. After just a couple of months, I swam as well as the other team members. When facing a challenge, it is easy to quit. But in order to achieve something, persistence and commitment are essential. By being consistent in my efforts, I know success will be likely.
Since this is my senior year, I have a heavy workload consisting of taking classes, leading clubs, working, and volunteering. When I feel overwhelmed, I remember my struggles in the swimming pool. For example, last week I had an AP chemistry and a humanities AC test on the same day. As I was deciding which subject to approach, my phone rang. My boss asked me to update some information immediately for a conference coming up in the following week. I wanted to say, "No, I have too many things to do!" Then I asked myself why I took the job in the first place. I believe it is important to be responsible as an employee, so I decided to postpone my homework for a bit and finish updating the website. One hour later, I had reviewed all of the chapters of chemistry for the exam and taken a practice quiz. Because I was too sleepy to study, I went to bed. However, I cannot stand the thought of a bad grade, so I set my alarm clock to 5:00 a.m. and woke up to finish reviewing humanities.
Weaknesses, setbacks and failures are a part of life. However, due to my experience swimming, I now know how to overcome these imperfections, not be dictated by them.
What am I writing about? (TOPIC)
Who am I writing to? (AUDIENCE)
What occurred before the event? What led up to it?
Summarize the event in 5-6 complete sentences.
What happened after the event? (THE RESULT)
How did this change you? Would you do anything differently?