College Admissions Essays and Personal Statements:

How to Make Your Topic Fly

The New York Times sponsors a blog exclusively for college-bound students. It’s called The Choice. Just last month, a student shared the topic she chose for her Common Application essay, and why she stuck with it even when friends and family didn’t share her enthusiasm. The student, named Sush Krishnamoorthy, is hoping her essay will get her into Stanford. Her topic: a 24-hour plane flight she took by herself. Sush didn’t share many other details about her topic (or essay), but I think it’s a good one. Here are five reasons why I love her idea:

1. Her topic is “mundane.” In her post, Sush said she felt pressure to find an “offbeat” topic for her CommonApp essay. Often, students believe they need to write about topics or experiences that would impress their readers. The opposite, however, is true. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but writing about “mundane” or everyday topics almost always results in more engaging and memorable essays. Learn more about how to find everyday topics and why they are so powerful in my post, The Power of Mundane Topics.

2. Something happened. When Sush described her solitary, day-long plane flight, she had to use the narrative style of writing (also known as story-telling.) She probably told us about Who she was with, What happened during the flight, When she flew, Where she went and Why she was alone. Covering just the 5Ws of narrative writing, Sush created an engaging setting and mini-story (anecdote.) Learn how to craft your own narrative in my post on How to Write An Anecdote.

3. The topic was focused. By writing about one specific event, Sush has a natural focus for her essay. The topic is reined in by that 24-hour time window and the confines of her plane and any airports she passed through during her trip. Again, it’s counter-intuitive, but when you start with a specific focus or narrow framework for an essay, you are then freer to explore other ideas and make broader points, observations, analyses, insights, etc. As Sush described what happened during that flight, she could explore how it affected her and what she learned. Writing about a specific experience, such as this single plane flight, makes a much better essay than writing about a general topic, such as “Why I am Adventurous” or “How I Learned to Be Independent.” See how to impose a framework on your essay in my post, Focusing Your Topic.

4. Opportunities to dig deeper. Even though Sush’s essay was on one plane flight, she gave herself a platform from which to draw deeper conclusions, insights and observations. When you share an experience, you almost always set the stage for exploring what you learned from that experience. Sush said she used that plane flight to show how it changed her. Also, writing about something like a plane flight has the potential for figurative metaphors–we all learn to “fly” on many levels in life. See if your topic has the potential for a larger life lesson in my post on Universal Truths.

5. The topic taught her something. Sush only shared that this flight “changed her.” What we can infer (without reading her actual essay) is that something happened during that flight that affected her, and she learned something in the process. I’m going to assume that something “problematic” happened during that flight–whether she was fearful traveling alone or she encountered some type of challenge during her trip. We generally learn things–and are changed in either small or large ways–when we confront problems. See how you can use a problem to find your own powerful topic in my Jumpstart Guide to writing personal statements and college application essays.

Read more about Sush’s post in full at The Choice.