Focus on the Negative

Unlike the rest of your application—which is about telling colleges what you’ve done—the personal statement for the Common App is about telling them who you are. That’s a daunting task for anyone, but often what it really comes down to is helping admissions officers understand your personal qualities. For many—dare I say most?—students, who as teenagers are in the throes of finding their identities to begin with, it is the first time they’ve been asked in any concrete sort of way to consciously consider those qualities. Far from being a mere writing exercise, it’s an introspective journey best approached with humility. In the midst of this operation, there is a certain (understandable) tendency to focus on the positive. Yet considering our alleged negative qualities, in addition to being a healthy step on the road to emotional maturity and self-improvement, is also an effective way to discover positive qualities we may be less aware of.

For much of my life, I was tagged as a quiet kid. I was much more comfortable losing myself in the luscious verbiage of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian explorations of human nature in The Martian Chronicles than I was kicking a ball across a soccer field (or even watching on the sidelines) like most other kids my age. Although I would later find gratification in pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone by joining my high school drama club and later, taking up squash, the quiet label stuck, at least in my mind. Fellow “quieteers” out there (current or past, recovering or unapologetic) will understand some of the repercussions that inevitably befall those who habitually play their proverbial cards close to the chest, as those around us fill the gaping information void with assumptions of aloofness, misanthropy, snobbery, or worse.

If, dear reader, you are a human being living in society, as I assume you must be, then I feel pretty safe in assuming that at one point or another, you’ve been pigeonholed and labeled unfairly for some negative quality you are perceived to possess. Perhaps you’ve even internalized this perception, believing it to be some incontrovertible facet of your identity. Well I am here to tell you that while you may be what you eat, none have more agency than you in forging your identity.

As you consider your personal qualities, it pays to consider the negative (or evidently negative ones), for two reasons. First, the journey to overcome a negative quality is often just the kind of compelling, intimate narrative that makes a great personal statement in the first place. Second, negative qualities are often just one side of the coin. Flip it over, and you realize that there’s a yin to its yang.

The quality of being quiet, shy, or reserved, for instance, while it inevitably travels in the company of common misconceptions, is also often an indicator of thoughtfulness. If you don’t believe me, try asking a quiet person their opinion in a group conversation. Just because they haven’t volunteered it, doesn’t mean they don’t have one. Indeed, their reluctance to share may be because they’ve been listening carefully to the opinions of their fellows as they work to formulate the most informed version of their own two-cent take. Quiet people also tend to possess, and evoke, a sense of calm coveted by their more loquacious counterparts.

Similarly, some of my favorite people are those who’ve spent their lives labeled as eccentric, weird, or peculiar. Yet eccentricity is a clear indicator of authenticity. To be eccentric, you have to march to the beat of your own bongos no matter how buffeted you may be by the bemusement of those around you. More often than not, eccentricity is also a sign of intelligence—or even genius. Just look at some of the world’s most famous artists, like Andy Warhol or Salvador Dalí, to whom the word eccentric doesn’t even begin to do justice. Consider influential film directors such as Federico Fellini or David Lynch. See what I mean?

Stubbornness is another quality that can be a source of immense frustration to others. Yet stubbornness is sticktoitiveness. Stubborn people, in other words, are also doggedly persistent go-getters who aren’t discouraged by obstacles—indeed, obstacles often just feed their indefatigable sense of determination. The overcoming of obstacles, moreover, is just the type of narrative that makes for an excellent personal statement. Indeed, the Common App’s second personal statement prompt asks a student to consider an instructive “challenge, setback, or failure.” If you are someone who has been accused of stubborness, you may find that your corresponding determination means that you have many such stories to tell.

Let us take a moment to consider the anxious or hyperactive person. Anxious people (unlike quiet people) tend to speak their minds freely. Yet anxiety (perhaps for lack of a better word) is often simply the flip side of high energy. High energy people are immensely fun to be around (especially for quiet people) and bring lightness, momentum, and humor to social situations.

These are just a few examples. Consider the common misconceptions of you. Write down a list and start looking at those so-called ‘flaws’ from a different perspective. As you approach the always imposing task of understanding yourself, and then explaining it to colleges, remember that the negative qualities that others detect (or that perhaps you perceive in yourself) can be a fertile source of inspiration and even self-realization.

NOTE: This article first appeared on the website of our colleagues at Distinctive College Consulting.