Questions & AnswersProductsAbout Mitch Adler


Dear Mitch


There's an essay question on the applications to some of the colleges I'm applying to that begins with "Each individual has had experiences in his or her life that stand out as one of those that help shape us as individuals... our view of the world, or played a vital role in shaping our view of others..."

 Is there some format to follow like there is for the five-paragraph essay?  


Stephen R. W.


Dear Stephen R.W.,


As is the case for any essay on a college application, you would be wise to consider this question your opportunity to show the strength of your character – not only your ability to grow from a success (which is relatively easy) but to grow from a failure, even one as personal as a way of thinking that you found you had to part with. Making such adjustments is something most growing people decide to do while making the journey to maturity. If you don't feel strongly about your character, my advice is this: before you sit down to start writing, take some time to grow and become 'real' or, if you are already a serious thinker (thoughtful, aware, empathetic, passionate about wanting to do something to change the world for the better, or somehow interested in some change that would lead to helping others or the world  in general) then adjust your vision of what constitutes good character for someone your age.  If you do need to grow regarding the above, hurry up and do it, because these essays have deadlines, and the deadlines won't wait for you to return from some Siddharthian voyage.  In other words, find something mentioned in any reasonable person's idea of depth and maturity and find a way to desire it; (it's all doable if you have any redeeming qualities), and I have yet to meet a person who doesn't have plenty of redeeming qualities (regardless of how dormant they may be).  Focus on them and fantasize about someday when you can apply one or more of them to leave the world a little better than you found it.  Fear not: your journey need not require you to leave home.  Or in the alternative, adjust your vision of what constitutes good character for someone your age to a more realistic view.  Again, if you do need to grow before answering the above, hurry up.


Now, I am indeed familiar with the essay question you are describing, as it is a commonly seen question. Although there is no particular form or recipe, essays on key events or experiences that stand out as one of personal significance in shaping your thinking are common enough that I have repeatedly found myself helping students (or tried to help, anyway) in thinking about this question over the years.  Basically, as I would say (and probably have said) to someone asking about this question is this: 


Although there's not any particular way or structure that I would recommend anyone use in answering it, here's a few things worth considering before you pick up your pen: First, as I already mentioned above, I suggest you consider the question as an opportunity to show your character, to demonstrate your ability to grow not only from success, which is relatively easy to do, but to grow from failure. I also have specific suggestions regarding what an ideal answer should NOT include.  And although some of the suggestions will seem so basic that they may strike you as hardly worth reading -- for some reason when students are under the pressure of getting their applications completed and turned in to parents or guidance counselors, etc., they sometimes rush themselves  past common sense.  Here we go:


Try an event that left you in the uncertain position of having to admit you were wrong or naïve regarding some belief or set of beliefs that – until that event – you had held sacred.


Then, as I've written in response to other applicants' questions, do not make the mistake of constructing an essay whose main point ends up being how great you are; in other words, do not let yourself become the hero of your own essay. 


Next, as I have also stated in response to similar questions, often the most powerful and important transforming experiences involve changes from which we were humbled, or awakened, to a new view.  These are the times in which we realize something surprising -- a moment, a silent thought, a realization hours after witnessing an event in which we discovered that we had been wrong about something of major significance to us, something so profound that it left us in the uncertain position of having to admit we were wrong, which caused us to change.  CHANGE. . .



Most often, for thinking people, changes spring from quieter moments. The ability to change is impressive, particularly voluntary change.  Less exciting is a required change, such as adjust to the loss of having a best friend move away or having to adjust your learning style in response to a new school's different approach.


Of course we are looking for a change that is some form of GROWTH resulting in a more mature, realistic character.


