One of the most heartfelt essays I helped someone with was about a simple conversation the girl had with her pastor about the importance of crying and expressing ourselves vulnerably. Students freak out because they think they are squarely average.
Not a special bone in their bodies. Mundane topics often turn out to be the most authentic, interesting, and impressive stories. What you do need is a clear system to help you pull out these overlooked experiences and details from your life. The goal is not necessarily to write about an extraordinary topic.
If you have something extraordinary, well, great, then that can be your ticket. This nickname will likely be how the admission officers will refer to you when discussing your application. Not long, my friend. They are altogether forgettable, unless the story itself is somehow compelling.
Allowing your essay topic to form a nickname is the easiest way to go. Gimmicks alone are worthless, but a creative shell with real meat inside will open doors for you. You need both form and function. Without knowing beforehand who wrote your essay, any close friend should be able to identify that the essay belongs to you.
So think of experiences or memories—the more detailed and specific, the better—that define you. Inside jokes or identity level experiences are best. Those kids are so lucky because now they have something amazing to write about. But, I get it. Admission committees were swamped with nearly identical essays on these disaster situations. How much do you really think a student writing about the hurricane stood out from Student writing about the same thing?
The point of this article is to show you how to find those hidden gems, events, or qualities you likely overlooked. Everything I did was for the sake of writing, so my identity was that of a writer. I wrote my essay on what writing meant to me.
Obvious choice? Did it work? You bet. Was my essay perfect? Hell no. I cringe just reading it today, but it still successfully conveyed what I was all about. Other identities may include your sexuality. I had a student who wrote a heart-felt essay about being gay, revealing his mindset of compassion and exploration to take on the world. Or you love cars or a particular sport. Or an abnormally tall one. Or an Asian guy with curly hair rare! Do you love swimming? Or playing cards or chess?
Do you run your own business? Do you love making things to sell on Etsy? Do you bake? Are you known as the caretaker of your family? Did something ever happened to you that redefined your world? Remember, you are what you do. Many students are caught up in this myth that you need to tell the story of a specific incident.
While that can work, you can also pull in multiple incidents to illustrate who you are. The key is to focus on conveying a quality trait about yourself. She revealed to us that she possessed a deep inquisitiveness, which is a characteristic any college would want its students to have. Brainstorm as many adjectives or phrases that describe your qualities: creative, innovative, resourceful, diligent, meticulous, compassionate, encouraging, optimistic, logical, rational, problem-solving, unconventional, leader, social, etc.
Ask your friends, parents, teachers, and siblings what they think of you. You are still missing the essay framework to demonstrate that you are indeed creative. Start to brainstorm instances when you were creative. Any of those examples are potential grounds for a college topic. Everyone turned to him to figure out what to do because he was the one who was capable of handling unexpected circumstances.
He discussed how, all his life, his family was unpredictable and how he learned to cope with these circumstances. One girl also earned admission into JHU by writing about her inability to tie a cake box at her job at a bakery. But she persisted. If this is how she approaches trivial tasks, how much more would she never give up on important things? Are you obsessive about anything? Do you absolutely love promoting eco-friendly campaigns or the vegan lifestyle?
Are you passionate about politics? Do you love making model cars? Do you compete in professional chess tournaments? Do you find yourself baking treats every weekend? Do you love Speech and Debate? If you have a less formally recognized passion, like sewing, that is still perfectly acceptable to write about. Of course he connected his video game obsession with strong quality traits like problem-solving, creativity, and more.
Notice many of these essay types are interrelated. Writing about a passion naturally leads to discussing quality traits, and vice versa. These things can also be considered your identity. Even small things. Like, I remember the time I biked with my cousins to Target to buy action figures.
My mom got soooo mad at me for wasting money and biking without adult supervision. So one recess, I decided to enlist the help of my best friend to steal these toys. We crawled on our bellies, avoiding the yard supervisor, but of course, we were eventually caught. The funny thing? There are more poignant memories too. Like the time one of my friends died in first grade. He just collapsed as we were playing handball. I remembered how I loved his glitter crayons that I noticed he had at his birthday party just a month prior.
Childhood memories are goldmines for college essays. One student of mine wrote about how when she was a little girl, she would steal bank deposit slips and then set up her own imaginary office at home. She loved playing pretend business woman, which led to her current activities in high school. Another student wrote about her family tradition of playing Pictionary and what that symbolized for her. Ordinary memories make excellent fodder for insightful exploration. Think back to happy times, sad times, exciting times, or scary times.
