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Write An Essay About Someone Who Influenced You

The Personal Statement About "A Person Who Influenced You"

"Describe a person who has influenced you" is the opening phrase of several personal statement prompts that go on to ask that you provide details of what that influence was. The major mistake made in these personal statement essays is that candidates make the essay about the individual and that individual's achievements and character, which is all fine, but not if it is at the expense of detailing how that person has influenced you. The other mistake candidates make in response to this prompt is that they answer with the intuitive "first response," which is usually a parent. And there is nothing wrong with offering a parent as the influential person - but only if in so doing, you can show that it was your parent who provided you with the abilities and interests that set you apart and can contribute to the target program.

As is the case with most personal statement essays, the success of your essay is determined before you begin writing - by what you decide to offer as content. In this essay there are many approaches to use - parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, friends, political leaders, celebrities - all of these categories can be tapped when it comes to the choice of who it was that influenced you.

The Trap to Avoid in Your Personal Statement Essays About "A Person Who Influenced You"

The trap to avoid is the trap of selecting a person without thinking through what you can offer as the influence. What is the strongest aspect of your candidacy? Your creativity? Your communication skills? Your technical background? Your professional background? The answer to this question - "What is the strongest aspect of your candidacy?" - is what should determine your subject matter for personal statement essays about a person who influenced you.

If your strength, say, is your background in a particular field, in your personal statement about a person who influenced you, identify the person who steered you in the direction of that field.

By doing this, you will use your personal statement essays not only as a means to describe someone with positive traits you would like to emulate, but someone whose influence in your life was critical in letting you develop those skills that most set you apart as a candidate.

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A teacher at one of my recent college essay workshops asked,

“What are some good ways for kids to approach the Common Application essay prompt about a person who’s influenced them?"

Here a few tips.

1.  Remember what “influence” means.

Influence is defined as, “the action or process of producing effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of another…”  The fact that you admire someone doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve influenced you.  There needs to be some action or change in your actions, behavior or opinions.   That means you'll need to give specific examples of those things.  Deciding to improve your behavior in school, visiting a particular college you previously refused to see, spending more time volunteering at the soup kitchen—if you did those things because of someone else, that’s influence. 

2. Don’t choose this prompt to try to sound impressive.

The Common Application actually gives you five choices of essay prompts.  A lot of students who choose this one write about a famous activist, politician, or someone else notable in an effort to sound impressive.  Again, you have to remember what “influence” means.  The admissions committee doesn’t need to be convinced that Martin Luther King or Gandhi are admirable.  Unless you can point to specific examples of how someone famous really has affected your actions, behavior or opinions, choose someone else (or chose a different topic). 

3. Focus on the influence, not the person.

The exact wording of the question is, “Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.”  The subtext there is that you shouldn’t spend the entire essay describing why this person is so wonderful.  Spend the essay talking about you—your behavior, actions and beliefs—and how those have changed or strengthened as a result of this person’s influence. 

4.    Write an essay nobody else could write.

An essay about how your mother has inspired you to work hard is a nice essay.  But it will read exactly like hundreds of other students’ essays.  Instead, be specific.  Give details.   Write an essay that no other student could write.  And if it’s about your mom, give enough specific examples so that nobody else’s essay about their own mother will be quite like yours.

You can find even more advice in our video, “How to Write Great College Essays.”  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.

Filed Under: College essays