“What Makes You, You”: The Discursive Construction of the Self in US College Application Essays

Sarah W. Beck, Amanda J. Godley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: This study draws on genre theory to analyze the linguistic and discursive presentation of the self in successful US college application essays. Research Methods: We used qualitative discourse analysis informed by the systemic functional linguistic concepts of field, tenor, and mode to analyze 20 sample application essays identified as exemplary by college admissions staff from 4 US colleges, along with essay-writing advice obtained from websites of 12 US universities. Our analysis aimed to specify (1) the characteristics of the self that are represented in successful essays and (2) how the writers linguistically and discursively construct these characteristics. Findings: Successful essays portrayed a unique and authentic self through distinctive, patterned features that spanned the three categories of field, tenor, and mode. Features related to “field” included extended metaphors representing insights gained from learning and experience, language representing niche interests, verbs suggesting learning or change, and appraisal language positioning the writer as charitable and optimistic; features related to “tenor” did not include direct address or questions but rather implicit persuasion through descriptive representation of the writer’s character; and features related to “mode” included micronarratives, extended metaphors that supported cohesion, and syntactic structures that facilitated contrast of the writer’s self before and after a significant moment of learning. Implications: As colleges move away from requiring standardized tests for admission, the importance of college application essays has increased. Our findings contribute to efforts to make successful performance of this high-stakes genre more attainable, particularly for first-generation and underrepresented students applying to college.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)539-564
Number of pages26
JournalAmerican Journal of Education
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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