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Ethan Sawyer

How to Brag Without Being Totally Annoying

Adapted from his forthcoming book, College Essay Essentials

Let’s be real: your personal statement for college should do a little bragging, even it’s a little humble-bragging.

But nobody really wants to read ‘25 Reasons I’m The Actual Best And Why You’d Be Lucky To Have Me.’

So how do you talk about all the things you’ve accomplished without annoying or alienating your reader? How do you, well, brag without sounding braggy?

Brag without being annoying by connecting your achievement or skill to an important value.

Bragging that’s annoying and not connected to values:
When my team took first place at the 2010 United Nations Global Debates Program I knew that I had a future in politics and foreign affairs. We were able to beat our competitors by doing better, more complete research and supporting our statements more effectively. We worked hard for that award and I’m incredibly proud of myself.

Bragging that’s connected to values:
More importantly, I now confront issues instead of avoiding them. It is exciting to discover solutions to problems that affect others, as I was able to do as part of the 1st Place team for the 2010 United Nations Global Debates Program on climate change and poverty. I take a natural interest in global issues, and plan to become a foreign affairs analyst or diplomat by studying international affairs with a focus on national identity.

In the second example, the author shows that she has developed courage and is discovering solutions to problems that affect others, so her fancy UN Global Debates Award isn’t (only) a brag, it’s evidence that she has developed or is in the process of developing this value.

Bragging that’s annoying and not connected to values:
I’m fluent in both Hebrew and Farsi; I’m a natural language learner. I learned Farsi on my family’s yearly trips to India and biannual trips to Jerusalem. I feel that my aptitude for language makes me a particularly good candidate for your program.

Bragging that’s connected to values:
I also love sharing this appreciation with others and have taken it upon myself to personally eradicate mathonumophobiconfundosis, my Calculus teacher’s term for “extreme fear of Math.” A small group of other students and I have devoted our after-school time to tutoring our peers in everything from Pre-Algebra to AP Calculus B/C and I believe my fluency in Hebrew and Farsi has helped me connect with some of my school’s Israeli and Iranian students. There’s nothing better than seeing a student solve a difficult problem without me saying anything.

Read the whole essay here.

Kinda want to punch the author of that first example, don’t ya? The second example is primarily about helping others. But the author works in a brag (his ability to speak Hebrew and Farsi) by connecting it to this value. His fluency in multiple languages has helped him pursue this deeper (and altruistic) value.

If you’re not quite sure how to work your brags into your essay, brainstorm your essay like this:

A. value
B. accomplishment that demonstrates that value
C. moment or event that (visually) proves you possess that value

Quick examples:

Community >> voted MVP of lacrosse team >> rallied the team to win an important game after one of our best players was injured.

Empathy >> started an award-winning mentorship program >> helped a new student and her family find housing.

Curiosity >> placed at the national science fair >> tried dozens of variables and conducted hundreds of experiments.

Important: you can come up with the accomplishment (part b) first, then think about what value (part a) that the accomplishment represents, and finally the moment or event (part c) that proves it.

But here’s the (even more important) thing: you don’t have to explicitly tell the reader what the value is. You just have to show it.

In the first example above, for example, the author doesn’t explicitly say “Winning first place at the United Nations Global Debates Program on climate change and poverty (moment that proves she possesses that value) helped me find my voice (value).” We get it from the rest of the essay.

Read the whole essay here.

Tucking your brags and accomplishments into your personal statement is an art, not a science, so there’s no one perfect way to do it. But you can do it. In fact, I’ve done it in this post… but it’s so sly you may not have even noticed. Can you find it?

If you’d like more essay help, check out my on-demand and live courses here.

Or check out my new book, College Essay Essentials, available on Amazon.

About Ethan Sawyer

Ethan Sawyer has been helping students tell their stories for more than ten years and is the author of the forthcoming College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admission Essay. He has reached thousands of students and counselors through his webinars and workshops and has become a nationally recognized college essay expert and sought-after speaker. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and received an MFA from UC–Irvine. For more information, visit www.collegeessayguy.com.

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