So you think you are done with your college admission essay or personal statement. Wait! You have worked so hard on that essay; it’s worth an extra few minutes to make sure it’s as good as you can make it. I know you are probably sick of it by now, so if you have time set it aside for a day or so. But before you send it out, give it at least one more critical read.
It’s fine if you don’t have all of these elements, but if you have some or most of them, chances are your essay will sing!
A grabber introduction. No? Try reading THIS POST and THIS POST to see if crafting an anecdote at the start will make it more compelling and memorable.
A twist. No? Try THIS POST to learn what these are and how to find them.
A universal truth or life lesson. No? There’s a good chance you already have one, but just didn’t recognize it yet. Read THIS POST to check yours.
A snappy title. No? My advice is to include a title if you can think of a clever one. Otherwise, just leave it out. Read THIS POST to help think of one.
Under word count. No? Read THIS POST to learn how to cut your essay and why it almost always helps.
DON’T PUSH THAT BUTTON YET!!
And make sure to read THIS POST on the steps to take to “fine edit” your college application essay and give it that winning polish!
College Admissions Essays: Five Tips for the Perfect Topic
Still looking for a college application essay topic
that will set you apart from the pack?
Here are my Top Five Tips on finding compelling and memorable topics:
1. Start with a defining quality (curious, self-disciplined, creative), and then look for “times” or examples of when you either demonstrated this quality, had this quality challenged or developed this quality.
Click HERE to find my Jumpstart Guide to help you with that approach.
Don’t know your defining qualities? Click HERE to find them.
2. Try to find something “unexpected” to write about, either something that happened to you that no one would expect to happen to someone like you (you love knot-tying but got stuck in a tree because you used the wrong knot); or something you love or pursue that no one would ever expect of you (a football player who loves to bake cakes.); or some personal trait or characteristic that no one would guess has affected you (you are not even 5-feet-tall but wear a size 9 shoe.)
3. Troll your past for “mundane” or everyday topics as opposed to ones you think might be impressive. Examples: The Day I Washed Dishes at My Dad’s Restaurant; People Think I’m Mean Because I Weigh 300 Pounds; How I Grew to Love Public Busses; I’m a Formal Guy Even Though I Live in Surf City.
Click HERE for more posts on the power of mundane topics.
4. Read sample essays. If you are stuck, it’s so worth the little bit of time to get your hands on a cheap collection and skim through them. First, you will see the range of topics that other students have used, and chances are it will trigger your own ideas.
Secondly, you will get a feel for the looser, narrative style and structure of these essays, which will help you write yours. Click HERE for books of sample essays. And HERE is a post with online sample essays.
5. Go down memory lane and try to remember “times” when you faced a problem. If you can find a problem, you will find a story. (Problems come in many different shapes and sizes: challenges, change, mistakes, obstacles, phobias, fears, bad luck, physical traits, etc.)
If you have a little story (also called an anecdote), chances are you can write an engaging essay. Click HERE to learn more about how this works.
I would never have believed that writing about the Twilight series could be a super essay topic–not in a million years. But below, I’m going to share how one of my brightest students landed on Edward Cullen as the perfect topic during one of my recent “Jumpstart” tutoring sessions. And how it’s going to be a brilliant essay!
As a little background, this particular student is fierce. She’s a top student, loves chemistry and also is an accomplished dancer. Her first college admissions essay (she needs to write 2 for the University of California app.) is going to show how she is a problem solver. But what about that second essay? I believe if you are writing more than one essay for an application,they should complement each other–that is, balance each other out.
This is when I really push for the idea of a “mundane” topic, one that is everyday, and often would be the last topic in the world you would even consider writing about.
EXAMPLES: The kid who realized he had leadership skills the night he had to wash dishes at his dad’s restaurant. The girl who starred in her school musicals but wrote about her passion for karaoke. The tiny dancer who came to terms with her size 9 feet. The football tackle who loved to bake cakes for his teammates. Notice that on the surface, none of these topics sounds “impressive.” But trust me, they end up as the most interesting and memorable essays–exactly what you want! The other quality all these topics share is they have an “unexpected” quality–you wouldn’t expect a football player to love baking, or a dancer to have big feet or to find a leader behind a stack of dirty dishes. (What’s something about you that no one would believe?)
