How to choose a college essay topic
Advice on making the most of your admissions essays
In my previous post, I discussed why the college admissions essays are so important. And if they are so important, then how do you go about choosing a good topic?
What makes a “good topic” is truly unique to each student. I’ve seen essays written about intended majors and academic passions, activities and volunteering, but I’ve also seen essays written about siblings and family, or overcoming obstacles and hardships. While all topics are entirely valid, you can certainly think more critically about what the essay is adding to your application can help you to ultimately decide upon a topic, especially if you are debating between different ideas.
When talking with students in the brainstorming phase, often they’ll generate at least two to three ideas that they’re churning around in their minds. As we are talking, I’m beginning to do the work of an admissions officer in my mind and consider how the essay with meld with the other portions of the application. Moreover, I’m also consider how each essay topic represents a unique part of what makes them who they are and which topic will be most successful and unique in getting that across.
As a place to start, I generally view the essay in going in one of two ways:
1) Highlighting or emphasizing an element of you/your application
2) Introducing something vital that does not appear elsewhere
This is a way that I think about the essay’s position within the application as a whole to ensure that it is working in your favor. In some ways, through the application you are marketing yourself to the university, as bizarre as that might sound. One thing that can help you to tailor your essay is to consider, what is my brand? How do I create a cohesive, complete vision of who I am?
So these questions are a good place to start. Highlighting of emphasizing an element of you/your application can be a place to more fully embellish upon something that is already present, but perhaps we do not know the entirety of it. Sure you’ve listed your interest in physics and involvement in science clubs, but do we sense the depth of your curiosity toward astrophysics? Your awe of looking out into the broader universe? The essay can help to lift those elements that I view as more “qualitative” or “factual” into a narrative that shows how it actually performs in your life.
Highlighting an element can be particularly useful in “building a brand.” It can help various ideas of your application that are already constellating to come together in a personalized point.
On the other side of things, the application is limited in what it allows students to discuss. Because it is more centered on academics, it can often leave off other parts of what makes us into who we are. That is where my second offering Introducing something vital that does not appear elsewhere comes in.
As I mentioned in previous posts, the admissions essay is the most personable part of the application, and ultimately, admissions officers what to get to know you and your story.
There might be something really important to who you are as a person that does not appear elsewhere on the application, and this might highlight your character, values, background, identity, etc. This can become equally valuable when elaborated more fully within the essay.
I’ve read essays where students discuss the impact of family dynamics growing up or what it was like being a caretaker of an ill parent. Students might also find ways to dive into how gender, sexuality, race, discrimination, or empowerment have impacted them throughout their lives. Each choice into these topics allows insights into the student’s world. You get to know more about their life experiences and what has shaped them. Both through the topic and how it is written, you might also get a sense of what they are passionate about, what their world view is, and more, which can contribute to campus life in vital ways beyond the classroom.
One thing I think is important to note is that there is no one correct essay that you must write. When working with students, I can often time feel them anxious to decide upon a topic because they think it may not be good enough, or may not be the right one, be it in comparison with their peers’ topics, their parents’ desires, or an admissions officer’s opinion. While these are all valid concerns to consider, I think that the mindset of “I should write about such and such” can get in the way of more open thinking that could lead you to a more unique, stellar essay. It’s okay to write about something that might be a bit quirky and different — just be mindful of what it says about you at the end of the day. What do they learn from the topic? How it is written? Keeping in mind my other tips for choosing might help you to decide whether the topic you have in mind is the one you want to go with or perhaps it’s a fun idea for a different writing project.
While these are all the positives of how to consider an essay, there are also a few pitfalls to avoid that can make an essay over-generic and flat. Even if it is well written, it likely won’t be a topic that stands outs or overly illuminates you
I view the following as essay clichés:
· Lists. You might have a lot to say and where to say it all? The essay is not the place. Trying to cram in too many things into a small space results in an essay that is all list and no substance. Don’t just rattle off one thing after another. It is much better to choose one of the topics, per suggestions above, and dive deep, than to skin the surface on many.
