This is a classic brainstorming prompt used by counselors and coaches. (It even pops up as a short answer question on college supplements, from Cornell to USC to Stanford!)
You’ll see lots of variations, but here are the most common prompts:
What are your 3 defining qualities?
What 3 words describe you best?
What are your 3 leading attributes?
This question is a fantastic way to brainstorm topics for an application essay, and a required prompt at many selective schools… but very few students actually make the most of it.
Sometimes, as a brainstorming exercise, you’re given a list to help pick your “defining” qualities.
So what’s the problem?
When I ran this exercise in a college essay workshop last year, this is what the 6 students came up with:
passionate, athletic, inquisitive
intelligent, athletic, caring
passionate, liberal, generous
outgoing, tough, passionate
hardworking, studious, athletic
loyal, hardworking, extroverted
Oh no! Not only did all 6 students choose generic adjectives, they mostly chose the same generic adjectives. Nobody set themselves apart from the others in the group, and NOBODY stood out as a vibrant, unique person.
The goal of this exercise is to define yourself as a multidimensional and one-of-a-kind… so let’s look at how to actually do that!
How to hack this exercise
First, get more specific. The prompt isn’t asking for words that describe you, but ones that BEST describe you. Your LEADING attributes. Your DEFINING terms.
(Fyi, that’s basically shorthand for more specific.)
Let’s say you chose intelligent, idealistic, and passionate. Sure, those words might describe you, but let’s be real — they also describe a lot of your peers. That means there’s no way that those three terms actually describe you best. You’ve got to be more specific!
If you chose idealistic… well, what are your most important ideals? Words such as listener, environmentalist, or diplomat (or literally hundreds of other words!) would probably come a lot closer to capturing that quality.
Second, don’t settle for basic adjectives. If you’re working from a list, throw it away right now. You have the freedom to define yourself in ANY words. You can choose nouns, verbs, adverbs… even prepositions! Why not? I’ve had students who picked outside, another who went with within, and one who actually chose beside.
Try all kinds of words. Instead of 3 adjectives, try 3 verbs. Try a combination of 1 adjective, 1 noun, and 1 adverb. Forget lists, forget rules, and forget crowd-pleasing positive attributes. Your goal is to capture what makes you memorable and distinctive.
Finally, think beyond single words. If you’re all about robotic arms or belting showtunes, that’s far more defining than just the word “passionate”! Nobody’s going to disqualify or discount you for breaking some imaginary “three-generic-positive-words-only” rule if they’re fascinated by the words you selected.
Take inspiration from these examples from my students last year. They are all vibrant, intriguing descriptions that actually make you wonder about the person who chose them. (And in many cases, deciding on those words helped the students figure out “defining” college essay topics.)
Do any of those descriptions perfectly capture you? Of course not! They’re too specific. They’re wonderfully unexpected. And they’re begging to be explained! Ideally, every term you choose will have a great story behind it… and that story might be the basis of a knockout college essay.
I love creative brainstorming that works — but brainstorming on your own, without any guidance, can be frustrating. For 1-on-1 support, reach out to me for a free consultation!