Picking a College Application Essay Topic: Learning How to Keep Your Reader Riveted


There are few college application essays that can boast doing something that’s never been done before or that’s new and unique to the college admission officers reading these essays. You can, and should, however, have your reader chuckling, cringing, smiling or ready to stand up and cheer. Albert Einstein once said that genius was 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Similarly, writing a stellar essay is some part personal accomplishment and some, at least equal part, creatively communicating your story.

· Telling someone you persevere is not nearly as believable as telling them (examples from actual essays) you lost sixty pounds bringing your body mass index (BMI) down to the healthy range, or that you never dropped a really tough class and won a student council election in one year despite battling mononucleosis, suffering a stress fracture from running cross country, and vomiting during the SATs (no, I’m NOT kidding).

· Indicating that you care about the environment by joining the school’s recycling club is nice, but nothing compares to telling how the club (and hence you) collects and recycles a half-ton of paper per week or how you helped expand the program to include the recycling of small electronics and batteries.

· You may have encountered a life challenge that led to some personal growth, but saying just that isn’t the most engaging way to convey your situation. I have had two students indicate that their three-point-whatever GPA doesn’t tell the whole story… that they achieved this despite (in one case) living through a bitter parental divorce that necessitated police intervention, restraining orders, and caused serious emotional distress. The other student indicated how she was a very average teenager… plays soccer, good grades, loves shopping and hanging out with her friends, and that by looking at the consistency demonstrated in her high school transcript, you’d never when in there her mother died after a 2 year battle with melanoma.

The students who have more difficulty writing a vivid, engaging essay, are often those who aren’t passionate about something… anything. You could love a sport (one student wrote an essay about being a mediocre but incredibly dedicated swimmer. While not stellar, he has gone from being unequivocally the worst swimmer on the team who could barely finish a race to ranking solidly in the middle of the pack. Most people he says, would have quit long ago, but he loves the challenge of self-improvement, and he then talked about how that same principle rang true in his academic life based on the unusually challenging courses he chose and then excelled in.

Making your ideas stick, whether verbally or in writing, whether in your college essay or in a TV advertisement, have some common elements. In the book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath give some suggestions for helping people communicate ideas clearly and meaningfully. Ideas that stick are simple. Don’t try to include so much in your essay that your reader cannot decipher one or two clear ideas about you. Ideas that stick are also unexpected. You may want to communicate that you love swimming, but if the first line of your essay is something like, “I am unbelievably dedicated to swimming,” the reader automatically knows what the rest of the essay is about. You have given away the punch line and your reader is less than captivated and may continue reading with a lot less interest. Instead, if you begin the essay by mentioning that your otherwise blond hair has turned a lovely greenish hue, your reader is likely to think that your part alien and must read on in order to find out how, why and what has happened to you. You can then go on to explain how much you love swimming. By indicating that you swim on the school team, a club team, that you teach lessons and lifeguard and that the continued and prolonged exposure to chlorine has turned your hair color (which isn’t totally uncommon among the fish-like swimmers in the world), I now have some real perspective on your level of commitment to the sport AND I’m entertained. Your essay is memorable because you’ll be known as the kid with green hair.

· Another fantastic essay was written by a young man who was a jerk. Let me clarify, I don’t actually think he’s a jerk, but in his college essay, he writes about a substitute teacher at his high school who called him one in front of his classmates. “Bob” was not violent, disruptive or disrespectful. In fact, I’d call him one of the most understated students with whom I’ve worked. So why the disparaging name calling?

Bob is an atheist. He is also patriotic, but he disagrees vehemently with the insertion of the “under God” statement in the Pledge of Allegiance which, he articulately argues, violates the constitutionally protected separation of church and state. Quietly and without fanfare, Bob opposed standing for the pledge. He never tried to recruit people to his “cause”, or jump on his bandwagon. He was asked to “discuss” his position with the principal who ok’d Bob’s (in)action, but this information was never passed along to the substitute who clearly didn’t care for Bob’s choice. Bob wrote about this incident in his college essay. He conveyed to colleges his logical, well thought out decision. Schools will learn that he is a young man of character and passion, and those are appealing qualities. The fact that a substitute teacher inappropriately passed judgment on a student, just gave Bob a unique vehicle for delivering a great message about himself.

One of the most common mistakes in college application essays is that the writer often sounds like he (or she) is dressed in a tuxedo awaiting royalty… loosen up and let your personality show! You have personality and this is your chance to show it. This doesn’t mean that your writing shouldn’t be grammatically correct or contain college-level vocabulary, but it can and should tell a good story, and the moral of the story is something revealing about you.


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