You Need An Organizing Principle

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When most of my students begin to write their main Common App essay, they usually start brainstorming about particular stories from their past or singling out an extra-curricular activity they have. They say things like: “I want to write about my trip to Israel.” Or “I want to write about soccer.”

Does this sound like you?

While there’s a chance that you could turn out a compellingly personal piece by writing about an activity or experience outside of yourself, most high-school age humans will do just that: write about “Israel” or about “soccer.” They’ll write at length about the subject—and not at all about themselves. Not such a personal take on a personal statement, huh?

In addition, writing about one “thing” on your activities list has another disadvantage that could spell “r-e-j-e-c-t-e-d” for you in a few months’ time. What is it? Just this: making you appear schizophrenic.

Hear me out. (And I am NOT diagnosing you with anything, BTW!)

If you are like most of my students, your activities list looks a bit like this: 

  1. Soccer (Varsity Captain)

  2. Volleyball (Club team)

  3. Debate Team (2 years)

  4. Guitar (Jazz band)

  5. Secretary of Student Government (2 years)

  6. Peer Tutoring (math help to local elementary school kids)

  7. Camp Counselor (at summer camp I’ve attended the past 7 years)

  8. Pre-Med Club (this year)

  9. Watercolors (3 years)

If I were the admissions reader looking at this (not-so-organized) list, I would think: who IS this person? I just don’t GET it. What makes them tick? Are they just joining clubs to “look good for colleges”? They’re…well, kinda all over the place!

That’s not the reaction that will get you into an elite institution.

But here’s the good news: if you can connect the dots FOR the person reading your file in the admissions office at your dream school, you can seem like a genuine, well-rounded person with admirably diverse interests instead of seeming all over the place. And you can do this in your main essay.


So how do you connect the dots? Simple: by having an organizing principle

Most teens these days are so focused on DOING, and doing MORE, that it’s natural they’d think the answer is outside them. But it’s the opposite. If you can use your essay to illustrate the basic motivation that makes you tick on the INSIDE—the overarching philosophy or personality trait or thought pattern that runs through your very disparate real-world actions—you’ve just made a case for yourself. You’ve told the admissions reader who you are, and who you’ll be on their campus. Plus, you’re showing that you’re self-possessed, thoughtful, reflective, and self-aware—all traits of the kind of mature, responsible students elite institutions want. 

Not too shabby!

Here’s an example of how the student with the above drastically all-over-the-place interests might connect the dots:

Perhaps, (let’s call her) Samantha’s core personality is spontaneous—perhaps she’s someone who really likes to think on her feet. Her active mind never stops running and in order to relax, she needs to expend a ton of energy on a daily basis. 

Samantha’s participation in the debate team speaks to this because she has to come up with rebuttals and arguments on the spot, which feeds her personality’s core need for challenge and spontaneity. As does playing the guitar in her school’s jazz band, where she really loves improvising her solos in the heat of the moment. Peer tutoring allows for her to answer unanticipated questions on her feet while making a difference to little kids (she likes them). She is contemplating going to medical school and becoming an emergency room doctor, where she’d get to actively use this “thinking on her feet” strength of hers to save lives on a daily basis.

For Samantha, soccer and volleyball are amazing ways for her to expend some of her excess mental energy…plus she never knows where the ball is going to go, so, AGAIN, she gets to use her strength of acting spontaneously and using her instincts to help her team score points.

All of a sudden, SIX of these activities make sense. The remaining ones won’t be so hard to account for. Maybe Samantha ALSO has a key personality trait of wanting to do the right thing and see justice happen. That could explain wanting to be in Student Government (to keep a watch on the goings-on) and being the camp counselor at her camp (she wants to make sure the younger students had the same positive experiences SHE had for many summers). 

Watercolors is the only thing that doesn’t appear to relate now. And guess what? That’s just fine. Maybe Samantha just likes it (crazy idea, I know!).


So HERE’s what Samantha looks like now:

1) Organizing Principle: Spontaneity, quick thinker and problem solver

  • Soccer

  • Volleyball

  • Debate Team

  • Pre-Med Club

  • Guitar in Jazz Band

  • Peer Tutoring


2) Secondary Organizing Principle: Justice, doing the right thing

  • Student Government

  • Camp Counselor


  • Peer Tutoring

  • Pre-Med Club

  • Debate Team

3) Random interest: watercolors, which Samantha finds relaxing


So if Samantha can tell a story in her personal statement that paints the picture of her need to think on her feet and solve spontaneous problems and see justice served—even if her story has to do with NONE of her activities—and she manages to makes a brief mention to her interests where she applies this thought process, she is now a REAL HUMAN BEING and not a college-grubbing robot. And even better: she’s a real human being who college admissions officers know is self-aware and intrinsically motivated…she’s looking like a pretty good prospect already.

You can get this boost for your application story. Stay tuned for my favorite way to find YOUR organizing principle and use it to make YOUR varied interests make sense next time!