Although application season normally starts in August, with Common App opening the possibility to submit your applications to colleges, no one says you cannot start early. First, you can set up an account and plan which colleges you will apply to. Second, the prompts for your personal essays drop in late January, so you can work on the most challenging and nerve-wracking part of your application over the spring and summer.
That's exactly what most admission officials and successfully admitted college students advise you should do as a college hopeful: start early and go through at least 5 to 6 drafts crafting the piece. Now, you might think: "I don't yet know what to write my college essay about! I'll wait for inspiration – I still have time!" Let me remind you of my favorite motivational quote by Pablo Picasso: "Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working." The earlier you start, the better the chances you end up with something remarkable – something to impress the committee and get you that coveted "You have been accepted" letter.
If you've been waiting for a sign to start working, this is it. Today we will search for the topics to explore in your college essay and learn which ones might be better to leave out.
What Should I Not Write My College Essay About: Seemingly Great Themes That Might Let You Down
When given an unlimited choice, we can fall victim to the chooser's paralysis. That's why it's a good idea to set some limits first. Instead of asking, "What should I write about on my college essay?" ask, "What should I NOT write about in my college essay." Eliminate topics that are a bad fit. Here is what admission officers and experts advise you to avoid in your personal essay.
- Something extremely personal or graphic
- Descriptive essays about people and places
- Sensitive/hot-button topics
"Wait, what? I thought it was supposed to be personal!" Yes, but to an extent. Although some topics look like an excellent option for the "overcoming adversity" type of essay, such as severe injury, accidents, illness, or disability, they might cross over into uncomfortable territory. Not that they are entirely out of bounds – you can still write about this. However, be careful. Don't get into hyper-realistic graphic details. Remember that the goal of such an essay is to impress the readers with your strengths of character and perseverance – not to traumatize them with blood, gore, and yucky stuff.
Again, your role model or favorite place is not a wrong topic per se. It can give an insight into your character and values. However, too often, applicants end up writing their entire essay about how awesome their grandmother is without telling anything about themselves. Your personal essay is about you. If you want to write about an influential person in your life or an important place, shift the focus. Write about how this person or place influenced you and why you find them inspiring.
Student-athletes often choose this topic because sport plays an essential role in their lives. Plus, an essay about your team going from underdogs to champions allows telling an exciting story with a twist, showing teamwork and camaraderie, determination, and courage – all the ingredients for a great personal essay. There is only one but: this topic is worn to the bone. Admission officers have read so much in the same vein that they've developed fatigue. Your goal is to stand out and be different – don't undermine your application with a cliché. Even if the sport is your life, try to dig deeper and find something else to represent you.
If you feel strongly about something, you might feel like you must write an essay about it. However, you should avoid controversial and polarizing subjects. It's not an argumentative essay; it's a personal essay. Are you sure you want this specific opinion to represent your entire self? Besides, you never know if the person reading your application shares your views. No matter how professional they are, you might alienate them and diminish your chances of acceptance. So get off that soapbox and concentrate on your personality.
As with most no-nos here, it's not the topic itself but mostly how applicants approach it. First of all, since travel often leaves a deep impression on young people, this is one of the popular topics (read: tired), so it doesn't improve your chances of standing out. You might rectify the situation by adding a twist. Did something unexpected happen during your trip? A challenge, an epiphany, an encounter that left a mark or changed your perspective? Or was it simply memorable because it was the first time you flew on a plane? If it's the latter, you can probably do better.
Another problematic thing about travel essays is that they often come from a place of privilege. Whether you tell how you were smitten by the impressionist paintings in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris or you recount your volunteering experience helping disadvantaged children in a developing country, it might come off as boasting. Be mindful of how your essay can be read and consider other possible topics.
What Should I Write My College Essay About: Explore the Possibilities
"Okay, no travel, no sports, no gushing about my favorite nana, got it. Yet what SHOULD I write my college application essay about?" Recommending something concrete is tricky because the topic must be personal and meaningful to you – something that lets you display your idiosyncrasies. However, here are some recommendations for brainstorming your perfect theme.
- Write about something important to you
We can feel strongly about a lot of stuff, but there are special, unique things. How do we find out what is the most crucial/telling thing about us? Here are a few exercises to elicit these subjects:
- Picture yourself ten years from now. What does your life look like? What is the first thing that your imagination shows you? What is your job? Why do you love it?
- Let's time travel farther. Imagine you have to write an obituary for yourself as an older adult who has had a long and fulfilling life. How do you want to be remembered? What's your legacy?
