Character assessment is at the heart of every college admission essay and professional job application. While GPAs, class rank and test scores may present a picture of a student’s academic worth, the essay does much more; it hints at personal worth. Regardless of the prompt, an essay about character should offer compelling evidence of a candidate’s own moral soundness, highlighting such traits as honesty, initiative, confidence, selflessness, perseverance and resilience.

Choose a Prompt

Whether applying for a job, filling out a college application or merely writing an assigned academic essay, the first step in writing about character is finding an appropriate tool by which to demonstrate it. College essay prompts don’t explicitly ask applicants to define their own character. Instead, they lay forth questions that will give the essayist opportunity to expound on her own merit through anecdote, observation and investigation. When the University of Pennsylvania asked its applicants to consider the best advice they’d ever received, writers were given a great opportunity to speak to character. The same was true when Dartmouth asked students to choose a quotation that best described them and when Yale asked students to remember a compliment they’d be given and explain why it was of particular value. Assistant Dean & Director of MBA and Graduate Admissions at Rutgers Rita Galen offers applicants this advice: "If you have an option, pick the topic that showcases yourself best."


Before crafting an effective essay, writers should take time to think about the message they want to deliver and its intended audience. When writing to colleges, students need to know about the school and its culture and make sure the character attributes they are putting forward align with the philosophy of the college. Essayists seeking employment might consider the findings of employer branding firm Universum that the top three traits employers look for in new hires are professionalism, high energy and self-confidence.

Show Don’t Tell

It is the clichéd advice writing teachers frequently give to their students: show, don’t tell. However, it is particularly sound advice when the writing needs to be fully descriptive, yet concisely written. Instead of speaking in general terms of kindness and selfless commitment, the writer should refer to solid examples of community service or self-sacrifice. Swarthmore advises applicants that “a well-written essay should convey your thoughts, attitudes, personal qualities, imagination, sense of humor and creativity.” A good essayist reveals her character not by telling the reader she is honest, but rather by relating the story of when she turned in a discovered sum of money or confessed to a misdeed.

Brought to you by

Brought to you by

Draft and Edit

Drafting an essay means reading one’s own work objectively and editing it as necessary. Questions to consider include: Is the prompt fully answered? Do I back up statements with evidence? Am I sending the message I intend? The author must also check and recheck to assure his work is structurally and grammatically sound.