In a College Application Essay, You Can't Just Say You've Grown - You Have to Prove It

You’re staring at Common App Prompt 5 or UC Question 7 and an idea’s bubbling up: you’ll write about that Habitat for Humanity project you helped with last summer.

You’ve read a bunch of essays by people who got into top schools, so you know that you’ve got to show some personal growth. You sit down to write, and pretty soon, you’ve got something that looks like this:

INTRO: Snappy, sorta clever. You tell us about your first encounter with Habitat for Humanity and your desire to participate.

BODY PARAGRAPHS: Descriptions of the actions you took: carrying bricks, putting up drywall, assisting the plumbers and electricians. You also mention the money you raised to support the project, and naturally, the great moment when the house was complete and the family moved in.

CONCLUSION: You figure it’s time to wrap up, so you write a paragraph like this:

"Through my work with my school’s Habitat club, I learned the importance of reaching beyond myself and helping others. I saw myself grow as a leader and as a team member. Participating in community service has helped me become a better person, and I want to do more of it in college."

Done, right? No sir.

This Conclusion Is Pretty Bad - But Why?

There are a couple reasons, but for now, let’s focus on this: it doesn’t sound like you actually learned much. Instead, it sounds like you already knew these things - and that you tacked them onto the end of your essay because you felt like you were supposed to.

Why Does It Feel This Way?

Because it’s not clear how you got here. Your previous paragraphs were about the actions you took (the hours you worked, the nails you pounded, the amount of money you raised). They may have been difficult for you, but that doesn’t make them engaging for your readers.

Why not?

Because fundamentally, you didn’t face a conflict or challenge. You just worked hard.

Wait, What’s the Difference?

Essays are journeys. You start somewhere, encounter something, respond to it, and arrive somewhere else as a result. That’s it - that’s the whole arc.

But in order for your essay to actually function as an arc, the reader has to understand how one step led to the next. Your readers saw you mixing mortar and hefting lumber, but that’s all - they didn’t see what was going on in your heart or mind, because you didn’t show them.

You gotta show them.

This is the only way that your conclusion will make sense. If you grew, show us what stimulated that growth. If you have a bunch of new thoughts and insights, show us what provoked them. If you’re different than you were at the beginning...you get the idea.

Take another look at the essay outline above. It skips the most important part - not the part where you do something hard, but the part where you reflect on what it means.

Okay, But Wait - I Don’t Want My Essay To Be Messy

If you feel like you’ve got lots of events to narrate, you may worry: how can I fit my reflections in?

Try doing a little of one, and then a little of the other.

Good essays typically move back and forth between action and reflection. In the essay above, you could describe using the power saw or getting to know the other volunteers. Then, offer a thought or a feeling about that experience. Swing back into the physical/practical/logistical stuff - and then into reflection again.

Hemingway can get away with just describing actions, but that’s because he’s incredibly talented at implying the reflections. If you can do that, great. Otherwise, show us a little of what you’re thinking and feeling as you go along. You don’t have to have all your insights at once; it’s okay to give your reader glimpses of the changes that are taking place under the surface.

If You’re Unsure Of Something You’ve Written, Run This Test

Re-read the final paragraph of the outline above. Ask yourself: could someone else tack this paragraph onto the end of their community service essay? (Yes.)

Try this with your own writing. If it sounds like anybody could have written it, then it doesn’t sound like YOU wrote it.

What Do I Do Then?

Delete the offending passage (or at least cut and paste it into another document).

Go back to the moment you’re trying to write about, and look around. What do you notice? It could be anything - eating lunch with the other volunteers, a big realization during the drive home from the construction site, whatever.

Go further into the moment. What do you remember? What did you feel - in your head, in your heart, in the tips of your fingers? I’m not asking what you think, or how you’ve summarized this experience after the fact. I’m asking: what did it feel like right then?

It may take a while to jog your memory and find your way back into the moment. But sooner or later, you may catch a whiff of something - and then you’ve found your start.