Here’s how our conversation went as we brainstormed a mundane–and unexpected–college essay topic:
A common challenge in writing these college admissions essays is making sure they go deep enough. That doesn’t mean you have to talk about the meaning of life, and allude to Shakespeare, Greek myths and Kafka, and try to sound profound. It usually just means that you need to explore what you are writing about more thoroughly. Here’s my advice: If your writing is too general, and your points and ideas are spread out all over the place, chances are they are shallow in nature. Picture a pool of water. The more spread out and wide it is, the shallower it gets. If you shore it up and make it smaller in total width, it gets deeper.
So how do you shore up your ideas and points in your essays? The best way is to get specific–which is, the opposite of general. Simple, right? If you can focus your topic (and main point you are going to make in your essay) from the beginning, the easier it will be to develop depth in what you have to say about it. (Read more about the power of “mundane topics” HERE.) When brainstorming topic ideas, it’s okay to start with broad ideas, but make sure to drill down before you start writing.
Here’s an example. Just last week, I helped a student brainstorm ideas for his personal statement for the Common App. It went like this:
If you are a serious athlete, and intend to play your sport in college, it’s hard to pick a topic for your college application essay that’s not related to your sport.
Chances are, this sport has consumed much of your life for at least the last four years.
Ironically, that is why you should do your best to find something else to write about in your college essay.
The goal of these essays is to show schools that you are a unique, multifaceted individual, and not just “a tennis player,” or “a swimmer” or “a football player.”
They want to know what else you care about, how you think and what you value–besides sports.
In your college application, it will be clear that you care deeply about your sport and excel at it.
So you really don’t need to focus on that any further.
The college essay is your chance to show your other sides, qualities, strengths and interests. Write about one of those. WARNING: Do not write about “The Big Win” or “How I Won the State Championship.”
You do not need to strut your stuff in these essays. Humility goes a long way.
This fall, one of my tutoring students taught me a lesson about how cheating on these essays can backfire–even if you don’t get caught.
He wanted to write his essay for the Common App on a trip he took to Guatamala to work with poor children. At one point, he confessed that he had not gone on that trip, but that his father had gone.
When I looked at him as though I thought he was nuts, he told me, in his defense, “I helped him pack!”
What? Are you kidding me?
This student kept insisting that he had no other interesting experiences that he could write about. (If you have read anything on my blog, you know that everyone has umpteen topic possibilities, and that you don’t need to travel the globe to have them.)
I gave him a brief lecture about how this was completely unethical, but he only smiled and told me that “all my friends are doing this.” (If this situation weren’t more complicated than I’m describing here, I would have booted him out on the spot.)
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.
You are finally finished with your essay. It’s time to copy it into the online application and send it off. You’ve worked hard. Why not make sure it’s fabulous? Follow this checklist to double check that it’s as good as it should be:
Read your prompt (the question) one more time. Often a prompt will ask you to answer more than one question, or address several points. Make sure you address or answer them all!
Did you make your point? (Yes, that’s the same thing as your “main point.”) You should be able to state it in a sentence or two. And it should be stated somewhere in your essay as well. If you can’t do this, chances are your essay is too broad, and too broad means boring.
Do you prove the (main) point you are making in your essay? Did you provide examples as “evidence”?
When you give examples in your essay, or describe something, are you specific? Use details!
I like titles. But they need to be good. A title should be short and witty. Not cutesy. The tone of the title and essay should match. The best ones don’t give away too much about the essay, and only hint at what’s to come. Do not use questions. And don’t even think about a title that sounds anything like “My College Admissions Essay.”
Now, how do you think of a title, a good title? Brainstorm ideas by playing off words that link to your theme, message or topic.
Example: A student wrote an essay about how he broke his wrist playing football, and how he learned more about the game sitting on the bench that season. Theme: How bad things can result in good things/How you can learn from a new perspective. (This “theme” is also a Universal Truth or “life lesson”. Check out this post on Universal Truths to see if you have one hidden in your essay.)
Make a quick list of words from the essay that you could play around with: break, benched, football, sports, view, injury, hurt, new perspective…Let yourself “free associate,” which means you list key words and sayings that come to mind when you say one of them, such as “break.” Try the word in different tenses, in common phrases, in pop culture phrases (titles of movies, books, songs, etc.) and even clichés can work. Also, skim your essay for catchy phrases that might work. Try mixing up a couple keys words to make your own phrase. You can also use the Internet to brainstorm ideas–just Google your keywords or phrases. Have fun with it.
UPDATE: The University of California announced NEW essay prompts for 2016-17. Read about how to answer them HERE.
This post is now outdated. The information is no longer relevant!!
