Writing a narrative, anecdotal account of an important experience can be an effective method for showing the admissions committee who you are as a person and what kind of Hokie you would be on campus. It’s an open-ended prompt — the story can be about something good or bad, seemingly insignificant or monumental, a failure or a triumph, as long as you can convey why and how the experience made you who you are today.
The most common mistake applicants will make on this essay is falling into the trap of “telling” rather than “showing.” Don’t just say what happened, set the scene and appeal to the senses of the reader. You want to give the reader a deeper understanding of the situation by making them feel a personal connection to the scene — this will help them understand better its impact on you.
For an essay about navigating your parents’ divorce, you’d want to avoid general “telling” statements like, “I had to calm down my little sister, who was upset about having to split time between our parents’ new houses.” Instead, you could “show,” saying, “As the blue-grey facade of my mom’s house faded out the car window, I distracted my sister with a game of tic-tac-toe. By the time we approached dad’s apartment, her tears had dried and she happily pressed her face against the glass to get a glimpse of dad.”
Remember that the focus of the essay is on how the experience changed your character. It may be helpful to use parallel examples from before and after the experience. For example, you could recount the ease with which you wrote, ate, and ran before an accident, and then detail the struggle of relearning these previously taken-for-granted abilities afterward.
If you choose to write about an experience that demonstrated your character rather than shaping it, choose one of your defining character traits and think of a situation or experience that was emblematic of that value.
For example, if you’re hardworking, you may want to write about a project that you gave your all and poured your heart into. No matter what topic you choose, “showing” by appealing to the senses rather than “telling” objectively will help you to write an effective narrative supplement.
Three undergraduate students won Virginia Tech’s Common Book Project essay event.
The contest, titled “My Virginia Tech Values: An Essay Event,” asked students to submit essays around this prompt: What does it mean to you to live a life of service and how do you make life choices that embody this value?
The contest winners include:
- Nicole Guilbault of Sterling, Virginia, a first-year student majoring in business information technology in the Pamplin College of Business
- Lillian Phan of Chantilly, Virginia, a first-year student majoring in communication studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
- Madeline Yaskowski of Leesburg, Virginia, a first-year student majoring in public relations and German in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
The prompt was inspired by the university’s Common Book for 2015-17, “The Heart and the Fist,” by Eric Greitens. The book details his life of service through academics as a Rhodes and Truman Scholar, as well as roles with humanitarian organizations and service as a U. S. Navy SEAL. After his military service, Greitens founded The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that challenges veterans to serve in communities across the U.S.
Contest submissions were not supposed to be a book report on the Common Book, but rather an essay that used the Common Book as an inspiration to showcase how the writer also demonstrates service.
“The theme this year connected to the values of the Common Book, which also resonate with the culture of Virginia Tech, embodied in our motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve),” said Jennifer Culhane, director of first-year academic initiatives in the Office of First-Year Experiences. “As a member of the judging committee, it was inspiring to see the varied ways that students truly live that motto.”
Guilbuilt related her experience teaching swimming lessons to an 8-year-old boy with autism to an experience the Common Book author had in Rwanda, helping a boy with an infected wound who had been ignored by others. “While this may seem like a small instance of service, it made a world of difference to the little boy, just as learning to swim had for Jacob. Random acts of kindness are some of the greatest examples of public service and can constitute change in a community.”
Yaskowski’s essay looked at the culture of service at Virginia Tech and how students extend beyond some of the well-known service events such as Relay for Life and The Big Event. “Kindness has a domino effect: Once you act kind to others, they will pay it forward and it will never end. Kindness – an extension of integrity – is easy to do and can create waves in the world.”
Phan described how she and a friend created a nonprofit and distributed school supplies to students at an impoverished school in India one summer. “I have always had the opportunity and resources to strive in school, but I did not realize how privileged I was until meeting children who did not even have the opportunity — the chance. These children are dedicated to their education and to making a person out of themselves. Some of them just needed the supplies and others needed the love and encouragement.”
The winning essays are available to read on the Common Book Project website. The winners were recognized at the Board of Visitors President’s Luncheon on April 5.