Thinking about using the Common Application Personal Statement’s (CAPS) “personal growth” prompt for your college application? Good. It’s a strong prompt and one of the best ways to demonstrate your maturity, growth, and perspective. One of the problems that students encounter in this essay – and in most personal essays – is not knowing how or where to start once they have an idea in mind. They just don’t know how to tell their story.
Students who are hyper-anxious about writing these essays typically do one or more of a few things:
1) They write about subjects instead of themselves
2) They hide themselves in clichéd generalities (often signaled by universalized language like “my generation” or “in today’s world”) that allow them to express ideas without risking psychological vulnerability
3) They try to sound clever without actually saying anything of substance, and
4)They focus on activities that they think will please the reader, while revealing little about themselves
Gut-check yourself. I tell students that if they’re feeling a little uncomfortable when they’re writing about themselves, it’s a good start.
Starting the personal growth essay
While there are plenty of ways to write an essay, I prefer to start essays like this in the middle of an action or an event. If I were applying to college today, here’s how I might start my CAPS personal growth essay.
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
“By the time I hit the marathon mark – 26.2 miles – it was 4am, and I allowed myself to sit down, setting a timer on my phone for five minutes. Although my ruck – 30 pounds not counting the weight of the Camelbak hydration bladder that I had just refilled at a gas station at the last waypoint – hadn’t gotten any lighter, my socks were still dry, despite the miserable rain that had persisted since I set off. Most people completing a marathon feel a sense of relief or accomplishment. The 50+ Mile GORUCK Star Course offers no such respite. As the seconds ticked by, I realized that I still had another 27 miles to walk/run and navigate a city I had never spent any time in the next 13 hours… and I had scheduled the same event in another city two weeks later. My alarm sounded, and I shuffled to my feet, eyes on the horizon, and started walking again. 52.5 miles, 12 and a half hours, 6 Advil, and two giant blisters on both feet later, I earned my patch. Two weeks, another 52 miles, even more blisters, and 19.5 hours of self-doubt screaming in my ears later, I had done it again. People talk about leaving their comfort zones. When I discovered my passion for endurance events, I realized I never had one.”
Writing to the prompt and the reader
I’ve been writing long enough that I organically organize ideas in my writing, but let’s break this down so you can see how this works.
1) My first sentence is intended to hook the reader. I’m starting in the middle of the action. Those first few sentences are to pull them deeper into the essay. Once I have their attention, I mean to keep it. I control the tempo, the tone, the tension in the essay.
2) The prompt asks for “an accomplishment, event, or realization.” That indefinite article, “an,” means they’re looking for specificity. That’s why I’ve put the readers in the middle of this shitshow event with me. What I don’t do is try to give a play-by-play of the event. Since I control the temporality (the flow of time), I jump forward past the end of the event to get to the real point of the prompt: the sparking of a “period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
3) I keep my writing consistent with the prompt’s emphasis on personal growth. Here are the themes that emerge in this paragraph.
• Endurance and perseverance: the event itself is an endurance race and, more importantly, it’s my way into the essay. I want to take the reader somewhere that only I can take them.
• Overcoming self-doubt: I directly address this in “19.5 hours of self-doubt screaming in my ears later, I had done it again.” This ties into the endurance theme.
• Leaving one’s comfort zone: I play with this trope, using it as a set-up for later, but it’s still one of the most common ways for people to seek personal growth.
• Exploration and unfamiliarity: these are powerful themes. If you can identify them in your experiences, they’re fantastic for showing your openness to new experiences, perspectives, and ideas.
Did I have these themes in mind when I was writing? Absolutely not. I typically don’t formally outline when I write: I have a destination in mind and my job, as a writer, is to figure out how to get there. These themes emerged organically as I focused on what I wanted to say. I didn’t think about them at all when I was writing.
YOUR style may demand a different approach and that’s more than okay. If you need to outline, outline. If you need to write down themes that you want to touch on, then you should do that. If winging it is the easiest way for you to get words on paper or on-screen, then by all means, wing it. Regardless of how you write, you need to be writing with purpose. Make your words count.
Developing the personal growth essay
So how would I develop that paragraph to get to 650 words? Well, I want the readers to get a clearer picture of me, of who I am and, since this is an essay about growth and self-discovery, who I was before. For this essay and this approach to the prompt (I emphasize that there are many ways to address this prompt), in my second paragraph, I’d pull back in time to before the event, keeping in mind the final sentence of my first paragraph. What I’m aiming for here is honesty. That might sound something like this:
“When it came to school work, projects, art, or writing, my parents never realized why I was so hard on myself. My internal struggle was in trying to reconcile the incongruity between the perfection I imagined and the work I actually produced. My classmates only saw the A’s I got. I didn’t care about the grades: the only thing I cared about – the only thing I saw – were the imperfections that I perceived in my work. If anything, my teachers’ praise only made me feel worse. To cope with this, I began taking long walks to recalibrate my mind, to find a sense of calm, to reconsider things. Those walks got longer and longer and I soon found that instead of trying to escape my discomfort zone, I began embracing it. I became an endurance athlete by accident.”
You have to let the readers see you and let them see you as you see yourself. That’s not to say that you should bare your soul (please don’t) or try to write something that sounds incredibly profound, but rather that you need to develop the ability to look at yourself and reflect on how your experiences have changed you. How have you adapted? How have you coped? How have you bounced back? The best essays tell the truth.
Here are the themes that show up as I pull back.
• Internal Struggle: the inner struggle here is about perfectionism and self-criticism (which are also themes, but I’m lumping them in here) and how I began managing that struggle through…
• Coping Mechanisms: I talk about how I use long walks to process my inner struggle. As I describe that, I close the paragraph by returning to the essay’s theme of
• Endurance: This essay isn’t about endurance per se. I’m using endurance to frame a snapshot fulfilling the prompt’s request demand for something that catalyzed “a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
Concluding the essay
I would use the rest of the essay to discuss how I used that new understanding to better myself, my relationships, my mindset, my habits – and so on.Don’t try and hit all of those things: be specific. I would talk about how I have changed since paragraph 2. Finally, as a matter of style, I would linguistically tie the final paragraph to the first paragraph, but I – and again, this is a personal choice – would switch verb tenses to 1st person, present tense.
A concluding sentence, in this case, might look something like this:
“Summer has started to fade, just like the miles I’ve put behind me. As I set my eyes on the horizon of college, I consider the miles that lie ahead; miles that I know will bring more of the discomfort and growth that I have come to love.”
Why the switch in tense? Because I want to bring the reader’s attention to my presence on the page. I want to speak directly to them. I want that paragraph to speak to who I am right now.
There’s a lot to unpack in this article – which is now as long as a short college paper – and not every tip is going to work for every writer. You have to figure out what works for you, especially if you struggle with writing.
The CAPS isn’t a cover letter for your projects. It’s a glimpse of you. It’s a glimpse of the realness that will transform you from a list of grades, classes, achievements, and activities being looked at by admissions officers into a three-dimensional person that is looking right back at them.