· Quality list. As you are working through essays, you might have personal qualities you want to be sure are highlighted. Alas! Shall you write down that you are dedicated, you are driven, you are passionate, you are compassion? Not like that you shouldn’t! Let these qualities arise naturally from what you write about, versus making them the entire focus of your essay. Show them these things versus telling them outright.
· Life story. You might feel tempted to introduce yourself in its entirely. Hi! I am so-and-so, I live here, I do things! While it might seem like a friendly way to cover all your bases, much like the list essay of many ideas, this ends up lacking substance that holds values. Perhaps instead of going through all of your life chronicle, is there a particular event or topic that is especially important? Let that come to the forefront and develop.
· Success stories. Didn’t see this one coming, did you? These are actually more common than you might think, and while they might show resilience or accolades, they can very easily fall flat. The plot line of something was going to be very difficult, so I put in a lot of extra time and effort, and then I succeeded! is very predictable. I’m proud of you! Yes! But in an essay, this is a topic that many people fall to when they don’t know what else to write and as such, it’s a blender.
· Learned athlete. Many students are drawn to write about athletics because it is a large part of their lives and something they identify strongly with, but simply touching upon a value or lesson learned from athletics generally lacks substance and falls flat. The arc is predictable like the success stories and doesn’t actually get into detail of what makes you distinct from others because the lessons learned are usually general. Again, I am proud of you! It is wonderful you love your sport! But steer in a different direction for a better essay.
· Trips. This essay can take a hike. It’s a frequent choice because we all love travel, and travel does open our eyes to new cultures, new places, new people. Often times these fall into a trope of “there is so much more to the world than my own lifestyle!” Yes, and yes it’s a good realization, but again, this is a rather predictable narrative arc people can see from miles away. (Are you beginning to see a theme in weaker essays?)
· Privilege check. While this is an excellent trait and aspect to acknowledge and be enlightened of, it may be tricky as the main focus of an essay. It certainly depends on how it is approached, but something that hinges on say, a trip to an impoverished country where you realize how good you have it, doesn’t quite have the positive impact or intention you may think it has. It can actually leave a more serious topic feeling shallow or surface level. For a topic in this realm, I would certainly say approach with care.
· Big Ticket Issues. Some students may have a particular cause that are deeply passionate about — climate change, social injustice, you name it. If you’re considering addressing this issues, consider how you are writing the essay. It’s not an argumentative or persuasive essay, so keep that tone to a minimum. Instead, if you do, say, want to talk about your passion for climate change, focus on how you are living that mission, where your passion arose, how you wish to fulfill it, etc. Keep the focus centered on your narrative, as opposed to arguing the case for why people should care and take action.
Above are a few approaches I have noticed that do not end up working out quite as intended. With most of them, you might notice a certain pattern appeared: they lack direction and substance. Often times these particular essay topics do not get into the meat of who you are as a person and why the topic is important to you.
I think one way to get to a substance of depth is to ask yourself, so what? why is this important? If you have a really hard time answering, it might mean the depth isn’t quite there. These questions for me are windows into deeper modes of thinking, going beyond the surface to find out what’s really lingering within a topic.
Doing some of this consideration might take some time and work. I wouldn’t recommend sitting down and writing the first thing that comes to mind. Take some time to brainstorm ideas. Ask yourself what is important to you? What would you want someone (especially an admissions officer) to know about you upon first meeting you? This is always the question I use to start with my students.
In addition to giving it time, also be okay if your topic evolves along the way. The beautiful thing about writing is that it is also a mode of thinking. Sometimes you might need to write out your first draft to find something you wrote in the second to last paragraph that gives your essay even deeper substance. Then you can regroup and revise.
Hopefully this post has given you a solid platform for beginning to choose your essay topic. I will also offer some on further brainstorming and editing advice, in addition to discussing how to approach particular prompts of the Common Application.
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