What America’s Got Talent Can Teach You About Your College Essay

by Ethan Sawyer, College Essay Guy

Here’s something I’m a little ashamed to admit publicly: Over the past few weeks I’ve started watching YouTube clips of America’s Got Talent. Why? 


FYI: America’s Got Talent is a show in which contestants compete for four judges “yes” votes--get three out of four votes and you move on to the next round. But here’s the thing: each season, every judge has one chance to send a contestant to the Final Round AUTOMATICALLY by pressing The Golden Buzzer.

Cue the confetti and tears.

Cue the confetti and tears.

It’s a glorious moment, the kind of romantic comedy ending moment that makes me feel guilty for feeling emotional--in large part because of my awareness of how the music/sound/everything is choreographed to make me feel all the feelings.

Here’s how it all started: a few nights ago I’m watching hotel TV (the best kind) while at a conference and I happened to catch one of these Golden Buzzer moments. After watching it, I realized there is totally a personal statement-related lesson here. So, y’know I watched like ten of these videos and I found some more lessons.

So here we go: four Golden Buzzer moments and what each can teach you about your college essay.

1. Calysta Bevier: 16 Year-Old Cancer Survivor

Heads-up: Get your tissues ready.

(Once you’ve watched the video, keep reading.)

First of all, have you heard this song before? If you’ve not and you’re curious, here’s the original, by Rachel Platten. It’s a pretty song, but it has nowhere near the resonance (sorry Rachel) that Caly’s version has. Why? Listen to Caly’s revelation before she sings about why her hair is so short.

Spoiler alert: Caly is a Stage III ovarian cancer survivor.

Without this context, it’s a pretty song...

But with this piece of information, when Caly sings “THIS IS MY FIGHT SONG” it just might make your heart open wide open, as it did mine. 

Fun fact: It also happened for my friend Rizzo, when I sent him this video.

Here is my friend Rizzo

Here is my friend Rizzo

And here is the actual text that he sent me after I sent him this video: 



Lesson: Context is so (so) important.

Do you have a story to tell? Good. Ask yourself: is there a piece of information you’ve left out--a challenge you’ve overcome, a secret you’ve kept hidden--that could make us see your story in a totally different light?

Learn from Caly. Be brave like Caly. You just might make our hearts open wide open.

2. Calum Scott

Context is important for this one too: his sister performed right before him and got rejected, so he sings with that knowledge… and with his freshly-rejected, tearful sister offstage to his left. (Watch him glance over at her at 0:19 after the judge asks “You okay?”)

But my favorite moment happens at 2:08 when he takes his hand off the mic mid-song to show everyone that his hand is shaking--like, a lot. Watch the moment again, if you missed it, or pay attention if you haven’t yet. It’s an incredible display of vulnerability. And I love him for it. How can you not?

Lesson: Vulnerability magnetizes. 

Think about what he’s saying in that moment. Even though he is absolutely crushing it in the audition (listen to the audience), he takes a moment to say, “I’m kinda’ freaking out a little bit right now.” He shows he’s nervous, uncertain, in a word… human. 

Your personal statement is a wonderful opportunity to be vulnerable. 

And (pro tip) I believe vulnerability is especially important for high-flyers (read: students with amazing GPAs and test scores. For you, the goal of your personal statement isn’t to prove you’re hard-working, or smart--we get that, check it off your list--it’s to show us something that reveals you’re more than just a brilliant test-taker of tests and scorer of As. Show us something else. Show us your heart.

Speaking of showing her heart...

3. Grace VanderWaal: 12-Year-Old Ukulele Player

Okay, I maybe saved the best for last. This is young brilliance personified. Some prodigy stuff.

And no, I don’t mean these guys: 

Different Prodigy.

Different Prodigy.

But watch the moment at 1:35. 

(Click the video above if you haven’t yet. Really.)

See that? She messes up. She makes a mistake.


Lesson: Don’t obsess over the tiny stuff--especially as you begin the writing process.

Students and counselors concern themselves too much with grammar and spelling--especially at the beginning of the process. (Will those things ultimately need to be on point? Sure.) But that’s not the most important thing in your personal statement... especially at the beginning.

Instead: Sing your heart out on the first draft. Go all Grace VanderWaal on it. 

If you need help, click here.

Then, sometime later, go back and ask these three questions: 

  1. Is the essay vulnerable
  2. Can the reader name 4-5 of my core values?
  3. Have I included several moments of insight?

If not, you’ve got some work to do. 

Once you do that work, you’ll end up with an essay that is well-crafted.

And by the way, do you notice how, in her performance, Grace displays: 

  • vulnerability (by simply being there, first, but also by singing an original song) 
  • core values (humility, authenticity, creativity)
  • insight (most of her friends don’t even know she’s there!)
  • craft (just listen her)?

And do you notice how, in this blog post, I have too? 


To learn how to write a personal statement that demonstrates core values, vulnerability, insight and craft, check out my book, or take a course. I’d love to share more with you. 

Stay curious.