The Common Application launched yesterday, allowing hundreds of thousands of students to create their accounts and begin applying to colleges around the country. The essay portion of the Common App requires the most planning, the deepest thought, and the hardest work. But before you start drafting your essays, it can be helpful to take a step back and reflect on who you are, what you care about, and the message you want to send to the admission officers who will read your essay.
I always tell my students that their essay topic must be internally motivated: it should be something you write for yourself, not something you manufacture for the sake of your dream school. If your approach is to try and figure out what a student who gets accepted to College X would write, you’ve defeated the purpose of the college essay. I just want to get to know you, not some fictitious person. And considering that during an admissions period I might read up to 5,000 essays (and then multiply this number by 28 years), I have learned to easily spot an essay that is not sincere, that is not a passionate topic for the student, or that isn’t something that truly defines the individual. Your application readers have already seen the essay you think you’re supposed to write; they want to see the essay that captures who you are instead.
To answer the question, “what should I write about?” consider the following three tips:
- Imagine it’s 25 years after your high school graduation. You’ve created new memories in college, started your career, and maybe even a family. If you think back on your high school years, what is the one thing you will never forget? It could be about school, outside activities, summer(s), church, or a cultural organization of which you are a part. The part of your life that might be most memorable 25 years from now is also probably the part of your life that is most meaningful to you now.
- You’ve been given an hour to respond to one of the five Common Application essay prompts. Which prompt would you choose and what would your focus be? If you think about what you would write under time pressure, you might have a good clue about the topic in which you feel most confident—the one that will be the most fun and fluid to write.
- The admissions committee is about to convene and you’ve been given the opportunity to tell them one thing about yourself that they will keep in mind as they discuss and decide the outcome of your file. It could be a skill, a personality trait, an accomplishment, or something completely random, but it would be the one thing that best defines you at this time in your life. Some of the best essay topics come from this approach, as students think more about how they would describe themselves than what they think admission officers want or need to hear.
The point of these exercises is to find the topic that best fits you, and not the one that your parents or your friends or even your college counselor wants you to write. I’ll be honest: my least favorite essay topic is football. It just makes me want to cry! But, if it’s an integral part of your high school years, if you’ve learned volumes from this activity, if your best memories are from your team experience, then it will likely prove to be the best essay of the day, the week, the month, or the admission season! As a reader, I will get what I need if you will work to find a topic that really means something to you. (But please stay away from romantic relationships, your first sexual encounter, or illnesses and stories of tragedy that are so tough that you get lost in the shock and sympathy the situation elicits.)
When you land on a topic – hiking, math competition, boxing, football, snowboarding, or your internet company – remember you only have 650 words. You want to find a single moment; a story within the larger topic that would best help you get your point across. Don’t write about hiking; write about that one night, when you saw that one sunset, when it hit you what hiking has taught you about your life and what it really means to you. Four seasons of basketball in 650 words is not happening, but you can write a pretty solid story about the three point shot you hit at the end of the game. Capture the small story in the larger context, and you’ll have your reader’s attention throughout.
If you feel overwhelmed, take heart that you have something in your life that will make a terrific essay—and probably more than one thing! I have found that every student has a story that means something to him or her, and finding that story and telling it will make the application truly stand out.