No matter what the prompt asks for, almost any effective college essay should showcase one or several of what I call your “defining qualities.”
If the prompt asks you to write a personal statement (for The Common App), tell about yourself or wants to know why you are a fit for their university, you will need a clear idea of the core qualities or characteristics that make you who you are—that “define” you.
Once you know those, you can write an essay that helps the reader understand how you are that way, and why it matters.
Of course, along the way, you will also mention your related interests, passions, idiosyncrasies, talents, experiences, accomplishments and even your endearing flaws.
(If you are confused at this point, you might want to check out my Quickie Jumpstart Guide to better understand the role these “defining qualities” play in a college admissions essay or personal statement.)
Here’s what I ask my tutoring students to help them start corralling their defining qualities—especially when many of them have no idea what I’m talking about at first:
“If your mom or dad were talking to a friend or relative who didn’t know you well and asked what you were all about now that you were all grown up, how would they describe you to that person?
What are some of the words or phrases they might use to sum you up?”
If you think about it, you can almost hear them, I bet: “Well, Sarah, she’s still very driven, and hard-working, and focused.”
Or “Oh Sam, he’s still a free spirit, and creative and imaginative, and he’s also very social and outgoing.”
or “Mike, he’s our problem solver, very logical, but he’s also so humble and generous.”
I’m not saying that your parents are always right about you, but in general, they have a pretty decent idea of what makes you tick.
Of course, include qualities that you think you have, or ask some of your friends. You don’t need a long list; anywhere between three to five solid qualities are plenty.
Once you find a quality or characteristic, you just need to think of a real-life story (called an anecdote) from your past that illustrates that descriptor—and you are well on your way to writing an effective essay!
Another trick when digging for your personal quality or characteristic is to try to focus them as much as possible.
For example, if you say you are “social,” try to think of qualities that are even more specific to exactly how you are social.
Are you open, talkative, friendly, funny, easy to talk to, accepting, empathetic, flirty, etc.
If you say you are smart, you need to be more specific.
Narrow it down; specifically how are you smart?: insightful, observant, logical, analytical, fast learner, critical thinker, problem solver, etc.
One more tip: If you’re among the students who already have a subject path in mind for your college, such as engineering or medicine or law, it doesn’t hurt to identify what qualities you have that would make you effective in that field.
But if you are like most students, and still have no clue, don’t worry about lining up your qualities with any goal other than finding those that are true to who you are.
When flaws are good: Although most of your defining qualities or characteristics will be viewed as attributes or strengths, it doesn’t hurt if you have one in there that could be viewed as a flaw or weakness.
Don’t overlook those. They can be very powerful when writing college admissions essays or personal statements.
Make sure those more negative qualities have an up side for you.
For example, if you have a stubborn streak, that could make you a persistent person (future lawyer? haha).
Also, sometimes, if we have a weakness, you have developed another quality to help compensate for it.
Flaws are fine as long as you can turn them around and show how they make you even more effective at being who you are.
If you are like some of my students who freeze up or go blank when I put them on the spot and ask them to jot down their “defining qualities,” I know it always helps to have a list to get you started.
These are all one-word descriptors, but you can also include short phrases:
Able, Accepting, Accurate, Achieving, Adaptable, Adorable, Adventurous, Affectionate, Alert, Alive, Altruistic, Amazing, Ambitious, Analytical, Appreciative, Appealing, Artistic, Assertive, Astonishing, Attentive, Attractive, Authentic, Aware, Awesome, Balanced, Beautiful, Blissful, Blooming, Bold, Bountiful, Brave, Breath-Taking, Bright, Calm, Capable, Careful, Carefree, Caring, Cautious, Centered, Certain, Charitable, Charming, Cheeky, Cheerful, Chirpy, Civic-Minded, Clean, Colorful, Competitive, Clear-Thinking, Communicative, Compassionate, Compatible, Competitive, Complete, Confident, Conscientious, Considerate, Conservative, Consistent, Content, Co-operative, Courageous, Conscientious, Courteous, Creative, Cuddly, Curious, Cultural, Cute, Decisive, Deliberate, Delicate, Delicious, Delightful, Dependable, Desirable, Determined, Devoted, Disciplined, Discrete, Discriminating, Dynamic, Easy-Going, Eager, Efficient, Elegant, Empathetic, Enduring, Energetic, Enlightened, Enthusiastic, Entrepreneurial, Excellent, Exciting, Experienced, Fair-Minded, Faithful, Farsighted, Fast-learner, Feeling, Fierce, Flexible, Flourishing, Focused, Forgiving, Fortuitous, Free, Fresh, Friendly, Frugal, Funny, Generous, Gentle, Good, Glorious, Graceful, Gratuitous, Great, Groovy, Handsome, Happy, Harmonious, Healthy, Heavenly, Helpful, Holistic, Hopeful, Humble, Humorous, Honest, Humble, Idealistic, Imaginative, Having Integrity, Independent, Individualistic, Industrious, Innovative, Insightful, Inspirational, Interesting, Intelligent, Intense, Intuitive, Inventive, Invigorating, Joyful, Juicy, Just, Kind, Leading or