Last Updated: Oct 6, 2020
One year ago, I was exactly where you are right now. Okay, maybe I wasn’t sitting in front of your laptop, but I was working hard on my college applications, trying (sometimes desperately) to answer all of those tough questions: Where did I see myself in five years? Why did I want to attend this college? And, hardest of all, what personal strengths would I add to the college community? This last question came in many different wordings, but it was always there, and it was always the most challenging for me. Honestly, sometimes I thought I didn’t have any strengths!
Time for the good news: I did have strengths, and they helped me get where I am today—sitting in a comfy chair in the library of my dream university, to be specific. Time for the even better news: you can lock in on your personal strengths and achieve your college goals too. And we’re gonna start right now with some questions you can ask yourself to figure it all out.
What have you overcome?
You have to be strong to overcome challenges, and a good first step toward finding your personal strengths is to look at the obstacles you’ve faced in life. Perhaps you’ve struggled with a health problem, like a physical or mental illness, or maybe you fought against bullying in your high school. If nothing immediately comes to mind, look back at where you were a year ago, five years ago, 10 years ago. How have you changed since then? What lessons have you learned?
Now, I know what you might be thinking: “But, Dia, all the obstacles people talk about in essays are huge. I don’t have any of those.” And I know what you mean. You may have read some essays about people at the forefront of a natural disaster, or people learning how to walk or simply hold a pencil again. Those really are huge obstacles, and those stories are amazingly inspirational, but they aren’t the only ones out there. (In fact, admission counselors aren’t really looking for big, dramatic stories. They’re looking for genuine, because they just want to get to know you.)
I didn’t have a story like that—or so I thought. At first glance, I’m pretty much your run-of-the-mill girl. But I needed to zero in on my strengths, so my solution was using the “five years ago” trick. It allowed me to see a massive change in my life: I had made amazing strides in healing my social anxiety. That might not seem like much, but it was “huge” in my life. Your obstacle might be along those lines too!
Struggles come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe you overcame your stage fright to have a teeny tiny part in a school play like you’ve always wanted. No matter what kind of obstacle you’ve faced, coping with it shows your personal strength and drive. Think about how you have overcome that obstacle: did it require diligence? Courage? Persistence? Those are wonderful traits that you can highlight in your admission essay.
What do you enjoy?
The second way to find your strengths is a little easier. All you have to do is answer this question: If you could spend a day exactly the way you wanted to, what would you do? Think about the activities you instinctively turn toward when you want to relax or have a great time. These activities are “hints” at what your strengths are! Do you like to spend time with others? You’re social and might have strengths in communication. Do you enjoy volunteering? You like to help others, which shows compassion. Do you like to read or write? That shows potential in English skills as well as strengths like diligence and organization. Sports can show teamwork and persistence; a love of travel can show an appreciation of different cultures and a sense of adventure.
Make a list of what you enjoy and brainstorm what each activity might say about you. It’s okay to “brag” a little here—just make sure that you are honest with yourself! You definitely have strengths, and it’s okay to not have strengths in every single area that I’ve covered. We’re all wired differently.
What do people tell you?
For this third admission essay tactic, think about the people you trust. What do they have to say about your personal strengths and skills? Feel free to ask them too! You aren’t looking for endless praise; you’re just asking for help identifying your personal strengths. If you aren’t comfortable asking someone in person, shoot them a text or a Facebook message. I would recommend turning to your parents, your best friend, your youth leader, or anyone else who routinely lifts you up and makes you feel better about yourself.
Sometimes, people tell you about your strengths without calling them by name. For example, let’s say that the president of your club asked you to be the club’s treasurer. He may not have said, “You’re so amazing at math, I need you to be our treasurer,” but the invitation can point to strengths in organization or financial skills!
What stories do you have?
This is an important step of the essay-writing process, even if you've already found your strengths. What stories can you tell? Do you still remember the day you decided you wanted to work in a particular industry? Did you always help your grandmother cook dinner when you were a kid? Strong stories, anecdotes, and memories can help you identify your personal strengths, and they make interesting essays. Beginning an essay with a story catches your reader’s attention; then, for your conclusion, all you have to do is finish the story and reiterate how it demonstrates your point!
If you can’t think of any stories, spend some time scrolling through your social media feed or flipping through photo albums. You might look back in your diary, if you keep one. I’ve also found that parents and grandparents are usually excellent at telling stories or reminiscing over fun times!
The best part about these stories is that they fit in with everything else discussed here. If you have overcome a challenge, odds are there's a story behind it! If you enjoy a certain hobby, I know you can think of a particularly memorable time when you did that activity. A conversation with a trusted person might bring up a story too. For example, your best friend might remind you that you’re always a positive thinker, which you demonstrated the time you and she were stuck in traffic for two hours.
As you work on identifying your personal strengths for your college applications and essays, remember that they are there, and they all matter! While we all have different strengths, there isn’t such a thing as a “more important” strength. The world can’t run without leaders, but it also can’t run without compassionate people, good listeners, adventurers, and original thinkers either. Wherever your strengths lie, they are valuable, and they will be an excellent addition to whatever campus community is right for you.
Find more advice on strengthening your admission essays in our Application Essay Clinic.