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Oakes's Corner

The College Essay- Achievement and Character

By Oakes Hunnewell, Ed.M., CEP

Summer has officially arrived and, for my rising seniors, it is time to work on the "college essay" or "personal statement".

The college essay is an opportunity for students to set themselves apart, a chance to present a side of them that may not be reflected on the application. There is no question that grades, test scores and awards play a major role in the admissions process. Applications offer ample space for these achievements to be outlined and highlighted. But achievements alone do not tell the whole story. Colleges are looking for a more comprehensive profile of the applicant, one that speaks to character and personality traits. They want to look into their souls and discover aspects of them that cannot be quantified. Alan Grove, Professor of English at Alfred University, writes in an article for that “most colleges rate character and personal qualities as extremely important in their admissions decisions.” He also goes on to say that, simply listing achievements to get their points across, may make students seem arrogant. Often times, the story lies in how the student struggled and persevered to accomplish what they are being recognized for.

Along with awards, recognitions and leadership roles, students may have overcome a challenge, been faced with a dilemma or had an experience that has made an impression on them. These can also be considered achievements and are extremely effective in showing a student’s character.

For my students, I ask them to come up with four adjectives they would use to describe themselves. Then, I tell them to think of an achievement they have had as a result of those adjectives.

Writing a college essay can be an adventure. Often, students embark on journeys of self exploration. Their intended themes may take on different faces as they reflect on themselves, their points of view or past experiences. Often, they learn something new about themselves.

The following are some examples of essay topics that may help students show their true character.

Take a walk in my shoes-

I move around a lot. Since the sixth grade, I have lived in four cities and have attended as many schools. I average about one school every one and a half years. Being the new kid on the block is challenging …

A brief descriptive snippet of a moment in my life-

The voice on the speaker announced my name as I was told to excuse myself from homeroom and go to the Principal’s office. This was a very awkward moment for me as I got up in front of twenty other students whom I had only met just days ago. As I left the room, all eye gazing on me, my emotions were filled with deep embarrassment and fear of the unknown….

A humbling or embarrassing situation-

There was this girl in my English class last year that I could not get my mind off of. Everyday, I would come to class in the hopes that the seat next to her was not occupied. I don’t know what it was about her, the way she dressed, her mannerisms and facial expressions or simply the way she looked. Whatever it was, I liked her and she drove me to do the most awkward, clumsy and stupid things. It all came crashing down on me one day in class. I …

The following are some links to related articles and resources about the college essay:

School of the Month

College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University-


This month, I had the opportunity to travel to Minnesota to attend a conference at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. Both colleges are located about an hour and a half outside of Minneapolis in a region made famous by Garrison Keillor of “A Prairie Home Companion”. They share 2700 acres of wooded land complete with hiking trails, lakes and camp sites. The College of Saint Benedict is a women’s college located five miles from Saint John’s University for men. They are small, liberal arts colleges of roughly 2000 students each, Catholic institutions affiliated with the Benedictine order. I am profiling these two institutions because they have a very unique relationship with one another. They are single sex institutions, but academically and socially coeducational. Though men and women live on different campuses, everything else, other than sports, are mixed. Shuttle buses run from campus to campus delivering students to their classes. To facilitate the travel time, there is a half hour break between classes. Students may choose to eat their meals and study where it is more convenient for them. They socialize together referring to each other as Bennies and Johnnies. Though religion is present on campus, students don’t feel that they are influenced by any one set of beliefs. They must take two semesters of religious studies though and Catholicism is the main theme. Study abroad is very popular at both colleges. Last year, students participated in a total of 17 faculty led trips abroad taking them to Europe, Asia and Africa. Over 60% of students study abroad for either a semester or for a “short term”. Students may also participate in a well developed internship or service-learning program or do undergraduate research with a professor. The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University are a great alternative for a student who would thrive in a single sex environment but is not ready to commit to such an institution.
For those admitted students, both colleges have agreed to pay half the airfare for a campus visit.