***Need in-person help getting starting? Check out my Jumpstart Webinars. Only $30! FREE if you can’t afford them. Two left this month!
Tips on Turning Problems into Hot Topics
So you have thought of a topic you want to write about in your college application essay.
I’m guessing it will fall into one of these three categories: the Good, the Bad or the Ugly.
If so, here’s tips on how to approach them so they make effective essays.
#1: How to Write About the GOOD in Your College Application Essay
Of course colleges want to hear about all the GOOD stuff you have done in your life so far, especially during your high school years. And it’s natural to want to stuff your college application essays with all those glowing details–about your achievements, your accomplishments, your shining personality and your stellar character.
Stop right there! The last thing you want to do with your essay is cram it full of lists of every good or impressive thing you have done. Not only would your essay be dull as dirt, but your application will already be loaded with details about your impressive grades, extra-curricular activities, awards, internships, etc.
Also, an essay that only talks about your good side can easily tip into a tone that comes across as boastful or arrogant, which is off-putting to readers (aka admissions officers).
Then how do you write about something good about yourself in your essay?
Easy! Start with something not so good about yourself.
If you are showcasing an accomplishment, start with a time when you were just starting to work towards it. Look for obstacles or challenges that were in your way. Share your frustrations, defeats, mistakes, conflicts, missteps, etc. After that, you can shift into how you overcame them and ultimately conquered your goal.
The point of sharing an accomplishment, achievement or something good about yourself in a personal statement essay is not only to let schools know what you did or how wonderful you are–but how you did it or got that way, why you did it, and what you learned in the process. That is what should make up the bulk of your essay if you want to write about the Good in your essay.
You will strike the right tone if you were first humbled by the challenge or obstacle. When you share how you worked toward your achievement, accomplishment or personal growth goal, you will indirectly reveal your impressive qualities.
Best of all, your college application essay will be interesting to read! What good is an essay if no one wants to read past the first sentence or two?
Start with the Bad–and then move into the Good! Works every time!
#2: How to Write About the BAD in your College Application Essay
I think topics about your Bad stuff usually make the strongest essays. They are the most interesting, and also give you the best platform to shift into all your Good stuff.
I write a lot about how problems make awesome topics. If you think about problems you have faced in your past–especially the everyday, mundane ones–you will discover your little mini-stories, incidents, moments and experiences to power your essays. When you face a problem (challenge, obstacle, change, mistake, phobia, flaw, conflict…), it means that something happened. If something happened, then it’s interest to read about. You can also show how you turned that problem into a Good thing–because you dealt with it and learned something in the process.
When brainstorming topics for your essay, trust the times you had to handle problems. Almost any kind can work. You are terrified of the dark. You spent too much money at Target. You got caught gossiping about your best friend. You spilled coffee on a customer during your Starbucks job. You forgot your mom’s birthday. You got off the bus in the wrong neighborhood. You broke your dad’s favorite power tool. You dyed your hair orange by accident. You couldn’t afford the cost of your school trip to France.
Maybe you can’t believe you could spin an effective essay from a bad thing that happened to you. Won’t it be a giant downer and turn off your target schools?
Don’t believe me? Try reading some sample essays and see if you can spot some Bad stuff–and see how the writer turned it into an interesting and meaningful essay that ended up showcasing a lot of Good stuff. (Just put Sample Essay into the search box on this blog to find some. I also have a collection of sample essays available on Amazon, called Heavenly Essays.)
#3. How to Write about the UGLY in Your College Application Essay
When I say Ugly, I’m talking about the extreme Bad stuff. If you are lucky, you don’t have any Ugly in your life. That’s great!
However, many students have faced some really challenging realities and experiences. These can range from financial hardships to prejudices to illness, injury, death and other personal tragedies.
Should they write about these if they were so horrific?
I say YES. How could these circumstances or experiences not have shaped who they are, most likely in really Good ways?
That said, these highly dramatic or sensational topics can be tricky to write about.
What you want to avoid is an essay that describes all the Ugly stuff and only the Ugly stuff. Even though these details can be very moving and interesting, the essays need to be mainly about how the students handled these issues, and turned them into something positive as best as possible.
In fact, the most intense, tragic or Ugly the experience or situation, the less the student needs to write about it. Typically, a paragraph or two will convey enough for the reader to understand how hard it was. After that, time to shift into how the student dealt with the Ugly or handled it, and then what they learned from that process.
Another trick to handling a highly sensitive, emotional or tragic topic in a personal essay is to look for a smaller piece of that topic. Look for an example of the larger issue to share at the start of the essay, and then describe later the larger challenge. For instance, if a student writes about losing a parent, look for a moment, incident or experience that shows a related problem due to that loss. Maybe the student needs to find a resourceful way to get to school because no one is there to drive them. Or the student has learned how to buy groceries to feed the family now that mom is gone. (Notice that these are smaller “problems” that relate to the larger Ugly “problem.”)
