Last week, a new student came to my home for help on his college application essays.
I asked this eager senior about his target schools. He told me Stanford was his top pick, but he was applying to most of the ivies, along with a couple UCs (Cal and UCLA).
Then he handed me a printout of his essay. It was one he had written for his English teacher at our local high school.
It was about a mission trip. To a South American country. And he wrote how he loved working with the kids, and how he realized how privileged he was, and how he hoped to make a difference in the world.
I tried not to let my reaction show. (more…)
College Application Essays
Tips for Finding Topics That CBS Finds Worth Repeating
A couple days ago, Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a journalist who covers college admissions issues for CBS, featured this blog in her column for MoneyWatch. How cool is that? She shared one of my previous posts that try to help guide students toward finding college application essay topics that don’t fall into the common traps, such as being cliche, too controversial or just plain dull. (more…)
College Application Essays
How to Stay On Top of the Heap
For some reason, “top students”–aka high achievers, go-getters, A-types, test-takers, straight-A students, you know who you are!–often have the hardest time writing these essays. At least really good ones.
Don’t get me wrong. These students are the ones who know to start early on their essays, and put a lot of effort into them. Their writing is usually technically “clean” of errors, and they probably would get an “A” from their English teachers. The problem is many of their essays are either on the dull side, or come across as trying too hard to impress or make them sound a bit full of themselves. This is not good!
Here are some of the reasons for this top student=bad essay paradox:
1. “Top” students often have a hard time trusting that a casual, narrative style produces an engaging, powerful essay. Instead, they stick to a formal, academic style (like the 5-paragraph essay); use too many long words; downshift into the passive voice; write overly long, descriptive sentences; cram in the adverbs. Many students (not just these “top” ones) often break into the dreaded English-ese (See my attempt at a definition below.). Take a writing Chill Pill to strike a more conversational tone and find your true writing voice.
College Admissions Essays:
Don’t Try to Impress!
I just read an interesting article in the New York Times about how high school students are seeking out exotic trips, usually to foreign countries, mainly so they will have an intriguing topic for their college application essays.
(Article copied below)
I think these trips can be amazing, and that students learn a lot about other places, cultures and themselves.
But if you are lucky enough to take one of these trips, the last thing I would do is plan it so you can write a snazzy college admissions essay.
I actually believe this approach can backfire.
An instant turn-off to essay readers is a student who is trying to impress them.
To avoid sounding over-privileged, students should look for essay topics that focus on everyday subjects, often called “mundane topics.”
Every time, the essay about a summer job where a student flipped pancakes at IHOP or washed dishes or sold shoes turned out so much better than the one where they went to Africa and lived in mud huts or helped farmers in Guatemala pull weeds.
For some reason, the more basic topics feel more authentic and are naturally more interesting.
And the writer comes across more humble, and likable, even.
That’s not to say that you can’t write a fine essay about a cool trip abroad.
My advice is that in your search for a topic, don’t consider the trip itself the topic. Instead, focus on one thing that happened on that trip.
Focus your essay on a specific experience, and just let the trip to the cool place be the background.
That way, the college folks see how adventuresome you are, but you can focus your essay on something more specific and meaningful. College admissions folks want to learn about how you think and what you value.
So it’s not so much where you were or did something, but what happened, how you handled it and what you learned in the process. That’s why scooping gelato, parking cars or walking dogs can make more interesting topics than your travels around Timbuktu.
Read my Jumpstart Guide to get started on your college admissions essay!
I realized today that I never shared a list of topics that usually result in lame essays. (It feels negative to emphasize this list of no-no’s, but it can save students a lot of time if they know to avoid these early on.) You can make any topic interesting, of course, but if you want to give yourself a break, stay away from these potential losers:
- Listing accomplishments. Don’t even think about just rattling off amazing things you have done, people you have met or places you have visited, etc. Way too broad and BORING!! Bragging is not a good way to make friends!
- Death, divorce, tragedies in general. It’s not so much that these can be downers, but they’re such powerful topics that they can be very challenging to write about. (the “death” topic applies to family, friends and even those beloved pets.) HOWEVER, if you have lost someone dear to you and it has rocked your world–you probably should try to write about it. Just try to make the essay more about your feelings, how it affected you and what you learned than just about the person you lost.
- “The most important thing/person in my life.” Again, this is just too broad and loaded, whether you want to talk about God or your mom or your best friend. Yawn!!
- Sports. The thrill of victory. Agony of defeat. Done. Dull. Avoid if possible.
- Humor. Although a story you convey in one of your essays may be funny, do not try to be funny—there is a difference. Keep your deliver straight.
- “I’m so lucky.” Many college-bound students are privileged to live in beautiful, affluent towns and cities, and that’s great, lucky you!, but talking about this is plain boring.
- Do-good experiences. These can range from mission trips to Costa Rica to volunteering tutoring through the local schools. Although essays can certainly involve these experiences, the topic needs to be on a specific experience within that broader trip or program. There is a huge difference. Essays that basically describe trips or volunteering are boring. Specific, unexpected things that happen during them, however, can be great topics!
- Sensitive topics. Since you are writing for an audience who you want to want you, it’s important to use your common sense in terms of topics that have a high tendency to make people angry or upset because they do not agree with your opinion. Politics and religion are particularly provocative. No matter what, don’t preach about any topic!
- The un-essay. Many students, often some of the brightest, have a fundamental reaction to these essays and the assignment to reveal yourself in 500 words, so they want to get creative and in-your-face since that feels more genuine to them. They want to write in stream-of-consciousness or be sarcastic, etc. I totally understand this reaction. However, you must remember your goal with these essays: to get accepted! Save the radical expression for after you get into college.
- Illicit behavior. Drug use. Sexual activities. Arrests or jail time. Even if you stopped doing these illegal or unethical things, it’s still not the best idea to bring them up here. You can write about life missteps as long as it’s clear you have regained your footing! If nothing else, the admissions folks might just wonder about your judgment in general for not steering clear of these topics.
Now that you know what not
to write about, you can learn more about how to find great topics
. In general, don’t try to impress your reader–it usually backfires. Instead, focus on something that happened, how it affected you and what you learned. Those stories are naturally interesting and impressive.
If you want more help getting started writing, check out my Jumpstart Guide for writing college application essays.
Also, my new ebook guide, Escape Essay Hell!, will walk you through 10 fast and easy steps for finding a unique topic and writing a narrative essay.