College Admissions Essays

How to Give Them More Punch: FOCUS!

A common challenge in writing these college admissions essays is making sure they go deep enough. That doesn’t mean you have to talk about the meaning of life, and allude to Shakespeare, Greek myths and Kafka, and try to sound profound. It usually just means that you need to explore what you are writing about more thoroughly. Here’s my advice: If your writing is too general, and your points and ideas are spread out all over the place, chances are they are shallow in nature. Picture a pool of water. The more spread out and wide it is, the shallower it gets. If you shore it up and make it smaller in total width, it gets deeper.


So how do you shore up your ideas and points in your essays? The best way is to get specific–which is, the opposite of general. Simple, right? If you can focus your topic (and main point you are going to make in your essay) from the beginning, the easier it will be to develop depth in what you have to say about it. (Read more about the power of “mundane topics” HERE.) When brainstorming topic ideas, it’s okay to start with broad ideas, but make sure to drill down before you start writing.

Here’s an example. Just last week, I helped a student brainstorm ideas for his personal statement for the Common App. It went like this:

Me: So, I hear you like history. It’s one of your passions?

Him: Yes.

Me: Well, what kind of history do you like the most?

Him: I like ancient history, about the Romans and Greeks. I also like Andrew Jackson a lot.

Me: Andrew Jackson? That’s an unsual president to admire, when most people would say someone like Abe Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson first. Why Jackson?

Him: He was really stubborn. He had something like four wives and would have duels if someone challenged them or his honor.

Me: Honor. So you admire having a sense of honor?

Him: Yes.

Me: Wow. That’s an interesting quality. I could see you writing an essay about how you value honor, then define it, and describe how someone like yourself maintains it in modern society.

Him: How would I do that?

Me: I would start by thinking of “a time” or example of when your honor was challenged, and then what you did about it. Then you can go into how and why you started thinking about honor, mention how Jackson influenced your thinking, and then other ways you use and develop that quality in your life.

Do you see how we drilled down from the very general interest in history, to something very specific, and eventually hit upon a more focused topic? See if you can do that with a subject that you are passionate about. Just keep asking yourself–what specifically do you like about it, what is your favorite part, and WHY is that? Eventually, you might get to a quality about yourself that you can write about.

In general, when you are writing any of these college application essays, if you find you are making a lot of points about a topic, it’s usually time to narrow down the field. If you get too broad and general, you will also get bland and boring. It’s better to zero in on one or a couple points, and then develop and expand upon those, instead of trying to cover too much ground.