Key Attributes Of A Personal Essay

College Application Focus: 9 Guidelines for an Authentic and Memorable Impression

Your application stands out through four structural and five attitudinal considerations. Structural are resumes, essays, recommendations, and interviews when required. Attidudinal are these 5 personality attributes; leadership, ability to influence, initiative with desire, interpersonal skills, and curiosity with diversity of thought.

What “Attention Triggers” Separate One Applicant from Another?

There are the two triggers; one, applications are sorted (“structural”) by a systematic approach. Second, once sorted your application’s hard factors (grades, class rank, etc.) within your assigned “competition pool.”

This is why we emphasize guidelines with the structural and attitudinal approach in making your application stand out.

Before going further into the guidelines, let’s look at the academic and non-academic factors college rank according to their enrollment management objectives.

Systematic Sorting of Applications

Many schools use a scoring system in their enrollment management process that sorts applications into groups.  For example, Ursinus College located in Collegeville, PA assigns numbers student ranking in a descending order 1-2-3. A score greater than 1300 on the SAT Math and SAT Verbal with a class rank in the top 10% earns a “1”.

Each school publishes a grid that ranks academic and non-academic factors according to how the college ranks each factor in the admission process.

Proper college planning considers this when you develop your college selection list.

Factors are assigned one of the four rankings (see below) regarding how the school values each factor.

Always Check Each Schools Admission Factors, Arizona State University Places Little Value on Non-Academic Factors.

Admission Decision Factors Academic and Non-Academic

In our coaching program we identify student positioning factors then determine each school’s ranking of the factors in the admission process.

These factors are broken down into academic and non-academic issues as appropriate by each school.

Here are the factors that many times fall into the “very important” category.

It is important to know how each school ranks the various factors especially if you are weaker in a particular area, like test scores see number one below.

Academic Admission Factors

Standardized Test Scores

Many schools place a high priority on SAT and/or ACT scores. However, for students who do not score well on  standardized tests, there are over 800 schools that are test optional or “test flexible”.

There is a trending movement for many schools to attract more students to reduce the application process requirement of standardized  tests. Important, check with each school for possible policy guidelines (see PDF list to  the left).

Class Ranking, High School Grades, Course Rigor

Of the three some schools might not value class rank as much as High School Grades, and Course Rigor. Admissions Officers are trying to predict who will be successful academically in college as well as a contributor to their student community.  Some admissions personnel feel these three are better predictors than standardized test scores for success in college.

The more selective the school the more important course rigor becomes as well as GPA, in addition most  of the time standardized  test scores.

College Essay

Make sure your essay is original compared to what else is in the application, do not duplicate. Most importantly; proofread, comply with standard rules of written English, and provide examples with the assertions that you present. A well prepared essay can be a tipping point for students who may not be as strong in some other academic areas as other students. Ask the question, what separates your experience/s apart from other applicants? Why do your experiences make you an attractive addition to the school’s student community?


Many students overlook the importance of these, especially if they show up on the school’s academic very important or important list.

Non-Academic Admission Factors

Demonstrated Interest (“Level of Applicant’s Interest”)

Schools value their enrollment yield meaning how many students matriculated who were accepted (“percentage”). Demonstrated interest is becoming more important than in the past. In addition this is why there is a correct way to list schools on the FAFSA Financial Aid Form.

Personal Features

Schools seek a student body with diversity. This can be culture, ethnicity, geographic location, or another distinguishing factor that might move you to the top of admission consideration.

Special Ability / Talent

This provides an edge in the admission process especially when others provide recognition such as awards.

Extracurricular Activity

We discussed this earlier, “impact with quality over quantity”; pursue depth rather than breadth.

The first step for your application to stand out is to both understand and perform very well on the most important factors. Most  of the time there are several factors that are most important but these by school.

In the above example, class rigor is not “very important” which is atypical for many schools. In addition, the ranking of non-academic factors only “considers” state residency.

What Personal Traits do Colleges Look For?

5 Personal Characteristics That Will Make You Stand Out?

Let’s say  “Group 1” (Ursinus example  above) is the highest qualified group based upon the initial scoring  process; many applicants are going to be similar with these hard ranking factors such as grade point average, test scores, class rank, etc.

Speaking to the student, how can you differentiate yourself from other applicants.

When you get to the application process, much of your academic body of work is in the rear view mirror (some notable exceptions wait listed, etc.) so focus on what can make you stand out from other applicants, grab the admissions officer’s attention with your uniqueness (continue to work hard in the classroom).

Don’t think like everyone else, explain your true strengths effectively by reaching for “extreme  experiences” that clearly demonstrate one or a combination of these five personal attributes listed below.  It might be helpful to consider “instant” experiences or “shocking realizations”, like when you are in a dark room and unexpectedly a bright light comes on.

As you exhibit these 5 personal characteristics (one or in combination) remember these two operative words, demonstrative engagement;

  • Leadership
  • Ability to be an Influencer
  • Initiative with Desire
  • Interperonal Skilla
  • Curiosity with Diversity of Thought

These five personal characteristics (“attributes”) form the central core approach to the personalized parts of the application and essay preparation.

Brainstorm with each characteristic as the focal point; expand your thoughts from there.

As ideas materialize anticipate how an admissions officer would react. Ask yourself, what is the school looking for in their students?

By asking such questions during college visits and closely reviewing the school’s published material you can discover what approach would be most beneficial.

These five personal attributes above are used either on an individual basis or in combination in your narrative on application questions and in your essay.

Two other good questions for the student to ask, what do you bring to the college? Secondly, why should the school make  an investment in you?

Don’t Get Trapped with Outdated Conventional Wisdom

Conventional wisdom in the past was to list as many community and extracurricular activities as possible. This is no longer true.

Admission officers are now looking for examples where you were a contributor. How did you make a difference. How did you influence the process and outcome? Why did you make a difference? What did you learn or take away from your experience? How do the conclusions relate to personal career aspirations?

Remember These Guiding Points in Your Application Process

Brainstorm Over Time Especially for the College Essay

As you develop your thoughts use emotional questions when you brainstorm for ideas.

  • What are your hopes?
  • What are your opinions?
  • What are your experiences?
  • What are your fears as you face the college challenge?

6 Guiding Principles for College Application Success

  • Beat Deadlines (Very Important for your sanity)
  • Be consistent, authentic, and memorable with your approach
  • Don’t make excuses
  • Be confident without bragging
  • Write in active voice, check punctuation and action verbs for accurate intent
  • Be honest

We can help, check out our starter coaching program.


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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