All about college essays: How to answer the “Character that had influence on you” question

Post By: COYD Staff

common application essaysThe complete question on the 2011 Common Application is: “Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.” As in past college essay question posts, one of the most important things you should do is understand the purpose of the question. So let’s start with that…

Why are they asking this question? What do they want to find out through this question?

Like I’ve said before, the admission officers are not looking for a history lesson or a description that they could read on Wikipedia. Like all essay questions, the purpose of this question is to reveal more about you. This question is special because it not only reveals your values and character but also gives you a chance to show your creative side.

Next, is picking the right character.

Choosing the right character to talk about is probably the important part of tackling this question. There are students who have somebody in mind to write about, but they second-guess it because they are worried that the character is not “sophisticated” enough or “interesting” enough. If you are one of those students, don’t second-guess yourself. If a character comes into mind immediately, then pick that character to write about. The reason why this one pops up immediately is that this character probably did have the most influence on you, and you can show right off the bat how he/she did.

If a character doesn’t immediately pop into your mind, ask yourself the following questions:

Is there one quote that you have repeated over and over throughout your life? If so, is the author someone who has influenced you?

Is there a book that you have read multiple times?

Was there a character that influenced you to do what you are now most passionate about?

Is there a character in a movie that has transformed your mindset and/or actions?

If you can’t answer one of these questions, then maybe this question isn’t the best one to pick as your essay question. You might be a student who is more influenced by a personal experience or person in your life rather than a historical figure or fictional character.

Another tip that I would highly recommend is to show multiple layers in your essay.

At the end of the day, the essay is an opportunity to show the admissions officer who you are outside of your resume and accomplishments. Every human being is layered. At the very least, we have our personal side and our professional side. When a student can write an essay that shows more than one layer of themselves, they humanize the essay. Humanizing an essay allows the admissions officers to see why and how the student is passionate about something. When a student is able to successfully show that their passion is real and intentional, they already have an advantage over the other applicants.

To illustrate this point further, let me give you an example. I recently read an essay that described Neil Armstrong as the student’s influential historical figure. In it, the student described Armstrong’s academic life, professional life, and his feat as the first man on the moon. The student proceeded to describe how this incredible feat influenced him to pursue aeronautical engineering and become an astronaut. This student only described how Armstrong professionally influenced him. The essay seemed a bit shallow. Other than showing the student’s interest in aeronautical engineering, it didn’t show much else. It was dry and predictable. So let me ask you a question, what makes this student better than the next Neil Armstrong-inspired aeronautical engineer?

Last tip: Be smart about your description.

Since you should keep the common application essays around 500-600 words, every word counts. When describing the character, make sure the explanation of the character is relevant to how this character influenced you. For instance, don’t spend a paragraph describing this character’s physical experience unless his physical experience contributes to your explanation on how this character had an influence on you.

These are just some things to think about when tackling essay #4 of the Common Application essays.


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One Response to “All about college essays: How to answer the “Character that had influence on you” question”

  1. Gene
    Dec 19., 2011 at 2:04 am #

    Hi, I’m a current senior high school student and I just wanted to say that this is quite helpful. I’m choosing the fourth option for my Common App essay, and I think the point about relating the character to myself on a deeper ‘layer’ is a really nice tip. Most students fail to make a meaningful connection and thereby miss the point of the essay.

    Cheers to all the seniors out there!

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