Defining the Self in College Application Essays

by Alice Pencavel

Objectives for Students: 

  • To connect observations of their external world with the nuances of their inner world.
  • To garner a deepened understanding of how the senses inform good writing.
  • To generate material students can use for college application essays.

Guiding Questions: 

  • Who are you in relation to your environment?
  • What is “self”?
  • How does your environment inform your character/sense of self?
  • What happens when you include sensorial details in your work?
  • What senses do you feel most aware of?
  • How can you best convey your personal self?
  • How does awareness inform personality?

Materials Needed/Set Up: Several sheets of ruled paper and something to write with.


  • On the left hand side of their paper, students jot down the five senses, leaving plenty of space between them.
  • Then, students divide the paper in two parts, drawing a line vertically down the center of the page. One section is devoted to where the students find themselves right now (i.e. a classroom), and the second section is a favorite place.
  • Students first write down all the senses they are feeling here and now, and then do the same for their favorite place/the place they feel a sense of belonging—beginning with the here and now. Instructors may want to hold off on telling students that the second column will be for their favorite place until they have first written out the sensory aspects of here and now.
  • Students briefly share some similarities and differences between here and the place they feel a sense of belonging.

Close Reading: 

Read Tillena Trebon’s essay, pulled from 2017 New York Times college essay standouts. Ask students to discuss: What is she like, and how is her character informed/impacted by her environment? What sensory descriptions did she use? How does her depiction of place mirror or highlight who she is?

Invite students to underline the sentences that stand out to them and share their selections. What important moments does Trebon mention that clue us in to who she is as a person? What does she value and how might identifying what we value indicate our make up?


  • Write about a place you feel you belong. Where do you find belonging? Look to your sheet of senses. What do you do in this place? Is there an activity you associate with the location? Are you alone or with others?
  • Imagine that you are writing to someone who has never heard of the place you are writing about, but is willing to learn and trusting of your perspective. Imagine your audience is unknowing but on your side completely.
  • Track the internal and external for us—similar to the Trebon essay, keep us with your inner life as you bring your world to fruition for your audience.


Invite students to share with the class. How did employing the senses mindfully enhance the writing, or give it a sense of lift? Why might including sensory details be important? Ask students to reflect on the connection between environment and self/identity. Define “identity,” asking students what it means to them?

This discussion will segue into the purposes of personal narrative essays. What can be learned about a person from a personal essay, and why do you think colleges include it with their application processes?


Image (top) via University of Rochester





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