Now here goes: While there is no particular formula or 'recipe,' there are many outline-able formats  for such an essay.   Here's a randomly selected idea about how you – or anyone else -- might go about describing, or at least thinking about, such a change:


The student, on the side-line, NOT the main character described, has a teacher, for example, or other adult friend whom he respects. In fact, the character the student describes is one who seems to 'have it together' more than any other adult in the student's world, etc.  Intelligence, love of family, and respect for others are typically among the characteristics the student might describe.  Then, one day, outside the confines of their community, the student spots that person.  (Though that teacher does not see the student).  Then-and-there the student makes a discovery: His teacher, the one who had always seemed to be undauntedly committed to the high-level character he purports to be, is doing something that seems to go against the values he had taught and/or demonstrated. The teacher's action in the current moment is 180 degrees different from anything the character would normally have been doing.  The adult that the student idolized is suddenly unmasked. Had the teacher merely been pretending to be worthy of idolization/adulation/respect?  How could he have faked everything all year in school? Confused, almost angry at having been duped, the student decides to approach the teacher, but confusion overtakes him as the student decides he can think of nothing appropriate to say.


Later, however, as night falls, the student has calmed down. He realizes he had plenty to say to the teacher and decides to approach him before the beginning of first period. But by the next morning's arrival at school, the student realizes that -- though he has much to say -- he doesn't have anything to say that is helpful.  Lots of criticism, but nothing that would move either or both of them forward.  By the end of the essay, which can be written in the present tense, perhaps months later, after the passing of some time, the student decides that he still respects the teacher. That respect grows into a more mature form than it was just a month or two prior when he watched the teacher do the very thing that seemed to diminish him.  After a struggle, the student accepts that the teacher is not a God, not a saint, but a person, a good person, and the student concludes that now, months later, he accepts the fact that the teacher, who he still respects, is a human being.  'Role models', being human, cannot and should not be required to be perfect people, which, of course, is an adolescent fiction.  Rather, teachers are simply people -- with faults and strengths and weaknesses, and idolatry is less mature than is the policy of according respect to those who always try as hard as they can to do what they believe is right and live in accordance with their beliefs.  The word "integrity" comes to mind.  To have integrity is to be undivided, to be whole, to be a person who is not fragmented nor lacking connections between what they believe and what they do, and maturity is in accepting others who try hard, within the bounds of their human imperfections, so that when others fall short, as everyone occasionally will, you do not make the mistake of thinking that you have never failed others.


The student discovers that his teacher is still effective as his teacher, and before the term is up that teacher makes a point of imparting the importance of accepting others regardless of their imperfections, and stresses that anyone who expects perfection from others will find himself not only disappointed in others, and not only lonely, but disappointed in himself as well.


When a respected teacher is seen doing something he teaches is wrong, the newly matured student concludes that this teacher is probably is not pretending anything but is simply expressing what he feels is a worthy goal, rather than a fact about himself. When a math teacher makes an error in a calculation he is not teaching the class to make errors; he is making a mistake   The student may sum up his essay in a manner such as this:


Just as knowing that it is wrong to say hurtful things to others, how many of us could raise our hands to claim that we have never uttered words in a moment of frustration that we wish we hadn't?


That, I think, should give you an idea or two to think about:


1)Disappointment in the teacher (a character other than oneself),


2) The change to disappointment in our own maturity level of understanding that teachers, like doctors, lawyers, politicians, and everyone else are people. 





3) Disappointment evolving into a realization and appreciation that -- though most well-meaning people could articulate a perfect set of values -- in the daily, ongoing struggle of human interaction, no person is perfect. Rather, with lofty goals in mind, most of us work to grow and improve as we live and accumulate more and more experience.



In this generic model, I attempted to include enough detail to cover a wider range of ideas than any application ever could or should have.  The idea of packing this response with extras and more extras was to include enough thoughts and modes of expression to inspire a broad range of readers; I refer to this as the "smorgasbord approach": spread out enough possibilities, and though it's initially overwhelming, there's something for everyone. If a reader can get from this even half of one idea, ... it's worth the read (or so I hope).


There are people in the world, or so I have been told, who go to an open smorgasbord and return home hungry – victims of overload of information.  If you are of that type, I believe you would best be served by sampling other websites where you might get less information, but at least you'll know what to copy down for the purposes of careful plagiarism.


Finally, please NOTE: The above outlined suggestion is roughly 4- 5 times longer than the essay most college applications request. This is not an accident,  nor is it an oversight designed to intimidate (always recall that I am on the side of the reader and try as hard as I can to produce what I can through whatever series of words I can come up with to benefit students without irreparably scaring them.)


Hope this helps,