The college admissions season never really ends. I’m not a big one for starting too early. Parents who start talking colleges with their kids in junior high and even the start of high school kind of bug me. I understand that it’s valuable for students to have goals and understand their potential and opportunities, but to me, too much hype too soon only turns up the pressure, not the results. Believe me, they begin getting pressure early enough from peers, teachers and school administrators.

Okay, enough of what I think. My goal as a writing coach is to help students see how they have great stories to tell for their college admissions essays, and that by using a step-by-step approach they can produce quality pieces. For many, the unnatural stress placed on these essays is their greatest obstacle. They freeze up, put off starting them, and then try too hard to impress their readers.

I’m currently putting together a little Ebook as a step-by-step guide to writing these essays. 2/8/13UPDATE: Escape Essay Hell now available!  Meanwhile, much of the tips and advice is already offered in the posts on this blog, and you can find specific topics using the index on the right sidebar (under the photos). My goal with the Ebook is to help students walk through the process–from brainstorming ideas they love, to learning how to tell their story, and then how to develop their story into a larger lesson that reveals their personality, character, values, and what makes them tick. So stay tuned! (Follow me on Facebook if you want updates.)

Meanwhile, I will keep sharing advice and information that I think will help college-bound students and their parents. I just found this little post on the New York Times’ blog about college admissions, called The Choice, on finding topics for essays. It’s a good start, but I have a lot more tips and specific instruction on honing in on terrific topics, too. HERE is a post about using your job as a topic; and HERE is a post with a mini-brainstorm guide on finding excellent topics; HERE is a post if you think you have nothing to write about. A lot of the advice out there on writing these essays tends to be encouraging, but too general in my opinion. But if you are a high school junior (senior next year), it is time to start kicking around ideas for your essays! Summer is THE BEST time to get these done!


May 14, 2012, 5:58 AM

The College Admissions Essay: Finding a Topic

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Alan Gelb
Alan Gelb

By Alan Gelb

For your college admissions essay, you will be asked to write 500 flawless words on a subject that is deeply personal under circumstances in which the stakes are very high. Now how could that not feel like a daunting task? This Tip Sheet offers some advice about the hardest part of the job: finding a topic.

There are a lot of strange theories about what constitutes a good topic. Some students are convinced that the personal statement has to be a “peanut butter” essay. (Apparently, that’s shorthand for any off-beat, attention-grabbing piece that focuses on why you love peanut butter … or smoked herring … or the Three Stooges.) I don’t subscribe to that theory. Your topic does not need to be a singular invention never encountered before.

For those who say that you’re not allowed to write about pets or grandparents or broken limbs (yes, I’ve heard such claims), I say bosh to that as well. As far as I’m concerned, the only taboo is shameless self-promotion. (As vice president of my class, I selflessly sought to install healthy foods in the cafeteria vending machines…)

Finding a good topic to write about can be a challenge, but let me try to help by offering these three suggestions:

Understand the parameters of the assignment. The point of your college admissions essay is to connect you to the person who is reading it. In order to make such a connection, you’ll want to tell a compelling story that shows you as an authentic and caring human being, someone who merits a place in a college community. If you manage to do that, you’ll be in good shape.

Acknowledge your constraints. You only have 500 words to work with — not a lot of space. You can’t tell us all about your summer building houses for Habitat. You can only tell a small piece of it. So what story is lurking within that larger story? Learning from an elderly volunteer how to correctly wield a hammer? That might be a good topic, showing you as a person who is open to learning from others. Through that focusing-down process, potential topics should start to appear and take shape.

Ask yourself questions. Once you have a sense of the requirements and limitations connected to this assignment, you can start asking yourself exploratory questions that will help dredge up topics of some promise. What keeps me up at night? What in the world utterly fascinates me? Which of my relationships have I worked at the hardest?Make a list, answer them quickly, put them aside, come back to them, and see where you feel a magnetic pull. Those are the topics that are waiting to be written.

Remember: Everyone has a story to tell. It’s just a matter of discovering that story.

Mr. Gelb is the author of “Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps.” He has written advice for The Choice on how to whittle your admissions essay and how juniors should prepare their essays during the summer before senior year.