I was watching the most recent episode of Modern Family the other night, and thought it was funny and telling that Alex Dunphy, the token brainiac of the family, was obsessing about her college application essay.

The family was on a vacation in Australia, and Alex kept annoying everyone by trying to find life lessons and metaphors from the trip to use in her essay.

First off, what does that tell you about how these essays are becoming more and more of a national obsession? (My last post was about David Letterman’s Top 10 Ways to Make Your College App Essay Stand Out.)

To me, it says that these dreaded essays continue to rise above the other parts of the college admissions process in terms of what can either get you into a top college or keep you out.

If you are searching for the perfect essay topic, then you can learn something from Alex Dunphy: She was going about it the wrong way.

Like many students, Alex thought she needed to go on an impressive trip to a faraway country in order to have an experience she could showcase in her essay.


Most essays written about vacations or even philanthropic mission trips usually do not result in effective college app essays. The problem is that they do not reveal much about the student.

And they are dullsville to read.

By the end of the show, Alex is climbing to the top of the famous Sidney Harbour Bridge with her family—who have reunited after a lot of internal bickering—and discovering how the bridge is a metaphor for her family re-connecting.

Her epiphany was meant to be funny for a reason. While metaphors can add another dimension or insights to an essay, they often can be cliche or simplistic, or just miss the mark of the larger point.

In Alex’ case, writing an essay about her family’s trip to Australia, and how climbing a bridge together at the end symbolized the power of their closeness, could be really boring—and, well, dumb.

(If she’s not careful, I believe smartypants Alex could be the victim of The Top Student=Bad Essay Paradox, and hurt her chances to get into that Ivy she must be dreaming about.)

So how do you make sure your brainstorming efforts and ultimate topic choice are not the butt of a joke, too?

Here are three tips to make sure you land on a topic that is original, interesting and reveals who you are:

ONEDon’t write about vacations or mission trips.

At least, don’t just relay what you did on them for your essay.

If something specific happened while you were on a vacation or mission trip, and you can write about how it affected you, how you handled it, and what you learned from it, that could make a great topic.

TWO: You don’t need to obsess about your topic, like Alex. Instead, set aside about a half hour to brainstorming ideas. Sit at your desk and jot down your ideas. Don’t rule anything out. This Jumpstart Guide is a great place to start.

THREE: Go easy on larger-than-life metaphors. For example, resist writing an entire essay on how your life is like a sailboat, or how your brain is like a video game.

It’s fine to use metaphors, similes or other comparisons to make a larger point; I would just avoid having a metaphor comprise your entire essay.

Also, if you make a comparison, make sure it’s original.

If you have heard or read it before, don’t use it. (There are other ways to give depth and meaning to your essay.)

We all relate to Alex’ stress when it comes to finding that perfect topic.

And it’s fun to laugh at her efforts.

You, too, will find a great topic as long as you spend more time brainstorming than obsessing.

And never lose your sense of humor–especially with these college application essays.