College Admissions Essays
How to Answer Prompt #1 for the College Application Essay
for the University of California:
“Describe the World You Come From”
Only read this if you are applying to a UC (University of California school, such as UCLA, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Irvine, Santa Cruz, etc.).
There are two college essay prompts for their required personal statements for incoming freshmen.
Here is some advice regarding the first one:
Prompt #1 (freshman applicants)
Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
Read this closely. Note that it asks you to describe one thing and then tell about another–so there are two points you need to address in your essay.
When you describe the world you come from, think of this in a figurative sense.
Do not just write about your hometown.
Instead of the word “world,” try substituting it for the word “community” or “background.”
As a “community,” almost anything can be your world (a mini-community of shared activities, people, passions or places), from your yoga class to your bedroom to your job washing dishes to your grandmother’s kitchen making tortilla soup to your two moms.
It’s wide open. Just pick a topic.
Also, the examples they give, “family, community or school” are just that, examples.
Do not write a little about each of these.
And do not just write about “my family” or “my school.” Way too broad.
Write about your uncle’s magic shop in an underprivileged neighborhood, or the Scrabble club you started at your school even though you are the world’s worst speller, or the old movie theater in your town where you first fell in love with cinema and the power of a visual story.
(Check out the link at bottom of this post to my Tumbler blog with images and quotes to spark ideas for what makes your world.)
Quickie World-As-A-Community-Finder: What do you like/love to do? Where do you do it? Who do you do it with? Bingo! You have just landed on one of your worlds!
Another way to think about your world would be to show how your background has been challenging on some level–and how that has shaped and defined who you are.
In a way, your world is your life with its unique set of issues, obstacles or challenges.
Think of the saying: “Welcome to my world.”
If you have one piece of your life that shapes your “world” in a major way—something from your personal, cultural, educational, etc. background—and that colleges would understand you better if they knew what that was like, consider writing about it.
The world of living with two gay dads.
The world of living with an autistic sister.
The world of living with a bi-polar mom.
The world of living with immigrant grandparents.
The world of living on food stamps.
The world of living with perfectionists/slobs/religious nuts/alcoholics/seven siblings/foster home/military parents/home-schooling/white parents and you are asian/constant moving/famous mom, etc.
To write this type of “world” essay, pick a real-life example of a “time” in your life/world when that issue affected you, start your essay describing that specific incident or moment, then go into how dealing with that reality has affected you.
You might be surprised what comes out of you–and how it makes you feel.
I have had students who have written about almost all of these “life” issues.
Their essays have been intense and often soul-searching, but also memorable and meaningful.
Although I think the bulk of your college application essay should focus on this world, and how it has affected you, also address the second part about your dreams and aspirations.
This has the potential to be general and boring, so make sure to talk specifically about how you will apply the lessons (values, skills, ideas, insights, etc.) you have learned in your world to your future.
(Hint: It wouldn’t hurt if you can show how these dreams and aspirations link to your specific college goals. For example, if your “world” is hanging out in your parent’s garage fixing an old truck, mention how the problem-solving skills you learned there will help your aspirations to be some type of engineer one day.)
If you are one of those A-type overachievers (hey, it’s OK, these UCs are insanely competitive!) who still feels insecure about understanding the UC prompts, check out this 50-minute video of a counselor guru spelling it all out at a convention for college admissions folks.
Just don’t let her freak you out too much. Definitely good info here, but I say overkill.
MY MOST RECENT WORLD POST! Check out some of the comments from other students trying to figure out a “world” to write about in their UC essay in A Peek into the Many World of Prompt 1, where I share some of the questions students asked me to see if their world was interesting, or would make a great essay. Reading through these comments is a GREAT WAY TO FIND YOUR OWN WORLD TO WRITE ABOUT! (Yes, I was shouting at you!)
See if this video from the UC Admissions Department helps.
I think it might give you an idea of what they want from the two personal statements, but not a lot on how to deliver it. That part is left up to you, as far as I can tell.
(Tips from video: “Be thoughtful, clear, succinct and provide depth.” “Just be honest.” “Focus on a strength.” “Write about what makes you different.” “I wrote from my heart.” All great stuff—the only thing missing is any direction, instruction or support for students on how to do all this in 500 words.)
*Also, if you are still looking for a “world” to write about, there are lots of ideas in the comments. Definitely worth scrolling through to see what others are thinking of writing about. Thanks for sharing all your ideas!
I believe you can write these UC essays on your own. But if you feel like you would like my personal help with them or other college application essays, find details on my Services page.
As a professional writing coach, I help students, parents, counselors, teachers and others from around the world on these dreaded essays!
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