Who… are…you? How to write the identity supplement.

college admissions Common Application supplements

In Alice in Wonderland, when the Caterpillar persists in asking “Who… Are…. You?,” Alice stumbles and cannot reply. It’s a good thing that Alice isn’t applying to college, because some form of an essay asking about you (and your identity and/or perspective) is an ever-more-popular supplement question. These are hard! It is important to tackle these identity questions with honesty and authenticity, and without prejudice, stereotype, or cliche. Sometimes these questions will simply ask about your identity, sometimes they will ask instead of how you have responded to a situation where your perspective was different than someone else’s. Either way, it is important to have a sense of yourself – and who you are – in order to discuss how you have interacted in situations marked by differences in perspective. It’s a tall order!

Note: these supplements range in length but tend to be fairly “mid-sized” in the 150-250 word limits.

Example Identity Questions:

  • Penn: At Penn, learning and growth happens outside of the classroom, too. How will you explore the community at Penn? Consider how this community will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape this community. 
  • Georgetown: As Georgetown is a diverse community, the Admissions Committee would like to know more about you in your own words. Please submit a brief essay, either personal or creative, which you feel best describes you.
  • Princeton: At Princeton, we value diverse perspectives and the ability to have respectful dialogue about difficult issues. Share a time when you had a conversation with a person or a group of people about a difficult topic. What insight did you gain, and how would you incorporate that knowledge into your thinking in the future?
  • Brown: Brown’s culture fosters a community in which students challenge the ideas of others and have their ideas challenged in return, promoting a deeper and clearer understanding of the complex issues confronting society. This active engagement in dialogue is as present outside the classroom as it is in academic spaces. Tell us about a time you were challenged by a perspective that differed from your own. How did you respond?

LET'S BREAK DOWN THE ESSENTIAL POINTS YOU NEED TO HIT WHEN RESPONDING TO THIS SUPPLEMENT:

While always important, in these essays it is absolutely essential to speak honestly and with integrity and authenticity. If you feel yourself slipping into any type of stereotype, judgment, or cliche, stop writing and ask a friend to help you talk this through before you write any further.

College celebrates the open mind! If you are discussing a situation where your ideas were challenged by someone who held a different perspective, it is essential that you don’t “win” the whole of this argument. Select a moment where you can illustrate your own growth as a human and a thinker. Celebrate your open mind. You don’t have to fully capitulate to the other perspective, but please select a situation where you came to see the value of the other side – where you recognize humanity in the opposite perspective. No college wants to admit a student who actively celebrates their own closed mindedness.

This is an essay where it is helpful to consider examples and stories where you can emphasize showing something over simply telling something. Make the reader see the situation you are presenting through details and examples. Don’t just stick to vague statements (like “I support everyone in expressing their true inner selves”) because these don’t really mean anything and your readers don’t learn anything new about you.

THINGS TO AVOID:

As with all supplements, avoid cliches and platitudes. Avoid sounding patronizing to your peers (in the story you tell) or to the admissions reader.

Furthermore, if you talk about religion, politics, or money, do so in a way that does not alienate a reader whose views you do not know.

ADDITIONAL TIPS AND TRICKS:

Struggling to think of a story about the difference of perspectives? Think about a moment from a class at school. Have you ever had a respectful, and honest, disagreement with a classmate about an academic topic or issue? Use that story here.

Do not recycle one identity essay into the next. These questions are specific (and different) and there are rarely openings to take one essay and use it for multiple schools.

Do not try to write dialogue. Instead, summarize what you are trying to show.

Elise holds a BA in Political Philosophy from Williams College and an MEd in Administration & Social Policy from Harvard. She has spent the past twenty years working in top-tier independent schools.

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