A Great Essay Topic? Anything But the Coronavirus!
When counseling students on finding great topics for their college application essays, I often direct them to explore problems they have faced in their lives.
Problems provide the perfect springboard for writing a compelling personal statement. (Problems = challenge, obstacle, mistake, flaw, phobia, conflict, change, etc.) If you faced a problem, big or small, it means that:
1. Something interesting and personal happened
2. You had to deal with it
3. You learned something
This simple framework can help you share your personal stories in your essay, and then also examine, explore and share how they shaped you and what you care about (your values).
And voila! A college application essay that is engaging, meaningful and memorable.
RELATED: Use this post to learn how to write about a problem for your personal statement essay.
So if this simple approach works, and all you need is a juicy problem to spin into an effective essay, wouldn’t you want to write about the biggest problem the world is facing right now?
A global pandemic that has literally shut down life as we know it, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, snuffed out jobs, forced families to hide in their homes and has no clear end in sight?
Isn’t that the perfect topic?
Well, no. (more…)
FREE Summer Essay Writing Webinars!
First one: Wednesday, July 8!
I know this is a hard time for many students and families. To do my small part to try to ease the financial strain due to the current pandemic, I will be offering FREE webinars this summer to help students get a head start on their college application essays. The first one will be Wednesday, July 8, at 3 p.m. via Zoom meetings.
During our sessions, I will walk you through the basics of what makes a great essay, and then help you brainstorm topic ideas. Time allowing, I will also share other advice and tips on structuring and editing essays to make them focused and meaningful. Students will learn the step-by-step process that I have taught thousands of students over the last decade. We will end with a Q&A session, so bring your questions (eg. topic ideas you have that you would like feedback on…).
The vibe will be very informal, friendly and encouraging and ideally leave you eager to get cranking on your college application essays! I will focus on advice and ideas on how write the most common essay–the personal statement. This is the first-person essay that you write about yourself, and is required for The Common Application, The Coalition Application and other applications, such as for scholarships, etc. The tips and instruction you get in this session should also help you with other college application essays, such as for the University of California, common supplemental essays, etc. It’s all about learning how to pick topics and write about yourself, and what you care about and why.
Participants Can Get My Companion Online Essay Writing Bootcamp Course for Only $20! (Normally almost $100!)
BONUS! Also, any students who would like access to my popular online essay writing course (that I sell for $99)–which includes my best-selling writing guides (eg Escape Essay Hell and Heavenly Essays), short instructional videos and other helpful resources–can get it by simply donating a minimum of $20 to any non-profit organization working to support the underprivileged in our country (just email copy of receipt). Any students who can’t afford this donation for whatever reason can get it for free by asking.
HOW TO SIGN UP: For a link to my first webinar on Wednesday, July 8, please send me, Janine Robinson, an email at: EssayHell@gmail.com. Depending on demand, I will be giving weekly webinars through the month of July and into August. Send me an email for future dates and/or watch this page. Tell your friends!
Here are a couple awesome organizations that could use your support (click name of organization to learn more about these groups and how to donate). Or pick one you like:
The Marshall Project
NAACP Legal Defense Fund
National Immigration Center
It’s Not Too Late to Capture Your Unique
COVID-19 Experience in a Journal
I know most of your are busy with online schooling. If you find extra time on your hands, and want a great way to practice narrative writing to prepare for your college application essays, start a diary about your Coronavirus experience as soon as you can.
For most of you, this could be the most dramatic, real-life experience of your life–and it’s happening right now.
For some of you, the hardest part so far has been the boredom of staying at home, cancelled events and not seeing friends. I hope that is your biggest problem. Many students will experience more intense repercussions from this pandemic, including losing loved ones, watching parents get laid off from jobs and enduring financial and emotional hardship.
All of you will have stories to tell. It’s not necessarily one long tale. But many small moments, incidents, conversations, emotions, insights, questions, conflicts, frustrations, jokes, and so on. If you’re smart, start collecting them now.
Trust me–someday you will be so glad you took the time to write down the details of your experience. You think you will never forget what it’s like now, but you will.
