When I met Ashlyn in September 2020, she was an accomplished senior with stellar grades, strong extracurriculars, and a passion for chemistry — not to mention a competitive level 9 gymnast and team captain. But she was feeling, well… less than confident about her college essays.
“I’m not a good writer,” Ashlyn insisted. “I want to write my main essay about family, but I can’t figure out the right angle, or how to make it about me.” She was stuck, and the Common App prompts weren’t any help.
In our first brainstorming session, Ashlyn mentioned her fascination with “collecting geographic coordinates.” Wait, what? Honestly, that was new to me! Like every admissions officer, I wanted to know the real, authentic Ashlyn, beyond her transcript, GPA, and extracurriculars. So her quirky embrace of these special numbers immediately caught my attention — I was dying to find out what this revealed about her.
In other words, this seemed to be Ashlyn’s thing… an uncommon, unusual aspect of her personality that distinguished her from everybody else. A great college essay captures your thing (or one of them). It shows off how distinctive you are, and makes admissions readers actually want to meet you.
After writing a rough draft, Ashlyn and I both felt confident that this was the ideal topic for her. She was excited to share this personal aspect of her life, and I was every bit as excited to help her reveal it effectively. In her essay, she focused on her fascination with coordinates — from her birthplace at 42°10’35″N 70°57’14″W, all the way to her experience at the Grand Canyon at 36°1’58″N 113°49’30″W — and reflected on how they had helped her to grow from a painfully shy kid into a fearless, kick-ass aspiring engineer who (literally) found strength in numbers.
(Scroll down to read her full essay!)
Not only was her topic unique, Ashlyn wrote in her natural voice (she could easily read her final essay aloud). Her story was one-of-a-kind, and absolutely helped her stand out as an applicant (nobody else could have written even one sentence of her essay). One of her acceptance packets even included a handwritten note from admissions, offering her a place at the exact coordinate of their college… WOW! When a super-busy admissions officer takes the time to look up such specific information, just to write a personalized note to you, that’s the ultimate proof that you’ve made a strong impression.
Ashlyn enrolled at one of her top choice schools, Villanova University, where she was accepted into the Honors Program! (And she proved to everyone, including herself, that she’s actually one heck of a writer.)
As you read Ashlyn’s essay, pay attention to how cleverly she incorporates numbers (not just coordinates, but all types of numbers!) and how closely she sticks to her main theme, start to finish. This is a super-focused, winning essay all the way. Congratulations, Ashlyn! I am so proud of the success this outstanding essay brought you.
Ashlyn’s Personal Statement
Common Application prompt 1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
42°10’35″N 70°57’14″W. To most, these numbers might seem insignificant, but this is where my story starts. My mother wears a necklace with the names of my siblings and I engraved on 3 charms. Engraved on the fourth charm is this coordinate, which is the location of the hospital where we were all born. Even when I was too young to understand, I was fascinated with it, and always ran my finger over the engraved coordinate.
When I was 6, I finally asked my mother what the numbers meant. “It’s a symbol of where our small family started,” she explained, “and a constant reminder of how much family means to me.”
Growing up, I did not have much family besides my parents and my 2 siblings. I was shy and always attached at my parents’ hip, scared to leave home and talk to anyone. Then the Hilliards came into my life. Living only 0.9 miles apart and the kids being around the same age, we started spending every minute together and soon became #the10. It was not long before we began going on vacations as one big family.
The year I turned 10, we created the tradition of a coordinate wall, introducing an important symbol to our new extended family. The growing wall has wooden slates of coordinates, each pinning the exact geographical location of a treasured family memory. On the wall is 36°1’58″N 113°49’30″W, where my older brother yelled, “Stop doing handstands that close to the edge of the Grand Canyon!” Or when all 5 kids ran out of the crystal clear water in Hawaii, screaming “Come see the giant sea turtle we found!” so I would not miss out, at 19°36’9″N 155°58’29″W.
Every year since, we have added a new coordinate to the wall. 2020 was the first year we couldn’t travel. While all sitting around the table late one night, Sarah Hilliard sighed, “It’s sad we can’t add another coordinate this year.” We all turned to look at the wall, reflecting on vacation memories. That moment made me realize why I am mesmerized by coordinates. They are not just numbers or places, but symbols that represent how I define myself and family because of the precious memories and fulfilling experiences that built the foundation of my personality and character. Before I met the Hilliards, I believed family had to be the people you shared a blood or legal bond with, as that was how society defined family. Despite not being blood related, the Hilliards loved me from the day we met.
“Why don’t we add the coordinate of our house for 2020?” I suggested. “We basically had a vacation together, it was just at home.”
“Wait, that’s actually such a good idea,” Sarah agreed.
My dad grinned. “I can’t believe we never thought of adding our home coordinate!” and everyone chimed in, loving the idea.
Raising my hand and answering questions in school does not make my hands shake anymore. I no longer hesitate when faced with controversial situations. I assertively voice my convictions. Recently, after a group of students took it upon themselves to contact administration, claiming the entire grade supported having parties during a pandemic, I emailed school officials to dispute that these students’ claims represented the opinion of our entire class. I now confidently fill the role of a leader, as team captain and mentor to younger gymnasts. I wear the coordinate, 41°56’59″N 71°14’1″W, the location of the gym, inscribed on a bracelet as a testimonial to the expansion of my character. My coordinates not only remind me of where I have been, but how I will confidently navigate my future journey.