Aristotle: Your Personal Essay Coach

Letting Aristotle Help You Write Your Admissions Essay

I have been helping students discover their own personal voices since 2002. Before that, I worked in several start-up companies, where I list “Helping others communicate more effectively” most prominently on my resume. This is because I have recognized that most problems in any organization have their roots in poor communication. I start working with my high school students on their essays in March before their 12th grade year. This may seem very early, but there is a very good reason for that. I have found that writing an essay at that time carries less apprehensiveness, and therefore, allows the student’s authentic voice to emerge. When faced with these same admission essay prompts later, the tendency is to write from a place of foreboding that often brings a product that I call the “Mr/Miss World” essay. You know the one, where the writers tell us about how just seeing the smiles on the little orphan’s faces made them recognize how they have taken their own lives for granted and that these little underprivileged children gave them so much more than the hours of service the writers devoted. You probably just threw up in your mouth a little as well. So, lets travel back in time and ask Aristotle for some help through his identification of Ethos, Pathos and Logos in persuasive writing.


Ethos is essentially your credibility, or trustworthiness. An appeal to the reader through ethos is to establish that people should believe what you are saying because you know a good deal about this topic. For instance, in my introduction I established how long I have been reading personal essays, as well as extensive experience in the business world with effective communication. While you may not have the years of experience, or the degrees and titles to flaunt your credibility, you are “experts” in some areas, and one particular area that an admissions person is most interested in ~ YOU! Aristotle actually made great pains to point out that ethos is not the outer appearances, as much as it is in the language that the writer uses to show credibility. Consider for instance how one might list being in a leadership role in an essay. Simply telling the reader that you had this position does not help much. The reader does not know how that role is picked, whether by popularity or some partiality. But if the writer were to indicate a particular “learning” in that role, then the reader could recognize the quality as authentic. For instance: “Remembering the conflict that I caused by not allowing all of my team members their opinions from the last football match, I calmed the student counsel down and suggested that we pass my gavel around and let everyone have one minute to share their perspectives uninterrupted.”


Pathos is making an emotional connection, but not in the way our Mr/Miss World speech has attempted above. I think that the more effective way of doing this requires the writer to get in touch with his/her own feelings and motivations first. If you look at the things that you wish to communicate (brag) about in the application, try to identify your emotional connection and motivation for doing those things. You will initially just respond that “you enjoy” the activity, or “you are good” at it. But if you search more, you will likely find some more intrinsic rewards that you receive from these. Those feelings and motivations will be what you want to share with the reader. The effect of this is that the reader can empathize with you in a broader sense and even imagine how you would excel in similar activities on their campus.


This is where the writer makes and appeal to the readers reason, hence the derivative of the word-Logic. There are ways to do this in your personal essay, but I think that Logos most comes into play when you are telling the college “why” you want to go to their school. Many of these essays tend to be blatant flirtations, with adjective filled sentences telling the admissions people several things that they already know about their school. Instead, focus on you first. List the areas that you feel proud of having achieved some expertise (from your Ethos areas), then think of some aspects of your personality as they relate to your environment that are important to you (this may have been some of the things that you communicated in your Pathos area), now think of some of the areas that you “aspire” to do, but for whatever reason you have not had resources (time, money, facilities). Only then should you research the school that you have targeted and try to make connections between one of those three areas of you, and how those areas are represented or available at that school. This can be an effective way to make a strong logical (Logos) connection between you and that school.

A focus on any one of these areas would make for a more effective and persuasive essay, but I point them out here more to direct the writer to the process before you even sit down to write. These can be effective ways to learn more about yourself and what makes you who you are. Once you have a good understanding of who you are, you will be more effective in communicating that to others.

Note: I have based this article on another interesting article on Harvard Business Review by Scott Edinger: Three Elements of Great Communication. You can read that article here:

University of Chicago's new 2013 Essay Questions

"Provocative." "Comical." "Engaging." "Fun!"

These are all words that students have used to describe our uniquely UChicago essay questions. (Yes, this is our attempt to make applying to college “fun.” Or at least a little less stressful.)

Rolling out the maroon carpet to grant you an exclusive sneak peek at this year’s essay questions. This should give you plenty of time to ponder, play, and procrastinate before the application process commences this fall.

The complete UChicago supplement and financial aid details will be available when the Common Application goes live on August 1.

“A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.” –Oscar Wilde.

Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. Autobots and Decepticons. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).

Inspired by Martin Krzywy, admitted student Class of 2016.

Heisenberg claims that you cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron with total certainty. Choose two other concepts that cannot be known simultaneously and discuss the implications. (Do not consider yourself limited to the field of Physics).

Inspired by Doran Bennett, AB’07.

Susan Sontag, AB’51, wrote that “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend.  The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.

Anonymous submission.

“...I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present." –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern

Present: pres·ent

1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.

Let’s stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.

Inspired by Jennifer Qin, AB’16

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

So where is Waldo, really?

Inspired by Robin Ye, AB’16.