Also, keeping a Coronavirus diary (or journal, same thing) is an awesome exercise to learn the style of writing (narrative/story-telling) you will need to ace your college application essays.
This pandemic started a while ago, but you can start a diary capturing your unique and highly personal experience NOW! It’s not too late.
Even though COVID-19 most likely will not be a great essay topic on its own, there’s a strong chance it still will play a big or small part of your essays.
How to Start Your Diary or Journal
It’s best if you can find some type of self-contained notebook. Lined or unlined. Personal preference. If you don’t have one single notebook, just find a way to collect your pages, either in an envelope or folder. You can always bind them together later. You can also write on the computer. Create a file and get started (I would print out your work, if possible, as back-up.)
Find a time of day that works for you to spend at least 10-15 minutes to write. It can be in the morning or afternoon or before you go to bed–again, your call. Just make a commitment to write something–anything–every day. If you miss a day, or even several, don’t let that stop you. Dive back in whenever you can. Put a reminder on your phone.
At the top of each entry, put the day and date. Doodling is totally allowed!
Resist the urge to erase. Even if you re-read what you wrote, and it sounds dumb or cheesy or not how you want, just LEAVE IT ALONE. That is your voice at the moment, and it is fine. If what you write really bugs you, just don’t read it. Keep writing.
WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT?
Diaries are usually a mixture of recounting what happened to you during the last day or so, and your feelings about those events. You can give an overview of your day, or pick one or two interesting things that happened. It’s up to you. If you give an overview, stick with chronological order–start with how it began, what you did, and go from there. If you just want to share one thing that happened, just start with that. There are no rules.
The other part of a diary, besides telling what you did and what happened, is to write about what it meant to you. This can include a lot of reflecting, examining and analyzing what happened. You can also share how you felt and what you learned. (In your college application essays, especially personal statements like the Common App essay, you also recount something that happened to you–like telling a real-life story–and then you explain what it meant to you. See how they are similar?)
One writing tip to keep your Coronavirus diary balanced between what happened and what it meant to you is to shift back and forth. If you write a few sentences or paragraph about something that happened and those details, follow up with how you felt about it–especially your feelings and what you learned about yourself, others and the world. Then describe something else that happened, and reflect. Back and forth. Something happened => what it meant to you => something happened => what it meant to you….This writing technique (sometimes called the Ladder of Abstraction) is how you add depth–another skill you can use to power your college application essays.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS WRITING TECHNIQUE: How to Structure a College Application Essay
When you tell about your day, and the specifics of something that happened, make sure to includes tons of details. Name the movies you watched, the brand of cereal you ate, the friends you talked with, the words your dad used, the way your room looked, etc. These type of details will brighten your story and years down the road, you will laugh or even cry at many of them since you and your life will change.
A few more tips: Write like you talk. Don’t try to make your coronavirus diary sound like an English paper. You can use slang, or even foul language, if that’s how you talk. The important thing is that you will be capturing your authentic narrative “voice,” which is exactly what you want to use when writing your college application essay.
Also, stick to the past tense, even though you are writing about things that just happened. They are still in the past, and it reads better. Try to use the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all that you know, so that it’s as readable as possible, but don’t sweat the them. Most important, you want to be able to read your diary later.
Use mainly first person. “I” “Me” “We” “Us”….
These are just some ideas on how to capture your experiences and feelings and observations about what’s going on right now with you. But there are NO RULES. This Coronavirus diary is yours, and your alone.
Some Prompts to Get You Going
The dreaded blank page. Yikes!! How do you start when this CV has been going on for a while and you have already been homebound for a week or more? Try something like this:
Start with your first impressions of the pandemic. How did you first hear about it? Where were you? What did you think? What went through your mind? How did you feel? This will help you start at the beginning of this CV phase of your life, and you can go from there until you bring it up to today.
“I’m not sure the exact moment I first heard about the Coronavirus, but I remember seeing a video on Facebook about someone in China……”
Share some details about other things you remember early on learning about it, from your friends, from social media, from your parents, etc. You can keep this short, or write about it over the next couple entries and days. Your call. At some point, you will start simply writing about what happened THAT DAY (or yestserday).