Leader, Learned, Loving, Loyal, Lucky, Luscious, Luxurious, Macho, Magical, Manly, Magnificent, Masculine, Mature, Moral, Motivating, Natural, Neat, Needed, Noticeable, Nurturing, Obedient, Objective, Open, Optimistic, Original, Organized, Outgoing, Outstanding, Passionate, Patient, Peaceful, Perceptive, Persevering, Persistent, Persuasive, Playful, Poetic, Polite, Popular, Powerful, Practical, Precious, Precise, Profound, Progressive, Proud, Professional, Punctual, Pure, Purposeful, Questioning, Quick-witted, Ravishing, Realistic, Refreshing, Reliable, Resilient, Resourceful, Respectful, Responsible, Rich, Romantic, Rosy, Seductive, Selfless, Self-Aware, Self-Confident, Self-Disciplined, Sensitive, Serene, Sexy, Sharp, Simple, Sincere, Sizzling, Skilled, Smart, Smooth, Soft, Special, Spectacular, Spiritual, Splendid, Spontaneous, Stable, Steadfast, Strategic, Stunning, Strong, Strongwilled, Stylish, Successful, Supportive, Supreme, Sympathetic, Tactful, Talented, Tasty, Tenacious, Tender, Terrific, Thinking, Thorough, Thoughtful, Thrifty, Thriving, Tolerant, Tough, Trusting, Trustworthy, Unassuming, Understanding, Unwavering, Uplifting, Useful, Valuable, Verbal, Vibrant, Vital, Warm, Wholesome, Willing, Wise, Worthy, Youthful, Yummy.
Once you have your personal collection of defining qualities, you are armed to write a college essay that reveals your true character.
In most essays, you will typically focus on one main quality at at time, otherwise they will end up too general and not as powerful.
If you are starting an essay, read the prompt closely and see if it is trying to get you to share your core qualities.
Sometimes a prompt will ask you to write about someone other than yourself–a role model, leader or mentor in your life.
In these essays, the trick is to identify the qualities they demonstrated and what you learned from them.
Here’s my Jumpstart Guide to help you start most college application essays or personal statements, such as those that ask you to describe an experience, talent, accomplishment, achievement, dilemma, risk, etc. (It’s perfect for any of the Common App prompts as well as the UC prompts.)
Also, any prompt that asks you to show how something has influenced you–whether it’s a person, an issue or even a fictional character–you can’t go wrong by linking that influence to your defining qualities.
Once you have a defining quality you want to write about, all you need are some examples of how you developed, refined or applied that quality, and then why it was important to yourself, to someone else and/or to the world, and BOOM, you have a great college essay!
Want to know the best way to relate an example of your defining qualities in your essays?
Read about how to write an anecdote to show the reader about your defining/core quality. Usually one of the best ways to share your defining quality is to tell a story about it.
RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One
In How to Tell a Story, you will learn how to show your defining quality instead of just tell about it.
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Character. Like honor, it’s a word we take for granted and probably have an affinity for, but likely have never really had to define and may struggle to do so when pressed. It’s a word most men desire to have ascribed to them, and yet the standards of its attainment remain rather vague in our modern age.
It’s certainly not a word that’s used as much as it once was. Cultural historian Warren Susman researched the rise and fall of the concept of character, tracing its prevalence in literature and the self-improvement manuals and guides popular in different eras. What he found is that the use of the term “character” began in the 17th century and peaked in the 19th – a century, Susman, writes, that embodied “a culture of character.” During the 1800s, “character was a key word in the vocabulary of Englishmen and Americans,” and men were spoken of as having strong or weak character, good or bad character, a great deal of character or no character at all. Young people were admonished to cultivate real character, high character, and noble character and told that character was the most priceless thing they could ever attain. Starting at the beginning of the 20th century, however, Susman found that the ideal of character began to be replaced by that of personality.
But character and personality are two very different things.
As society shifted from producing to consuming, ideas of what constituted the self began to transform. The rise of psychology, the introduction of mass-produced consumer goods, and the expansion of leisure time offered people new ways of forming their identity and presenting it to the world. In place of defining themselves through the cultivation of virtue, people’s hobbies, dress, and material possessions became the new means of defining and expressing the self. Susman observed this shift through the changing content of self-improvement manuals, which went from emphasizing moral imperatives and work to personal fulfillment and self-actualization. “The vision of self-sacrifice began to yield to that of self-realization,” he writes. “There was a fascination with the peculiarities of the self.” While advice manuals of the 19th century (and some of the early 20th as well), emphasized what a man really was and did, the new advice manuals concentrated on what others thought he was and did. In a culture of character, good conduct was thought to spring from a noble heart and mind; with this shift, perception trumped inner intent. Readers were taught how to be charming, control their voice, and make a good impression. A great example of this is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People from 1936. It focused on how to get people to like you and how to get others to perceive you well versus trying to improve your actual inner moral compass.
