Vulnerability can be daunting. It’s often easier to focus on superficial achievements than deeply rooted insecurities. Letting others in is like opening a door. But exposing ourselves, sharing our struggles, failures, and emotionally vulnerable moments? That can be truly terrifying.
But I’m here to tell you that truly exceptional personal statements often contain a touch of vulnerability. I believe that vulnerability is where the magic happens. Where the path of vulnerability may lead is unpredictable, but there’s a good chance it will take you somewhere intriguing.
Thankfully, there are several ways to introduce vulnerability into your essay, and not all of them require you to share that mortifying story from scout camp.
Four Ways to Use Vulnerability Productively in Your Personal Statement
- Share something that you fear others will judge you for.
Sometimes, we fear that revealing something about ourselves will leave us feeling isolated, embarrassed, or unloved. However, I’ve found that vulnerability often has the opposite effect. When we share our regrets, insecurities, and ambitious dreams for the future, we often find common ground that binds us in understanding.
Are you ashamed of something a family member did? It happens. Disappointed because you didn’t fulfill a promise? Been there. Scared of appearing foolish? Isn’t that the essence of our early adolescent years? If you’re unsure where to start, think about the topics you usually avoid. What subjects do you only discuss with your closest friends? Are you somewhat comfortable writing about these issues?
Frequent areas of vulnerability include challenging family relationships, health concerns, frequent relocations or immigration, identity struggles, shortcomings, mistakes, and moral or ethical dilemmas.
If you’re not certain you’re ready to write about these topics, think about some of your favorite movies or books. Often, it’s the acts of vulnerability that draw us in and remind us of our shared humanity. Being vulnerable is a brave and impactful choice.
2.Describe an unresolved or seemingly insurmountable challenge.
You don’t have to only share parts of yourself that you fully understand; you can also share the parts you’re still figuring out. This can reveal a lot about who you are and how you perceive the world.
Where can you find your own unresolved challenges and contradictions? Often, these stem from a clash of important values. For example, my desire to support local, independent businesses (value: community) conflicts with my love for the convenience of Amazon Prime’s delivery service (values: freedom and convenience).
Why does this matter? This concept of conflicting values is the root of drama. There’s no drama if you dislike X but love Y. The drama comes when you love two things that are in opposition. There’s no drama if I prefer shopping locally and hate opening packages, as the solution is simple: don’t order from Amazon. But there is drama when I love the thrill of unboxing budget-friendly exercise socks, but also want to support the local shoe shop on my street. In your essay, these kinds of conflicts can create productive tension.
How can you identify these conflicts in yourself? Think about which of your core values sometimes clash. Can you uphold your integrity while taking risks? Can you listen attentively while also sharing your own story? Can you embrace your identity as a first-generation American while also assimilating into American culture?
Sometimes, we encounter conflicts that are not just unresolved, but seemingly insurmountable. This can be truly extraordinary.
3.Obsess over something you love that is a bit unconventional.
I’m not talking about your interest in volunteering or team sports. I’m referring to the things you love that not everyone “gets.”
Why does this show vulnerability? It takes courage to express your passions, especially if what you love is considered nerdy by some. For instance, I’m a self-proclaimed nerd for college essays, board games, and wordplay.
However, you can proudly proclaim, “I LOVE CODING!” and there will be people who appreciate you for it.
The key, however, is that you cannot simply say, “I love coding so much.” You must ensure that your essay reveals core values, includes insightful “so what” moments, and is well written.
4. Discuss a challenge or failure without offering a solution.
It’s tempting to wrap things up neatly with a bow. For example:
This is how I learned to trust myself and my instincts.
“…but it all worked out because that’s how I got to where I am now.”
“However, everything worked out for the best because…”
But life isn’t always like that.
One of my all-time favorite essays describes how the author’s after-school tutoring program failed to help one of the students. He details everything he did to support this student and how, in the end, the student dropped out of school.
This is the concluding paragraph: “This wasn’t Alex’s fault. It was mine. I had failed as a teacher. Because, at the end of the day, our goal was simple: get these kids out of Chicago’s hood. ‘Achieve First’ was their ticket to a new world of education and accomplishment. I was a guide on that path. But for Alex, I had failed. And that’s a heavy burden.” That’s it.
No tidy resolution, no casual “here’s what I learned”. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal about this student’s core values — his dedication to social justice, helping others, and addressing tough questions — and the essay is filled with insightful “so what” moments.
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