Talk about the first day you learned school was closed. Include how you felt. Scared? Disappointed? Angry? Depressed? Anxious? Share what your first day home was like. It will be interesting to see how that changes over the coming weeks, and possibly months. Did you start a routine? What did your parents tell you about what was happening and what to expect?
Still not sure what to write about? Just think back over your day. Did anything happen that made you laugh? Write about that moment. Did anything happen that upset you? Write about that moment. Did someone else do something weird or unexpected? Write about that. Just pick a small incident or conversation or moment, and simply tell what happened. If it comes to mind, it’s memorable to you and worth jotting down the details. Then, Boom. You have a Coronavirus diary entry.
REMEMBER: What you choose to write about does not need to be super exciting, life-changing, shocking or momentous to have value. It’s actually the everyday and ordinary moments and interactions that are the most meaningful since they are the most real to YOU. Trust what you cared about, and record it. If you have some more dramatic incidents, of course, record those as well!
Also, you don’t have to tie everything you write about directly to this Coronavirus. Everything that happens to you now IS related on some level because it is happening now during this pandemic. Simply focus on writing about how your life is now.
If things in your life are bad, all the more reason to write down what’s going on in your Coronavirus diary. Getting out what’s happening and especially how you feel about it can help you get through this. This won’t necessarily fix things, but it will help you handle them and can be helpful since you can get out your fears, worries, anger, whatever.
Hopefully, this will get you launched on your Coronavirus diary. You will never regret it, and again, you couldn’t have a better exercise to prepare for writing a killer personal statement for your college application essays. Big bonus!
We are in the middle of very weird and terrifying times. From reports I’ve read, we could return to some type of new normal within a matter of months. And then, looking back, this will be one of those bizarre nightmare experiences that you endured and will never forget. Your grandparents and parents had watershed times like the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, 911 and the 2008 Crash. This is yours, happening now. If you have a written record of how YOU handled it in your Coronavirus diary, you will value that for the rest of your life.
So get a notebook, jot down the day and date, and write something. Anything. Then put it down. Repeat.
I plan to write some follow-up posts with more tips and prompts for keeping your diary/journal going. So stay tuned!
Know the Main Point You Want to Make
About Yourself In Your Essay!
I don’t know why I haven’t written about this before. It’s soooooo important to writing a college application essay that will give you that edge in landing your dream school acceptance.
To start off, if you don’t know the Main Point of your college application essay, you are pretty much sunk right off the bat.
In my popular writing guide, Escape Essay Hell, I’m pretty sure I mentioned this somewhere in my step-by-step process. But I probably should have hammered this topic more.
If you are writing a personal statement style essay for say, The Common Application, or other college applications, the piece needs to be all about you.
So, as in all good writing, you can’t really begin until you have a clear idea of what you want to say. In this case, what you want to say about yourself.
Finding THE MAIN POINT YOU ARE GOING TO SAY ABOUT YOURSELF in your college application essay is similar, actually almost identical, to making a thesis statement.
Ugh. I know. I never liked having to deal with those. They make you think, and also make some hard decisions.
Why? Because you have to boil down your message to its essence. And that ain’t easy.
When you write a personal statement essay, you need to DECIDE what the main thing is you want to say. About yourself.
Trouble is, you can’t say everything. That would take a book.
So you must pick. Narrow it down. Frame it up. Decide on ONE main thing you want to tell these schools about yourself. ONE!
No, you can’t just say how great you are. Or, pick me, pick me, I’m super smart, and a hard worker and also play a mean sax. And did I mention I have 40,000 hours of community service?
Instead, you want to find ONE thing about yourself that you can write about that will help your target colleges and universities:
- Differentiate you from the other applicants
- Find you likable
- See that you are interesting
- Get a sense of your “intellectual vitality,” which mainly means you enjoy learning and thinking
- Remember you when they are making their cuts
This is where you want to start the brainstorming process to try to identify topics that you can use to show this ONE MAIN POINT about yourself to these schools.
Here are some topics students wrote about in the sample essays in my collection, Heavenly Essays: An obsession with junk collecting. Messing up while waiting tables. Coming from an in vitro egg. Road trip in Winnebago with parents. Getting stuck in a tree. Swallowing a goldfish. Having three older bossy sisters. Smiling too much.