- Now, let's go back in time. Imagine you've been abducted by aliens, and they say they will erase your memories, except for three moments. Which ones will you choose to keep? Why are they important?
- When you say "happiness," what first comes to mind? Is it a quiet evening playing "Monopoly" with your family? Is it an exhilarating feeling you have when you ride a mountain bike down the hill? Is it chanting with your friends in support of your local team? Performing on stage?
Note that these are not prompts but rather ice-breakers to help you find those unique experiences, people, events, activities, values, or pieces of art that could be your topic.
Since a personal college essay must let the admission officers into your head, reflection is a vital component. Don't just narrate the story you've chosen to tell – describe how it changed you and what you've learned. Why is this experience significant? What does it say about you?
However, we must warn you against getting too creative: stream of consciousness or soulful poetry are probably not a great fit for a college essay. If you want to write a creative piece, better submit it in additional materials.
If you believe your sense of humor is your defining feature, you can demonstrate it in your personal essay. No need to be over-the-top serious. Remember that this essay must give admission officers a glimpse of a real human being behind all the transcripts and scores. If you make an admission officer laugh, you will definitely be memorable. A word of warning, though: what you think is funny and what an adult in academia thinks is funny can be worlds apart. It might be a good idea to let a teacher or college counselor assess your essay before you decide on it as a final version.
Go for a humorous essay only if you feel confident in comedy. Also, be classy. Something risqué and off-color is unlikely to be appreciated in this situation.
What Should I Write About In My College Essay: Remember the Essence
Another thing to figure out before asking yourself, "What topic should I write about for my college essay?" are the questions your essay should answer. A successful college essay should tell not only who you are as a person and what makes you tick. It is more complex and layered. Here is what admission officers want to learn from your essay.
- Your career and academic goals
- How this school will help you achieve those goals
- How curious and self-motivated you are
- What makes you unique, different from other applicants
Planning skills, ambition, self-awareness, values, intellectual curiosities, and passions can be derived from a couple of sentences describing your vision of a future. Even if you aren't sure about your major or whether you'll go to grad school, mention the most likely field of study for you and why you are drawn to it. Do you intend to continue your career in research, plan to start your business, or want to serve your community? Of course, this doesn't have to be set in stone: students change their majors, discover new interests, and adapt. However, uncertainty and lack of concrete goals might signal low motivation and indifference. You must have some idea why you go to college and what you intend to do after that.
Your essay must demonstrate that you and the school you're applying to fit like two pieces of a puzzle. Show that you've done your homework: mention specific programs and courses you want to take, extracurriculars and clubs that align with your interests, and campus or student culture features that you find particularly appealing. Be specific. Don't just praise the school as the "international leader in research," name a concrete program you are dying to participate in and how you are prepared for it by your prior experience. Schools know their strengths – there is no need to flatter them. Emphasize why you'd fit together. It's a bit like persuading someone to go on a date. Showing genuine interest and saying something like, "We both love kooky music, and I find your jokes hilarious," works way better than saying, "I want to be with you because you're the hottest person in this class."
Have you gone beyond the curriculum, are you prepared to challenge yourself, do you have an inquisitive mind? These are the qualities most colleges look for in their students. Demonstrate them! Don't just list all the volunteering and extracurricular activities you've participated in – they can be found in their due section of the application. Instead, show evidence of your talents and interests in action. Tell about times when your determination, creativity, leadership, or civic-mindedness helped you overcome a challenge, solve a problem, or learn something valuable. Focus on one or two, otherwise, you will disperse the reader's attention.
Being driven, passionate, curious, and enthusiastic about something are traits characteristic of many applicants, especially to exclusive schools. To be selected, you need to stand out. However, finding out what is unique about yourself can be challenging. Try writing about the things you love that make you feel authentic. Another way is to note what other people point out as your distinguishing features or ask your closest company what they like about you. While writing, don't just declare these qualities but show them through behaviors. For example, instead of saying that you are good at leading and motivating people, why not tell a story about starting a school club or organizing a fundraiser in your community?
Keep these questions in mind, and then look for a topic that will lend itself best to conveying all that. Note that your essay shouldn't go through these like a list, crossing them out item by item. Instead, point to certain things. Mention them in passing, incorporating them organically into your story.
Writing your college essay does seem complicated, but you have plenty of time. Write rough drafts, experiment, and look for the perfect story – shape your paper from the chaos of ideas instead of staring paralyzed at the blank page. I hope you will have a productive journey. Good luck!