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How To Write A Good College Essay About Yourself

I’m writing this to the soundtrack of Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE,” off his wildly popular DAMN. album that came out this past spring. I cannot tell you how many tweets I saw from 18-year-olds right after the album dropped repeating this anthem’s chorus, “sit down, be humble.”

Early 2000s kids, aka those filling out the Common Application this fall, have a pretty funky paradigm when it comes to how big the ego should be. Generation Z falls right behind us Millennials, who have been criticized for being overly encouraged as kids. If Millennials are getting a bad rep for loving the participation trophy and being way too self-confident, what’s a Generation Z-er to do when it comes to trying to sell themselves to colleges?

Listen up, Generation Z. Take it from a so-called self-obsessed Millennial herself: a place between humble and prideful exists, and that’s the exact place you want to reach in your college application essays. Here are five “what ifs?” of college essay humble-bragging and what to do about each of them.

Related:How to Write a Great College Application Essay

If you’re afraid of bragging...

College essays are about selling yourself. If you were selling a pen, you would definitely want to talk to your buyer about the pen’s high-quality ink, super-comfy grip, and trendy appearance. You would never leave any of those amazing pen attributes out because you want the buyer to want the pen. When writing your college essays, think of yourself as the pen. Never, ever leave out something great about yourself because you are afraid of bragging. College essays are the only time you get to talk about all of the wonderful things that make you you without anyone judging you for it. So take advantage!

If you want to come off as confident…

Showing confidence in your college essays might sound tricky, but with the right anecdotes, you can fully achieve that confident aura without literally saying, “I’m confident!” If you’re passionate about something unique that you might not have mentioned in your college app thus far, write about it in the essay. Talk about the time you did an underground production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show even though you didn’t know anyone else auditioning for it. If you thought becoming a ventriloquist as a kid was really cool and eventually gave it a shot, write about it. The best way to sound confident without outright telling the reader so in your essay is to write a story that shows you are confident. That will be more than enough to sell them on you.

If you think you might sound full of yourself…

The “show, don’t tell” rule of writing applies in college essays too. For example, if you are writing an essay about your summer job, never say, “I was the best employee at the grocery store.” Rather, show that you were a great employee by telling a story about the time you caught a shoplifter or exhibited great customer service. You never need to tell the reader you are superior or the best in any way if you can show them instead.

If you feel the need to tell the reader your credentials....

There is a whole other section of the Common App where you list the leadership roles you’ve had and the awards you’ve won. You don’t need to mention them again in the essay portion unless the story you’re telling calls for it. Say you are writing an essay about the time you won a particularly interesting debate for your high school debate team—you can write about your accomplishment without sounding cocky. For instance, rather than saying “I was the best debater on my team, which is why I am captain,” you could talk about the reason you are so passionate about whatever topic you debated that day.

The place for competing with what you’ve done in high school is in the rest of the Common App. The place for letting the college know who you are and what you’d be bringing to the college’s community as a person is in the essay. The best way to make yourself more competitive in the essay portion of your application is to write an essay that describes exactly who you are on a day-to-day basis rather than talking about your achievements. There are a few colleges famous for requesting applicants to pick one of their friends and have that friend write an essay about said applicant. While that type of essay might sound pretty nerve-wracking, the takeaway from the prompt is that colleges want to know what someone you hang around all the time thinks of you. Ultimately, a university is looking for a great addition to their campus, and in the case of writing a portrait of your personality in an essay, you should never have to brag, and you should have a lot of reasons to be confident in who you are.

Ultimately, the college essay is all about balance. Don’t tell the reader how great you are—show them instead. Admission officers will rarely be turned off by an applicant who wrote a great story about something wonderful they did, but they might find it a little off-putting if you call it wonderful yourself.

Looking for more college essay tips? Check out our Application Essay Clinic.

Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.

It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores. However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities, to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.

Telling Your Story to Colleges

So what does set you apart?

You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.

Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.

You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.

Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay

1. Write about something that's important to you.

It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life. 

2. Don't just recount—reflect! 

Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.

3. Being funny is tough.

A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.

4. Start early and write several drafts.

Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?

5. No repeats.

What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.

6. Answer the question being asked.

Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.

7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.

A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.


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About Rob Franek

Rob Franek, Editor-in-Chief at The Princeton Review, is the company's primary authority on higher education. Over his 24-year career, he has served as a college admissions administrator, test prep teacher, author, publisher, and lecturer. Read more and follow Rob on Twitter: @RobFranek