Great topics! However, before these students could write about these ideas, they had to first know…you got it…THE MAIN POINT THEY WANTED TO MAKE ABOUT THEMSELVES in their essays.
Because these essays were not about these topics. They were about these students. And your essay needs to be about you.
When working one-on-one with students, I usually start by having them identify a short list of their defining qualities or characteristics. Then we pick one, and we use that to decide the ONE MAIN POINT they will write about themselves in their essay.
RELATED: How to Find Your Defining Qualities
I don’t know where you are at in the brainstorming or writing process. But see if this helps you identify your MAIN POINT:
Can you write: “I am the type of girl or guy who is _______________________ and it matters because ______________________.” ?
Try to fill in that first blank with one specific description of yourself, such as a defining quality or characteristic. The second blank will help you identify what you value and/or what you learned.
This is how you pick or decide what part of you you are going to showcase in your essay. This will give it focus and allow you to write about yourself without needing an entire book.
Remember, you are going to write about only one part of yourself.
Once you have a clear idea of your MAIN POINT, everything you have to say in your essay will relate, somehow, to this point. Everything you say will support this point, offer examples (little stories of you in action) of this point, explore and explain this point.
Check out this post, How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps, to learn how to put together a narrative style personal statement essay that will cover all these goals. And of course, include your main point. You might not need to overtly state your main point, as with a thesis statement, but it will be in there somewhere.
If you want more help, my book, Escape Essay Hell, lays this all out step by step in more detail.
Remember, the MAIN POINT of these college application essays is to help you stand out among the competition. And you can’t stand out unless you first know the MAIN POINT about yourself that will help you do this best.
***Looking for help starting your essays? Check out my affordable Jumpstart Webinars! Adding more for July. Only $30. FREE if you can’t afford them.
My Sample Essay Collection
Have a College Admissions Essay You Love? Send It In!
It been a little over five years since I published my best-selling collection of sample college application essays, called Heavenly Essays.
Most of the essays were written by former students, although I also included a handful by other students who submitted their pieces to me.
Now, I would love to add about a dozen new essays to this collection to keep it fresh and timely. (Mainly personal statement essays used for the Common App, Coalition App, Questbridge App and others core essays.)
Anyone is welcome to send in essays. Of course, I especially love hearing from former clients, but I know many other students have written excellent essays as well.
In Heavenly Essays, I included the essay, along with the student’s name, city/state/country, and school attended. At the end of each essay, I have written a short analysis where I shared my thoughts on what worked well and why, and what writing devices, ideas or techniques the writer used effectively. My goal is for students who read these essays, and my analyses, to learn how to craft their own narrative essays.
I believe one of the best ways students can learn how to write engaging and meaningful personal statement essays for their college applications is to read what others have written.
Not only can they get a sense of how these story-telling style essays are structured, and notice the more casual style and authentic voices, but students can also find inspiration for their own topic ideas.
Who knew you could write a killer essay about collecting trash, or messing up a food order while waiting tables, or coming from a family with big hips?
Those of you who have worked with students on their essays–college admissions counselors, English teachers and even parents–are all welcome to submit essays for my collection. Of course, you need to get the student’s permission.
You can either copy and paste them in an email, or attach them as Word or Google docs, and send them to my email: EssayHell@gmail.com
Please feel free to ask me any questions, too.
In my opinion, I think this is a great opportunity not only to share students’ work and inspire others, but publishing a personal piece of writing is a nice accomplishment.
I’m also happy to send a free copy of my collection of Heavenly Essays to anyone who wants to submit essays for these additions. Again, just send me an email.
My Step-by-Step Guide
(I also have a long-standing offer to anyone who buys any of my writing guides on Amazon, either digital or paperback version—Escape Essay Hell, Heavenly Essays or The Writing Survival Kit–and leaves a short star-rating and comments on its Amazon sales page, is welcome to a free digital copy of any of my guides. Just let me know if you left a review and what book you would like.)
Best Essay Writing Tips and Advice!
Thanks for your support!
***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.
RELATED: Find Your Problems
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!