Susman argues that the transformation from a culture of character to a culture of personality was ultimately about a shift from “achievement to performance.” Character was split into good and bad, personality into famous and infamous; in a culture of personality you can be famous without having done anything to earn it. Susman illuminates this difference by noting that while the words most associated with character in the nineteenth century were “citizenship, duty, democracy, work, building, golden deeds, outdoor life, conquest, honor, reputation, morals, manners, integrity, and above all, manhood,” the words most associated with personality in the twentieth were “fascinating, stunning, attractive, magnetic, glowing, masterful, creative, dominant, and forceful.”
There’s nothing wrong with the cultivation of personality, and we’ve offered plenty of advice on it here on the site. It can help you navigate the world, form relationships, and become successful. But personality is absolutely no substitute for character, which should be the foundation of every man’s life.
Thus today we will be exploring the true nature of this largely forgotten ideal. We’ll be doing so by tapping into the writings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when character was still king.
What Is Character?
The etymology of character is quite telling. The word comes from the Greek kharakter for “engraved mark,” “symbol or imprint on the soul,” and “instrument for marking,” and can be traced further back to the words for “to engrave,” “pointed stake,” and “to scrape and scratch.”
Anciently, a character was the stamp or marking impressed into wax and clay, and as Henry Clay Trumbull explains in 1894’s Character-Shaping and Character-Showing, it served as:
“another name for the signature, or monogram, or personal superscription, or trade-mark, of the potter, the painter, the sculptor, the writer, or any other artist or artisan, or inventor, as indicative of the personality of the maker, or of the distinctive individuality of the article marked. It is the visible token by which a thing is distinguished from every other thing with which it might otherwise be confounded.”
In the 17th century, the word came to be associated with “the sum of qualities that defines a person.” These qualities included a man’s intellect, thoughts, ideas, motives, intentions, temperament, judgment, behavior, imagination, perception, emotions, loves, and hates. All of these components, William Straton Bruce writes in 1908’s The Formation of Christian Character, “go to the shaping and coloring of a man’s character. They have all some part in producing that final type of self, that ultimate habit of will, into which the man’s whole activities at last shape themselves.”
The balance of these components within the soul of each man, and the way one or another predominates over others, is what makes a character unique and sets apart one individual from another.
It should not be thought, however, that character is synonymous merely with personal tastes, temperaments, and preferences. Things like how you dress, your favorite music, or whether you are introverted or extroverted have little to nothing to do with character. Rather, character is defined in how your habits, motives, thoughts, and so on relate to morality, particularly as it concerns integrity. Character was defined as “your moral self,” the “crown of a moral life,” and referred to as a “moral structure,” something you built through virtuous behavior. Bruce writes:
“Character is nature and nurture. It is nature cultured and disciplined, so that natural tendencies are brought under the sway of the moral motive. His natural individuality marks off a man from his fellows by clear and specific differences. But this individuality may be non-moral. To produce character it must be brought under discipline, and organized into the structure of a true moral being…
Above all, [character] includes a choice, a settledhabit or bentofwill, so that it can be seen in its outcome in conduct. Character takes up the raw material of nature and temperament, and it weaves these into the strong, well-knit texture of a fully moralized manhood.”
The 3 Qualities of True Character
To better understand the nature of character, we now turn to James Davison Hunter who laid out the 3 qualities of true character in his modern book, The Death of Character:
“We cannot differ as to the need in our national character of those qualities of self-control, of quick and unquestioning obedience to duty, of joyful contempt of hardship, and of zest in difficult and arduous undertakings which, rightly or wrongly, we consider soldierly, which we attribute in such rich measure to our forefathers, and which the moral exigencies of our national task to-day as peremptorily demand. To put these primary and elemental needs as sharply as possible, let us call them discipline and austerity. Our American character needs more of both.” –Robert Elliott Speer, The Stuff of Manhood, Some Needed Notes on American Character, 1917
The one quality most associated with character in the nineteenth century was self-mastery – the dominion of an individual over his impulses and desires, so that he was in control of them, and not the other way around. A man of self-mastery embodies the kingship of self-control and can direct his will and make his own choices, rather than being a slave to his base impulses.
Moral discipline is also a quality that not only allows a man to bear hardship stoically, but even to actively seek out a rougher, more austere life, one that eschews the kind of indulgence that deprives character of needed training and leads to softness.
The pursuit of character does not have as its sole end the cultivation of self. Susman notes that it is in fact “a group of traits believed to have social significance and moral quality,” and he found that the most popular quote related to character during the nineteenth century was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of it as: “Moral order through the medium of individual nature