What Is the Essay's Purpose
To write a good essay, you have to understand the essay's purpose within the context of the application. The main goal of the non-essay part of the application is to show your achievement. Information about your classes, grades, SAT scores, SAT Subject Test scores, and AP scores tell admission counselors your academic ability. Information about extracurricular activities, work experience tell admission counselors your outside-the-classroom ability. All this information focuses on your academic and extracurricular achievements.
Then you have the essay. Knowing that the rest of your application summarizes your achievements, do you think the essay's main function is to rehash your achievements? No. The essay's main function is to reveal your personality. The essay is like a microscope slide. I think in fifth grade, our science "experiment" was to look at an onion under a microscope. But we didn't put the whole onion under the microscope, just a slice on the slide. And before we covered the slide, we added some food coloring to bring out the details. When you're writing an essay to reveal your personality, the first step is to take a slice of your life - not an activity (like soccer), but a slice of time moment from an activity (like doing sprints by yourself at 6:00 am on a Saturday to train for soccer). The second step is to color the narrative with your take on why your slice of time moment matters to you - to shade the meaning of your details.
As you execute this two-step plan to reveal your personality, will you talk about achievement? Sure, but achievement is not the main point. That's for the rest of the application. When you only write about achievement, you just tell the reader that you're talented and work hard - but so are most of the other applicants. If you won award X or race Y, lots of other people probably did, too. That's why essays that focus on achievement might not distinguish you.
To identify the details that set you apart, consider focusing on the process leading to your achievement instead of the achievement itself. What motivated you? Why? Did you ever doubt what you were doing? Did you realize along the way that something else was more important than achievement? Did you fail? How did this process make you the person you are now? What was the turning point in your attitude? If you can find a slice of time moment and stain it with your own commentary, you can transform a generic achievement essay into a genuine personality essay.
But when you're thinking about topics, don't limit yourself to achievements. Any slice of time moment that matters to you can become a memorable essay. The test for a good essay is not whether it convinces the reader you're accomplished, but whether it makes the reader like you. And before a reader can like you, she has to see you as an individual instead of as a stereotype! When you write about personal details by focusing on a slice of time moment, you increase the chances of revealing your individuality. If you remember your essay goal is to prove personality - not achievement - you'll be much happier with your final product.
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.