Writing about these types of highly personal and often deeply painful topics can be extremely challenging. I think they can make powerful topics for college application essays if the student feels ready to explore and share them. Give it a try. If it’s too hard, bag it. There are many other topics out there!
Again, read sample essays to see how other students handled all these types of topics–the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Here’s a link to a few essays from Heavenly Essays to get you started (the second one, by Alex Segall is an excellent example of how to write about the Ugly): Sample Essays
Good luck! Remember, it’s not what you write about, but what you have to say about it that matters the most in these essays!
Many of you are already out for summer, or at the finishing line. Yippee!!
If you’re now officially an incoming high school senior, or soon to be, it’s time to get cranking on your college application essay.
I’m sure you have heard that summer is the ideal time to start the brainstorming and writing process. If you can get them all done before the start of your senior year, all the better.
You most likely have heard these essays can be critical to your college acceptance chances.
Yes, it’s true they can matter, and sometimes tip the scales in your favor. No doubt it’s worth putting in significant time and effort on them.
But I believe it’s important not to fall for all the hype and madness around this application process.
I know when I’m stressed or anxious, my creative juices quickly shrivel up.
Once you start reading about college application essays on the Web, you most likely will find advice that uses intimidating words, such as “transformational” and “differentiating.” So-called experts like to say things like how it’s critical to “Be yourself” in your essay, and how these are your “Chance to shine.”
They aren’t wrong, necessarily. But all the ballyhoo isn’t very helpful if all you want to know is how and where to start, and what topic to write about, and how to craft it into an effective essay.
When you hear that a killer essay is one that shows you “transforming yourself,” that’s quite a directive. It means you had some type of dramatic change in your life, whether it was physical, emotional or even spiritual.
If you had that type of experience, good for you. And it could make a solid topic.
Most of us, however, by age 16 or 17 or even later, have not experienced that type of radical metamorphosis. So can you still write a great essay?
What I have found working with students on these essays and the search for the holy grail topic, is that the simple, everyday “mundane” ones usually work best. Same goes for life changes. They don’t need to be profound to be interesting and meaningful.
For instance, if you are rooting around for an interesting topic, and reflecting on ways you have changed in recent years, look for the smaller changes. Look for shifts, adjustments, alterations, smaller movements in your life. I believe the most interesting shifts come in your thinking, especially if you learned something new or unexpected, or saw something in a different light or context.
The idea is that your essay topic doesn’t need to be about a momentous change in your life. Instead, recall moments, incidents or experiences that happened in your recent past (high school years are best), and see if anything changed or shifted in your thinking (about yourself, about others or about the world) in the process of dealing with whatever went down.
That takes off the pressure to have had a radical life experience where you were one person, and then something happened, and suddenly you were an entirely different person. That rarely happens. Instead, brainstorm those everyday moments or “times,” and explore how your thinking changed. Even better, think about how what you cared about changed. Hint: those are called your values.
Colleges love to not only get a sense of your unique personalities in these essays, but they value seeing how you think, feel and behave, and what you value and learn, in these essays. You can write a “transformational” essay without having changed from a bad person to a good person, or a shy person to an outgoing person, etc.
You are changing all the time, and it can be hard to notice at the moment. Take a little time to think of things that have happened to you, and more time to examine how you responded to them. Another hint: best place to find interesting moments are those that involved problems.
Even if you are following me so far, you most likely are wondering what you do once you think of some of these personal changes or shifts, and how to spin them into a piece of writing.
I have written posts all over my Essay Hell blog on exactly what to do, and I also spell it out in my popular writing guide, Escape Essay Hell, and in my online writing bootcamp. I’m also walking students through this process in my Jumpstart webinars, which started this month. The next one is this Saturday, at 10 a.m., West Coast time, and I will have several more this month.
So many ways to get started on these essays. Pick one and get going!
I hope you are hearing my main point in this post: Don’t get freaked out by all the hype about what these essays are all about.
Like all the millions of students who have gone into Essay Hell before you, you will also find a topic and write a killer essay! Just buckle down at some point this summer, read up on what they are all about, pick what resources you think will help you the best, and you will find they aren’t that freaky after all.
Here are some of my best posts to get you launched:
I don’t know about you, but the recent college admission scandal gave me a total gut punch. All these rich people buying and cheating their way into colleges. Disgusting.
(In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this: They Had It Coming from The Atlantic.)
I did some soul-searching about my own role as an essay writing coach in this crazy college admissions industry. The unfair stress on kids, the insane antics of desperate parents and the toxic collusion of privilege and education.
Living in affluent Laguna Beach, California, the last 23 years, where several of the 33 parents charged in this scandal are from, I’ve worked with my share of oblivious, entitled parents. Most of the mothers and fathers, however, have been good people trying to do what they thought best for their kids–and I tried to focus on them.
