Super-Essay Secrets: Top Colleges Want Reflection and Introspection

By: Barbara Leventhal | Last Updated: June 15, 2022

Since the beginning of high school – maybe even earlier – you’ve had your eye on the prize: admission to a top university. You’ve jumped through all the hoops, worked hard, earned exceptional grades, demonstrated your intellectual curiosity, and participated in meaningful extracurricular activities, including community service. Indeed, all of that is important, but as Ivy League schools and other highly selective universities grapple with ways to differentiate and select students for admission, one increasingly important source of admissions information about you is the way you represent yourself in your application personal statement and supplemental essays. What will make your essay stand out from others? The answer: your ability to deeply reflect on experiences you express well in your writing.student standing on college campus

The most competitive colleges have several supplemental essays – colleges like Georgetown, Stanford, and Wake Forest each had almost a dozen this year! Each prompt provides opportunities for you to reveal another aspect of personality, philosophy, or background. These schools want to know not only who you are on the surface, but they also want to know that you are a critical, introspective thinker who clearly communicates some of your deepest thoughts, feelings, and personal revelations as a result of your life experiences so far.

Colleges want students who can reflect deeply on the topics and activities that are most meaningful to them. Critical reflection is a capstone of your experience. It summarizes your observations (your sensitivity to your surroundings), questions, evaluations, and interpretations of the subject, and it shows the reader how you apply critical thinking to your personal experiences.

Let’s consider, for instance, these two different approaches to telling a similar story in an essay:

Susi Sample 1

I’ve played piano my whole life and I truly love music.

Susi Sample 2

The piano has been an unconditional friend, there for me in my sorrows and my celebrations. When my grandmother passed away, my hands flowed over the keys as I played her favorite song. Note by note, teardrop by teardrop, my grief found a way to unwind its grip on my heart.

It seems pretty obvious that fictional student Susi Sample 2, gave a little more thought and reflection about what music has meant to her. Yet, it’s not always easy to get students to dive deeper, reflect, and express themselves on this level. So, here are a few steps you can take to build up some good, reflective material for your essays, and an outline that might help you practice and prepare to write college application essays that demonstrate your introspection and critical thinking.

Step 1: Make a list of your most meaningful activities.

Many colleges are going to ask you to write about activities that are most meaningful, whether they’re sports, clubs, research, community service, or something else you love to do. Choose two or three and write the name of each one at the top of a blank page.

Step 2: Answer these questions for each activity.

  • How have I changed/grown since I started?
  • What moments were especially pivotal (challenges or victories)?
  • How has this activity/event changed the way I view the world? View myself? View others? What action(s) did I take?
  • Did my involvement spark a passion for something I’d like to do in the future or a vision of how I want to see myself or the world in the future?
  • What have I learned about myself as a result of doing this or through the relationships I’ve made? How did I apply what I learned?
  • What have I learned about who I want to be as I move forward?
  • Is there a takeaway that will help me contribute/make an impact on a larger, global scale?
  • How does my experience apply to others, and how can I bring this experience and growth to the college campus?

Step 3: Keep a journal

It’s not always easy to remember how you felt at every twist and turn. BUT, if you write it down and record experiences as you go, you’ll always have a great tool not only for reflecting about where you’ve been, but also for seeing how far you’ve come. You don’t have to write in your journal every day unless you want to. Consider recording snippets of moments you’ll want to remember. Maybe it’s the play rehearsal when you fell off the stage or the playoff baseball game when you drove in a critical run. There’s nothing like capturing your emotions and memories in real time. Having those notes will be immensely helpful when it comes to reflecting on your life for college essays.

college essay reflections

Practice, Practice, Practice – Here’s an Outline

Use the following outline to approach writing a reflection essay. You might find this exercise helpful if you’re asked to write a reflection paper for school – what a terrific way to sharpen your skills for those college application essays!

Overall, you’ll want to express the main idea in a thesis statement, develop it in body paragraphs by providing supportive detail, and conclude by supporting the thesis statement once more. But be really, really aware that this is not an AP Lang or Lit essay – you have the liberty to write about your feelings! Here’s your chance, often the first in many years, to convey those feelings.

  • Introduction:
    • Create an engaging opening that introduces the subject. Don’t start off with your thesis/main idea (this is where that “liberty” comes in…).
      • Think about telling a story that illustrates your connection to the activity/event or about one of those “pivotal moments” mentioned above. Create images and action. Find one or two details and descriptions that may hook the reader.
      • It should be informative, brief, and catchy.
      • You can ask a reflective question in the text. It’s even OK to be ambivalent.
    • Include a thesis statement in one sentence that gives an overall view of the theme of the essay (this may sum up/introduce/lead into the reflection/insights you’ve had, e.g., “Playing piano is much more than a hobby I've done all my life; it’s been an instrument of healing and growth for me.”)
  • Body Paragraphs (number of paragraphs may vary depending on length of essay/word count)
    • Provide 2-3 examples to support your thesis statement.
    • Examine the experience, perhaps integrating into it a personal anecdote and insight. Show the reader who you are.
  • Conclusion
    • Summarize your experience
    • Tell readers what you learned after analysis. Who did you become as a result? What do you now know about yourself
    • Clarify how the subject/activity/what you learned will be useful in your future. Do you have a personal philosophy or world view that’s taken shape as a result?
    • How are you moving forward into the future because of this?

You can take your college essays to the next level by digging beneath your layers and exploring your intrinsic values, motivations, feelings, and thoughts. Our college counselors and essay experts can also help guide you – contact us to find out more about how we can support you in the college application process.


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