“How would you describe yourself?” This question became my greatest enemy junior and senior year of high school. It popped up everywhere, taking forms like the dreaded 450-word minimum college essay.
How do I write 450 words about myself? This idea plagued my mind in the months leading up to high school graduation.
As I spent another dreary evening responding to college essay prompts in the dark of my room at 4 a.m., I ran out of life experiences to link generic resume-building qualities to. Soccer, volunteering and diversity club can’t be the only parts of me. Right? I hit an identity roadblock. Despite being involved throughout high school, my essay responses felt shallow.
While downing another two cups of coffee and fighting writer’s block, I came very close to waving the white flag. I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed. Then I realized something: This essay question doesn’t end at the minimum word requirement. Future employers will ask me this exact thing for years. Describing myself surpassed a momentary challenge to prove myself to an admissions board. It serves as a vital skill for my professional and personal development.
Once I realized that, the question terrified me. Its confrontational nature seemed even greater than before. The question implied I needed a very clear and confident image of myself. What graduating high schooler has that? The more I struggled to answer, the more frustrated I felt.
I realized I barely knew the person I spent the most time with—myself. My chest tightened.
I frantically pulled up my resume for ideas, but the words seemed fake. I fished for words describing positive qualities that made me look good, but they didn’t really fit me. They sounded too predictable: hardworking, creative, motivated, works well with others, dynamic. I came across one-dimensional on paper.
Months later, I left for college with a goal. “I’m going to find myself and figure out who I am as a person,” I thought. I hoped to finally have some identity closure.
I told myself college would differ from elementary, middle and high school. The awkward, occasionally soul-numbing events of adolescence already felt far behind me, like puberty and my friends’ drug abuse. Growing up can seem de-sensitizing, but I felt confident college would offer stability and security.
But six months into college nothing had changed. I still didn’t know myself, what I wanted or if I did the right things. How do I describe myself? No idea.
I couldn’t understand why it hadn’t clicked. I’d met great people and experienced incredible new things, but I still felt lost.
I realized I needed to dig deeper to figure it out. All this time, I struggled to describe myself because I believed significant experiences equaled greatness. In reality, no specific award, experience or moment defined me. Instead, every moment of my life told me something about myself.
For example, during high school, I loved to paint. My art teachers described me as artistic. At the end of senior year, I finished a large oil painting called “Three Faces of the Same” depicting the same face three times. Each face wore a different emotion: anger, sadness and happiness. I won an award for the painting and put it on my resume, but the recognition didn’t make the experience describe me.
Instead of describing myself as artistic, like my teachers did, I examined what that meant. The extra hours spent in the studio proved my devotion to sacrificing my time for things important to me. I repainted the piece more than three times. I applied hundreds of touch-ups before I deemed the painting finished. This showed me I learn from my mistakes.
Describing yourself seems like an impossible task when you equate notable achievements with self-defining qualities but earning the best grade in English class doesn’t always translate into becoming the next Shakespeare. Eventually, all those awards and praises run out.
I thought college would define me, but life doesn’t work like that. People like to believe that people never change, but that’s not true. You constantly develop and evolve as a person.
Life-defining moments can be as big as gaining your independence while leaving for college or traveling the world and falling in love with other cultures. Or, they can be as small as acing what you thought would be an impossible calculus test or revamping your entire wardrobe. Everything you do shapes your personality. Sometimes you might feel like you haven’t accomplished much, but “remarkable” describes you better than you think.
Once you realize you can get to know yourself by simply thinking about what you did in the past day, hour or minute, you realize nobody knows you better than yourself. Sometimes you just need a different perspective.