Tips for an Application Essay on a Significant Experience

A Student Using a Laptop
A Student Using a Laptop. Image Source / Getty Images

The first essay option on the pre-2013 Common Application asked applicants to Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

Although this option is not one of the seven essay options on the current Common Application, prompt #5 overlaps quite a bit with the question above. It asks, "Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others."

Key Takeaways: An Essay on a Significant Experience

  • Make sure your essay does more than narrate an experience; it needs to reveal something about you.
  • "Significant" doesn't mean the experience needs to be earth-shattering or newsworthy. The experience needs to be significant to you.
  • Make sure your essay has flawless grammar and an engaging style.

"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.

A "Significant" Experience Can Be Small

Many students concerned about the word "significant." At 18 years old, they feel that 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.

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 an admissions essay, 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 make you sound self-absorbed and ungenerous. 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.

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.

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. An essay on a significant experience works well for these goals if you thoughtfully explore the "impact on you."

Attend to Grammar and Style

Even the best conceived essay will fall flat if it is filled with grammatical errors or has an unengaging style. Work to avoid wordiness, passive voice, vague language, and other common stylistic problems.