Subverting Stereotypes

"Who are you?" is the big question colleges want your essay to answer. How do you figure out who you are? If you're having trouble, first focus on who you're not. One way to do this is to think about how someone might stereotype you. In today's application essay tips, I'll give you some ideas for using stereotypes to your advantage.

2 Application Essay Tips for the Stereotype Fighter

Here's are two things you can do to use stereotypes to answer the "Who are you?" question.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #1: Stereotype Yourself.

Nerds. Jocks. Cheerleaders. Band geeks. These are a few of the tribes that inhabit the typical high school in my head. What groups do you belong to? Groups can be by gender, race, interest, or activity - whatever. Write them down.

Also write down any groups that other people might think you belong to, even if you disagree. You need to understand how the admission officer reading your essay might stereotype you. For example, if you have straight As, are great at piano, and have done scientific research, the admission counselor might think, "OK, this student is smart, talented, and disciplined, but does she have any people skills or leadership?" When you think about how someone might stereotype you, you can use the essay to anticipate and then defy those stereotypes.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #2: Be a hybrid.

It's easy to write an essay that invites stereotypes. If you only write about academics, then you're a nerd applicant. If you only write about sports, then you're a jock applicant. Either way, you're one-dimensional.

That's why you need to become a hybrid by combining stereotypes. Don't be a nerd or a jock - be a nerd-jock. Don't be a cheerleader or a band geek - be a cheerleader-band geek. By combining stereotypes, you defy them. The greater the clash between the stereotypes, the more effective the combination will be.

Let's take the nerd-jock combination. The nerd stereotype is someone who is smart but weak, while the jock stereotype is someone who is strong but dumb. The stereotypes clash, so incorporating both is a way to catch the reader's attention. Like everything else in the essay, we want to be as specific as possible. So we'd never settle for "nerd-jock." Instead, we'd ask more questions. What type of nerd? Board games? World of Warcraft? And what type of jock? Hockey? Triathlon? Maybe you're the triathlete who loves chess or the hockey player who loves World of Warcraft. Figuring out the details will help set you apart.

Aside from getting specific about your stereotypes, you'll want to consider upping the number of stereotypes from two to three. My original inspiration for this post is this article entitled The Ripped, Bikini-Clad Reverend, which describes the experience of one woman - who also happens to be an Episcopalian reverend - who enters a bodybuilding contest. Her essay is memorable because it evaluates the woman-reverend crossover, the woman-bodybuilder crossover, and the bodybuilder-reverend crossover.

Each of these combinations is already a little unusual, but discussing all three unusual combinations in a single essay leaves no doubt that Ms. Richter is unique. Just think about the numbers. The number of people fitting the woman-reverend-bodybuilder mold is much lower than the number fitting the woman-reverend, woman-bodybuilder, or reverend-bodybuilder mold. Presenting yourself as a hybrid of three stereotypes is one way to stand out.

Final Thoughts on Application Essay Tips from Stereotypes

Here's what we learned in today's application essay tips. When you stereotype yourself, you can identify weaknesses in your application. And if you're stuck trying to answer the "Who are you?" question, consider making yourself a hybrid of clashing stereotypes. Though perhaps counter-intuitive, if you describe yourself in terms of clashing stereotypes, you can show that you're someone who transcends stereotypes.

If you liked today's application essay tips, please share them with your friends. Thank you!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.