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Introspective Writing: What Not to Do

Introspective Writing: What Not to Do

Your introspective statements are the most important aspect of your essay. They speak for your logical and deductive reasoning ability, your ability to extract necessary relevant ideas from events, your self-awareness, and your attention to detail.

If you peruse our website, you may have seen mention of the 40/60 rule over a dozen times: 40 percent story, 60 percent introspection. While it is important to carefully tailor and craft your stories and examples for the prompt, what really counts is what you make of these stories and examples. You can tell the most interesting story the reader has ever read—maybe you hiked Mt. Everest or became a concert pianist when you were only ten years old—but merely telling a story is not going to get you into your dream graduate school. Instead, you should constantly aspire to answer the question: So what? By training to climb the tallest mountain in the world, did you learn how to face challenges bravely and tenaciously? Did you learn strong work ethic and the value of persistence at a young age while practicing to become a concert pianist? How have you acquired skills that have helped you in other facets of your life?

The following is a series of errors for you to avoid while writing introspectively. If you steer clear of these, you should be able to come up with some solid introspective ideas for your college application essay.

1. Don’t Include Unsupported Statements About Yourself

We have found that many of our students tend to describe themselves with unsupported brags such as “I am skilled with working with people,” or “I am a great student.” However, these do not qualify as introspective statements without concrete stories and examples supporting them. Instead of bragging, select stories that portray you as someone who works well with people, and then in your introspection explain the specific qualities that you have developed and applied.

Take a look at Sloan’s Introduction:

I have always been a really dedicated student. I believe I should be accepted to your communication program because of this rare but important attribute. I will dedicate myself to my studies while also being involved in many extracurriculars as I am currently. I’ve always believed in the mantra: If you can dream it, you can do it.  

This is one big boastful introduction. Sloan has made many empty claims and neither provided support nor given any indication that she intends to provide support for these claims in her body.

Contrast this with William’s introduction on a similar topic:

My GPA doubled over the course of two years while I was an undergraduate. This happened as soon as I learned the high standards for acceptance into a veterinary medicine program after college. After trying many different methods, I learned how to set a goal for myself and work towards achieving that goal one small step at a time. Working towards improving my GPA, I have benefited through three key factors: exposure to interesting and timely research material, a strengthened interest in biology, and most importantly the development of  patience and perseverance.

Like Sloan, William also says many positive things about himself, but they are all supported. He does not brag by claiming to be a 4.0 student; instead, he explains how he has become a good student and the things that he has benefitted from as a result: new exposure to research, strengthened interest in biology, and perseverance—all claims that will be even further supported by his body paragraphs.

2. Don’t Be Vague

When you use extremely vague terms such as “good,” “great,” or “nice,” you come off as disingenuous. You need to be able to cite examples of what precisely makes you so “good.” If you are claiming to be a good basketball player, is that owed to your team-working capabilities or your dribbling speed? Are you a good student because of your diligence or your attention to detail? If you can take your statement and copy and paste it into someone else’s essay, then it is not specific enough and has little informative value. Indicate your specific and unique positive attributes.

Take a look at one of Dennis’ body paragraphs:

Another thing that I’m proud of is that I’m really well-rounded. I can engage people on many different topics that I have learned about over the years. This prepares me for the social work graduate program where I am sure to meet and interact with a variety of people and professors. Furthermore, over the course of two years I can expand my knowledge base further, helping me get ahead once I complete the graduate program. While most people have one or two specific interests, I have been able to expose myself to a range, leaving open many possibilities.

After reading this paragraph we do not know anything about Dennis except that he is confident. He does not explain what it is that makes him well-rounded, or how he has worked to become this way. He does not use any concrete examples, making him seem untrustworthy and uninteresting.

Compare it with one of Beatrice’s body paragraphs:

As an undergraduate, I have always kept myself busy with a variety of activities—tennis, practicing ballet, piano, and teaching art were all activities that I had engaged in during a typical week.  Although at times, it felt like it might be a lot to handle, my busy schedule has positively impacted me in many ways. From ballet and piano, I have learned diligence and perseverance. When I played Division 1 tennis, I learned how to work as part of a team. Lastly, volunteering at a daycare where I taught painting and sketching has helped me learn my creative capabilities and has inspired my interest in architecture. Now, I feel that not only have I found my passion, I have the perseverance to continue to pursue that passion in graduate school.

Beatrice is also well-rounded like Dennis, but instead of proclaiming herself as such, she tells us specifically what makes her well-rounded. She spends the paragraph demonstrating all of her interests and experiences, noting each quality that she has developed as a result. This will leave a better impression with her reader than making empty, vague claims.

3. Don’t Use Superlatives (e.g. the best, very, most)

In a formal piece of writing, you should be most careful absolutely never to use superlatives (see what we did there?). Why? Because hyperbolic language is not believable and has no place in a persuasive essay. We all have a friend who eats at the best restaurant every day and whose absolute favorite movie is every movie. We soon learn to take everything they say with a grain of salt. Do not be that person—avoid superlatives at all costs.

Take a look at Lynette’s concluding paragraph:

After working hard for four years and constantly improving myself, I became the best student in the class. I was always winning awards and receiving recognition for my academics as you will see outlined in my résumé. After implementing the work ethic that my professors instilled in me I am confident that I am the most qualified candidate for your P.A. graduate program.

While Lynette’s accomplishments are impressive, her writing makes her come across as a rather arrogant and unpleasant person. Other students would not want someone like this as one of their peers, and professors would certainly not want someone like this in their classes.

Compare Lynette’s conclusion with Steven’s:

I will always be grateful to my mentor, Professor Ivan Mihaelchek, for devoting so much time to my success as a student. When I entered my freshman year pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering, I knew that my true interest lied with chemistry. After taking several of his courses, my sophomore semester I approached him to see if he would be my mentor in a research project on the molecular dynamics of supercooled liquids. Although most professors do not work on research projects outside the classroom with students until their junior or sophomore year, Professor Mihaelchek thought that, with some extra guidance, I would be able to succeed. While some of my research dealt with subjects I had not yet been exposed to, such as organic chemistry, I was able to focus and allot the necessary extra time to learn and work at my weaknesses. I have learned that once you have an objective, only hard work stands between you and success. I will implement this value in graduate school in pursuit of a Master’s of Chemistry—something I recognize will not be easy, but will be well worth the time and effort.

Without any superlatives, Stephen presents himself as a humble and hard-working student. He has unrealistic expectations neither of graduate school, nor of his own abilities.

In a Nutshell

Try to avoid these three don’ts and you should be in good shape for writing introspectively. Remember to pay particular attention to this crucial aspect of your writing, as it is vital to showcasing your qualities optimally to college admissions officers.

Cassandra Cloutier
Cassandra Cloutier is a NY-based actor, writer, and educator. She graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in 2019 with a BFA in acting, and her acting credits include Evil Lives Here on Discovery+ and productions at The Actor’s Temple and Shakespeare NYC. She worked as a Writing Coordinator and the Social Media Manager for Prompt for several years and until August 2023.