In order to write this essay, it is helpful to take a step back from the sometimes panic-inducing task of focusing on your college applications and instead look around. As you go about your day, maintain awareness of things that ordinarily seem insignificant, to the point that you may be taking them for granted.
For instance, remind yourself of the neighborhood you wake up in every day, the foods available to you for breakfast, and how you feel as you pass through your community on your commute to school. Reflect upon the impact your surroundings have on your day-to-day life and the ways in which they have fostered your personal development. You are probably familiar with your surroundings, to the point where they don’t seem particularly remarkable to you, but you are trying to introduce yourself to an admissions committee that probably knows very little about your hometown.
After reflecting on this exercise, you might realize that your work ethic stems from your gratefulness for the sacrifices your immigrant parents have made in order to give you a chance to succeed, or it could take the shape of your precocious desire to study geriatric medicine and hearing-loss pathologies because you have grown up in a town where the majority of your community is of advanced age.
This thought experiment is the perfect way to start dissecting what it is about your surroundings that has shaped you into the person you are today. Most importantly, it will show your essay reader that you have matured enough to be able to speak about yourself in a frank and vulnerable way. As long as you speak your truth, there is no wrong answer.
That being said, as you tell your story, you will want to avoid clichés and stay true to the complexity of your experience. If you have struggled to overcome obstacles, you don’t need to present yourself as a heroic individual that has achieved success because of your own grit and determination. You can acknowledge the bonds of friendship or family that helped you hold yourself together during tough times. There is nothing wrong with asking for help, and indeed having the courage to reach out and the humility to acknowledge your support network is one way to demonstrate maturity.
If you needed to watch after your father while he was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s, you might talk about how you had to work with your sister to watch him in the evening, and how sometimes you needed to get out of the house and play soccer with your friends in order to be able to come back inside and commit yourself to the work of care all over again. Maybe that experience is part of what made you want to get into nursing, not only to help patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, but also to encourage patient’s family members to take care of themselves.
If you describe poignant tales of overcoming hardship and obstacles in your response, that is fine, as long as it is the truth. Some applicants might think that exaggerating their tales will score with admissions officers, but admissions officers are not judging your essay based on the level of hardship you have overcome. Rather, the question they will ask is what you’ve learned from your experiences and what kind of person you will be when you join the Texas A&M community.
One last word: As we’re revising this guide for the 2017 application season, the rains have only just barely stopped falling after Hurricane Harvey. The environmental, economic, and political dynamics of this disaster will be thought about and debated in the coming years as people try to rebuild more resilient cities in a changing climate. The students, faculty, and staff at Texas A&M will be taking part in this conversation.
If you were affected and feel so moved, you can certainly talk about your experience of the storm in your essay, even if you think that a lot of other applicants will also be talking about the storm as well. A major disaster contains a multitude of narratives, and if you focus on the particularities of your experience — what you lost, what you saw, how you imagine going forward — you will be making a contribution to a conversation about Harvey that will continue for years to come.
Some Tips to Consider:
Here is a tip directly from UT Austin:
“Leadership can be demonstrated by positions you hold as an officer in a club or organization, but other types of leadership are important too. Leaders can emerge in various situations at any given time, including outside of the school experience. Please share a brief description of the type of leadership qualities you possess, from school and non-school related experiences, including demonstrations of leadership in your job, your community, or within your family responsibilities, and then share how you hope to demonstrate leadership as a member of our campus community.”
The most effective way to respond to this prompt is to split it into two parts. Part 1 should concern your experience with leadership or cultivating a leadership skill. Part 2 should directly respond to Part 1 by analyzing how the identified skill will apply directly to a campus group or community at UT Austin.
For example, you could begin by describing your experience volunteering or tutoring at a local elementary school. Instead of simply saying you were “a leader” to the younger kids, focus on describing the types of qualities you learned and how. If the kids often struggled with paying attention or staying on task, you could explain how you learned to temper expectations, be patient, and interact with a cool head. When the kids recognized how patient and composed you were, they adopted the same demeanor when solving problems and improved drastically. You could even go in-depth about particular moments or instances in which you learned a certain skill or developed a leadership quality. Further, you can also discuss what leadership means to you, potentially touching on the types of qualities you value in a leader.
Following your anecdote, you can specifically show how your leadership qualities will be used at UT Austin. For example, if you are interested in leading outreach projects in local Austin communities or even other countries, you can explain how the quality of “patience” will come in handy when convincing organizations to let you work with them. If you do a mission trip in another country, patience is often crucial for forming relationships and overcoming social or linguistic barriers, as well. The point of this example is to show how clearly you must organize the response and how the specific quality you discuss in your personal anecdote must also motivate your application to UT Austin.