Aubrie Lupo on Personal Essays

Interview by Kokko Tso

Writing the personal essay can be one of the most daunting parts of the college application process. As a significant portion of the college admissions application, the personal essay is meant to display the unquantifiable elements of a prospective student’s personality, character, ability, and life experiences. The burning question on every applicant’s mind is this: “How do I make my essay stand out from the other thousands of essays flooding into the Admissions Department?”

I had the opportunity to put this question to Aubrie Lupo, one of our wonderful admissions counselors. Aubrie graduated from Hillsdale College in 2012 with a degree in Politics.

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The basic question first — what is the purpose of the personal essay (besides making applicants sweat a bit)?

The essay is meant to help us figure out whether a student would fit into the Hillsdale environment, and whether they would benefit our academic and student community. We want to know who you are and what qualities you might bring to our student body.

In that vein, what kind of student do you look for? What qualities in a prospective student make you say, “Ah! He or she would be a good fit for Hillsdale College”?

Character, personality, and moral character. Part of my goal is to reinforce the strong community on campus, a community comprised of young men and women who strive for the same things, both morally and intellectually. Of course, your general academic ability is very important as well. We want to make sure that we’re not going to set you up for failure here.

As much as it is about finding a good fit for Hillsdale College, it is also about finding a good fit for you — we certainly don’t want to admit a student who would be miserable here! So, your ability and desire to learn factor greatly into our admissions process.

One of the most important qualities I look for in a prospective student is passion. Many high school students ask me about how many clubs they should be in, and how we judge “involvement”. We don’t need you to be the president of twenty-four clubs — we want to see that you care about something, and more importantly, that you pursue it.

How does the admissions essay demonstrate whether a student would be a good fit for Hillsdale College?

A good admissions essay will show what you’re passionate about. The best part, and one which many applicants don’t realize, is that you don’t have some big, out-of-this-world story. Many high school seniors get caught up in the idea that they have to present a picture of themselves that is radically different from everybody else in order to grab our attention. Don’t write crazy, wacky things that are out of character in order to impress — write about who you really are, and what you really care about.

Can you talk a little bit about how the personal essay is designed to draw out the inner core of who someone really is and what they care most about?

First, the essay prompt is designed to be open-ended — you can take your essay in almost any direction you want. This allows us to get a glimpse into the kind of person you are.

If you’re a person who is very analytical and organized, maybe even a little bit OCD, in your thought process, this will come out through your writing style. I’ve seen essays that read like a chapter out of Aristotle’s Politics. These essays were very philosophical in nature and gave the impression that the applicants lived for the life of the mind. But if that is not you, don’t write that way!

Some of the best essays I’ve read were quite simple with regards to their subject matter, but so elegantly and beautifully written that I was blown away. I particularly remember one essay in which the student recalled childhood memories of going berry picking with her grandmother. I was struck by the voice of the essay, the beauty that she described, and the life-lessons from her grandmother that she evidently cherished. Her essay wasn’t philosophical, but we got to see an important aspect of her personality and ability. Her voice really came through, and that is the most important element of a successful personal essay.

Is there anything to avoid when writing a personal essay?

I dread three types of essays:

  • the missions-trip essay — “I went to a third world country and saw starving children, which changed my life”
  • the sports essay — “Freshmen year, I had a tough but good coach, and I learned determination, work ethic, and perseverance”
  • the resume essay — “I do this, and I do that, ad nauseam

It’s not to say that these types of essay cannot be done well, but so many people write these types of essay, all of which have the same boring and uninformative theme. A strong essay explains who you are from a different standpoint, and reveals more about your personality and character, as opposed to your external self.

So how does someone write a personal essay that really stands out to you?

I can’t stress how important it is to make sure that your essay is a genuine representation of yourself. Not everyone has solved world hunger, not everyone has discovered the cure to cancer — and you don’t have to have done any of those things to be a good candidate for admission! Speak from your heart. That is the thing that will really make your essay pop out.

Do you have any practical advice about writing a personal essay?

Review, review, review! I can’t tell you how many essays have incorrect capitalization, punctuation errors, and bad grammar. These imperfections distract from the content of a personal essay.

Any final thoughts for prospective students and high school seniors who are writing college application essays?

Good luck! And I hope to see your personal essay for Hillsdale College!

Kokko Tso is the Digital Content Manager for Hillsdale College. A ’13 graduate of Hillsdale, Kokko majored in History, Latin, and Music.