When I learned about this scandal, and the sleazy college admissions counselor from nearby Newport Beach who masterminded the whole scam, I seriously considered quitting my Essay Hell business. It was too hard to ignore the sullied admissions world. When anyone asked me what I did for a living, I was embarrassed to tell them. And still am. Maybe I could start a dog-walking service or drive a school bus.
In the decade I have worked with students and others on these essays, I tried to stay outside the admissions frenzy and resisted the networking scene among the related industry “players.” I stuck to working with individual students, and coaching groups of teachers, counselors and others so they could help students learn how to write essays that were effective and meaningful. And also become better writers in the process! How could that be a bad thing?
My goal was to empower students with specific writing techniques and tips so they could find their unique stories and tell them in an engaging and meaningful narrative style. I did not try to game the system, or encourage gimmicks or shortcuts. And of course never wrote essays for students. (I know, I sound defensive. Guess I am a bit.)
Based on the feedback from students, parents and others over the years, most of those who did the hard work wrote outstanding essays and got into terrific schools. No cheating. No influencers. No bribes. (As far as I know. Sheesh!)
In the past, I charged a bundle for private hour-long tutoring sessions. I justified it because I’m good at what I do, have a lot of professional experience and thought my fees should reflect my value.
But charging $200 an hour for one-on-one coaching did put me in the hot seat of giving the most privileged students and families an edge in the admissions game. No denying that.
So I’m done with that for the time being. Now I’m in the process of revamping my services so that I can make my tutoring more accessible and feasible to all students. And I believe they can be equally effective and helpful.
The New Plan: Affordable (and FREE!) Webinars!
Here’s my plan. I’m still offering in-person and online essay-writing training workshops to groups of teachers, counselors and students. But no more private sessions, at least for now. And I intend to only offer editing services to students who start with my Jumpstart webinars and are on the right track from the get-go. (I believe that prevents too much intervention on my part, to keep it fair.)
Instead, I’m planning to offer my college application essay writing instruction and advice through group workshops online (webinars via YouTube Live) and keep them relatively cheap and simple. And I’m offering both my Jumpstart webinars FREE to those who can’t afford them.
Starting soon (June 15 first one!), I will offer hourlong online Webinar Jumpstart sessions. They will cost $30 each.
At first, these online workshops (webinars) will feature my trademark Jumpstart process, where I quickly help students understand what makes a great essay, and then step them through a step-by-step brainstorming process to identify killer topics, as well as how to structure their drafts. The idea is to help you get launched!
As summer gets rolling into fall, I will offer other follow-up workshops topics, such as How to Write the University of California Essays, How to Write the Most Common Supplemental Essays, How to Self Edit and Bump Up Essays, etc.
If this works out, I like to think that any or all students can get plenty of great inspiration and direction on how to write their essays–ALL of them–for around $100 or less. Some might only need one workshop, and they are off.
I also am offering my webinars, and the included online writing bootcamp (that includes my writing guides), FREE to all students who are underprivileged or underserved, as well as teachers, counselors, parents and others who work with them. Just email me and let me know your name, school, city/state, and background: EssayHell@gmail.com. I will send you the 100-percent-off discount code to purchase a webinar.
I would love to hear from you if my new approach sounds fair and a good way to get help on these essays. You can also put together your own group for a custom webinar if these dates don’t work for you. Please leave comments, ideas and questions in the comment section below. Or email me directly at: EssayHell@gmail.com.
Thanks for reading this. I hope I don’t sound like a martyr or that I’m looking for praise for these changes. They are mainly so that I feel good about what I’m doing, and thought I would try to explain the reason behind them.
So stay tuned!
Don’t worry about your essays and your future! You got this! And I hope I get the opportunity to help you.
If you’ve done your homework on how to write an effective college application essay, you probably know the place to start is with your real-life stories.
The idea is to find moments, incidents and experiences from your past that illustrate a larger point you want to make about yourself in your essay.
Often, the best place to share an engaging mini-story (also called an anecdote) is at the very start of your piece.
The anecdote (mini-story) serves to “hook” or grab your reader’s interest at the start—something you always want in a standout application essay.
However, once you share that little moment, incident or mini-story (anecdote) that you have plucked out of time with little to no introduction, where do you go after that first paragraph or two? (more…)
All students have plenty to write about for their college application essays.
However, from what I’ve seen working with college-bound students for the last decade, many of our most talented, driven and intelligent teenagers are living such parallel, over-achieving lives that they struggle to find an effective essay topic.
These are the same kids, many targeting Ivy League educations, who will need bull’s-eye essays to have even a shot of getting in.
It’s sad, unfair and ironic: The hardest working students have no time for a life. (more…)
As a professional writing coach, I help students, parents, counselors, teachers and others from around the world on these dreaded essays!
Learn about my in-person and online tutoring, editing, workshops, books, and online courses, ... READ MORE....
Learn to Write Your Essay in One Hour!
My on-demand, fast-and-easy online e-course: How to Write a College App Essay (Click lightbulb for details.)
Perfect for The Common App, UCs, grad school, transfer and scholarship essays!