The Great Puzzle

Today's application essay tips will help you think about answering the big question, which Alice in Wonderland describes this way:

"Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!"

If your essay doesn't answer the big question, you're missing your chance to win the admission officer over. But the big question is annoying. How do we come up with a concise statement of who we are? Let's start by asking ourselves some smaller questions.

5 Small Questions to Help You Answer the Big Question

If you answer "yes" to any of these smaller questions, you might have discovered a clue to your answer to the big question. Take a look!

Small Question #1: Am I an outsider?

The outsider says, "I'm not who you think I am." If people make incorrect assumptions about you, maybe you can explore this idea in an essay explaining how you defy stereotypes. As I explained in my post about stereotypes, describing yourself as a combination of two - maybe even three - stereotypes allows you to distinguish yourself as someone who defies stereotypes. If you're an outsider, consider opening your essay with a sentence that describes the conflicting stereotypes you embody.

Small Question #2: Am I an expert?

The expert says, "I know something you don't." Do you know something that most people don't? If this secret knowledge has influenced your perspective or your activities, then maybe it's worth writing about. You can explore how you first became interested in this knowledge, what steps you took to acquire it, what obstacles you faced in acquiring it, and what you've done with it. By the way, this knowledge doesn't have to be something high-flying like original scientific research. It might be an academic interest, or it might be an extracurricular activity - whatever has given you extra information most people don't have. If you're an expert, consider luring the reader in by opening your essay with a sentence that portrays your knowledge as a secret. Secrets are irresistible.

Small Question #3: Am I a doer?

The doer says, "I make my world better." By using the term "world," I'm being deliberately vague. Part of figuring out who you are is figuring out what your world is. It could be your family, your neighborhood, your school, or your community. You might think of your community as geographic, social, religious, ethnic, academic, or something else. Once you know what your world is, reflect on whether you've made it better. If you hadn't been there, how would your world have been worse? Try opening your essay with a sentence explaining how you've transformed people, ideas, or places.

Small Question #4: Am I a fixer?

The fixer says, "I solve problems other people can't." The fixer sees life as a series of problems to be solved. So what problems have you solved? Don't let yourself off the hook by saying that you haven't solved anything. Sure, you might not have solved any world-wide problem, but I'm positive you've solved at least a few problems that mattered to you and the people around you. You have to get past thinking the essay is about writing some grandiose, vague statements about you. It's the opposite. The essay is about finding those memorable details that let the reader infer some truth about your character. Tell me the details of your most innovative solution to a problem - any problem. Let me see how your mind works.

Small Question #5: Am I a seeker?

The seeker says, "I ask questions other people don't." If you're always asking questions about random stuff, and then reading more, and discovering more questions about new random stuff, then maybe you're the type of person who's defined by the questions she asks. Everyone asks different questions because everyone has different priorities and values. That means the questions you ask can provide great insight into who you are and what matters to you. How has your curiosity affected your academic and extracurricular activities? If you can identify a question that has motivated you to explore your interests, consider opening your essay with that question. A well-written question engages the reader quickly.

Final Thoughts on the Big Question

I have two final thoughts about using the five labels - outsider, expert, doer, fixer, and seeker - to answer the big question. First, you can appreciate that these labels make up a partial list, not an exhaustive one. If you're something else, you're something else. That's fine! Second, these labels are starting points, not end points. You can't just say, for example, that you're an outsider because thousands of other students could honestly say the same thing. You have to say how, exactly, you're an outsider. Those specific details about how you're an outsider, not the general label of outsider, will be what set your essay apart.

If you found today's discussion useful, please share it with your friends. Good luck writing!


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.