Tips for an Admissions Essay on an Influential Person

Follow these guidelines when writing about a person who has influenced you.

Christchurch High School Finals
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It's not unusual for a college admissions essay to talk about a person who played an important role in your development. Whether this is a parent, a friend, a coach, or a teacher, such essays can be powerful if they avoid common pitfalls. 

With the pre-2013 Common Application, one of the essay prompts stated, "Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence." While you won't find this question among the seven 2017-18 Common Application essay prompts, the current application still allows you to write about an influential person with the "topic of your choice" option. Some of the other prompts also leave the door open for writing about an influential person.

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Do Much More than Describe the Influential Person

Any essay on an influential person needs to do much more than describe that person. The act of describing requires very little critical thought, and as a result, it doesn't demonstrate the kind of analytical, reflective, and thoughtful writing that will be required of you in college. Be sure to examine why the person was influential to you, and you should analyze the ways in which you have changed because of your relationship with the person.

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Think Twice About Essays on Mom or Dad

There is nothing wrong with writing about one of your parents for this essay, but make sure your relationship with your parent is unusual and compelling in some way. The admissions folks get a lot of essays that focus on a parent, and your writing won't stand out if you simply make generic points about parenting. If you find yourself making points like "my Dad was a great role model" or "my mother always pushed me to do my best," rethink your approach to the question. Consider the millions of students who could write the exact same essay.
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Don't Be Star Struck

In most cases, you should avoid writing an essay about the lead singer in your favorite band or the movie star who you idolize. Such essays can be okay if handled well, but often the writer ends up sounding like a pop culture junkie rather than a thoughtful independent thinker.

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Obscure Subject Matter is Fine

Be sure to read Max's essay on an influential person. Max writes about a rather unremarkable junior high kid he encountered while teaching summer camp. The essay succeeds in part because the choice of subject matter is unusual and obscure. Among a million application essays, Max's will be the only one to focus on this young boy. Also, the boy isn't even a role model. Instead, he's an ordinary kid who inadvertently makes Max challenge his preconceptions.

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The "Significant Influence" Need Not Be Positive

The majority of essays written about influential people focus on role models: "my Mom/Dad/brother/friend/teacher/neighbor/coach taught me to be a better person through his or her great example..." Such essays are often excellent, but they are also a bit predictable. Keep in mind that a person can have a significant influence without having an entirely "positive" influence. Jill's essay, for example, focuses on a woman with only a few positive qualities. You could even write about someone who is abusive or hateful. Evil can have as much "influence" on us as good.

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You Are Also Writing About Yourself

When you choose to write about a person who has had an influence on you, you will be most successful if you are also reflective and introspective. Your essay will be partly about the influential person, but it is equally about you. To understand someone's influence on you, you need to understand yourself — your strengths, your short-comings, the areas where you still need to grow. As with college admissions essay, you need to make sure a response reveals your own interests, passions, personality and character. The details of this essay need to reveal that you are the type of person who will contribute to the campus community in a positive way.