Is there anything you learned from that—think bigger picture like the value of relationships or something—that could benefit colleges? Objects are often sentimental. They hold special meaning in our hearts and lives. If you ever had something that meant a lot to you, that could be a good college topic. One student wrote about a special bracelet his grandmother bought for him. He wore it every day for years because he loved the feeling of empowerment it gave him. He liked to pretend it was something like a Power Ranger transformer, allowing him to morph into a superhero by which he meant a compassionate friend, leader, encourager, etc.
A great brainstorming exercise you can do is to think of all the things that mean something to you or remind you of something in your life. Just look around your room. If there were a museum of your life, what exhibits and objects would be on display? Be as specific as possible. I loved the warm sensation of freshly printed pages off the printer.
I used to love magic and even thought I might become a magician when I grew up. I practiced magic tricks for many years, performing in front of small crowds. I might choose my Boy Scouts neckerchief ring or my camping backpack, both of which symbolize my time in scouting.
I could write an essay on any number of events that occurred in scouting. It symbolized my dedication to puzzles, my persistence at learning the patterns, and many other potential traits. Thinking of these objects will inspire you to think about the memory behind them. Then go a step further and connect those memories to quality traits about yourself. Now you have the skeleton of a good college essay. We all care about certain things. These values can overlap with your quality traits. For example, you may value creativity and see yourself as a creative person.
Or you value logic and problem-solving skills. But sometimes values are something separate. Yet, she clearly valued education and a more progressive world, so her essay was all about how she defended this value. Another of my students had a best friend that he realized was a DREAMER, someone who was born in the United States but held no legal citizenship because their parents were illegal immigrants. One of my students was an adopted child, so she wrote an essay about how she valued positive social work, foster care systems, and strong family values.
She was passionate about creating a better environment for children. Maybe you value protecting our environment, increasing literacy, fighting homelessness, assisting our veterans, or something else. Any of these things are strong potential topics for your essay.
You can talk about a realization you had, an insight you gained, or a lesson you learned by witnessing or experiencing something. These students worked to support their families, which came at the cost of attending school or doing homework. Education was an expense, not an investment for these families. My student recognized the systemic failure of our greater educational system, so he gained a heart for educational reform.
Another student who got into JHU wrote about her experiences with stereotypes in both America and Japan. At the same time, she confronted her own ignorance about Japan, despite studying the country intensely before her study-abroad experience. Ultimately, this student took a basic study-abroad trip to discuss the greater revelation about needing to expose ourselves to more than a singular narrative, lest we believe the stereotypes.
She questioned whether a population of 5 million could possibly be as homogenous in their internal beliefs as they outwardly showed, when they all prayed together. She explored her own privilege of being able to choose certain parts of her religion to adhere to, while discarding parts that were inconvenient.
Ultimately, she wrote a deeply introspective essay about national identities and its implications, which connected to her passion for theology. Unless you are a truly deep thinker who can express complex thoughts succinctly, I would stay away from this type of essay. That said, if you can accomplish this sort of essay, you stand to gain massive points for how incredibly intelligent, sensitive, and introspective you are.
The ability to overcome challenges and grow from them is insanely attractive to colleges. This challenge might be a personal failure you faced. Discuss what lessons you learned from that and the impact it had on your growth. One student of mine wrote about her Graves disease, a condition that greatly physically and mentally weakened her. He shared a personal, everyday experience where he found himself in a vulnerable situation, and was open and reflective about that experience.
This was his essay gold! Learn The Secret of Personal Essays. If Michael had shown me this draft, and he was still game to find ways to make it better, I would have had suggestions for him. But I think he could have crafted an even more relevant, personal and impactful anecdote from the more interesting moment that he shared lower in the essay.
As much as I love using anecdotes real-life moments to illustrate larger points in essays, the best ones involve some type of problem. Example: When Obama won, that was all great to Michael…but there was no problem. Michael intuitively understood the power of a problem because almost half his essay shared a tense interaction between liberal him and the conservative mother of his friend, and featured the moment he wrestled with an undercooked steak and talked politics.
I would have suggested that Michael START his essay with that exchange, and use the dramatic tension to engage the reader. The moment with the steak was so relatable. The reader can easily picture Michael there in that awkward moment, with the raw steak and the steak-and-potato mom in her Texas vacation home.
The image of Michael staring down that steak, and intimidating traditionalist mom, struck my funny bone. The other beautiful thing about starting with a problem is that you can naturally delve into how you handled it, which Michael did beautifully, and then explain what you learned from it, which Micheal also did. I also talk a lot in this blog and my writing guides about the power of the mundane, or ordinary, in writing.
The best way to do this is not look for topics that impress the reade r, but those that stick in their mind. My goal in critiquing it here was to share some of the ideas and tips I think you can use to craft and knock your essays out of the park. Your email address will not be published.
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