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Advice from “The College Essay Whisperer”– Part 1

Last week I met with a rising high school senior struggling to find a topic for his main college essay. When his dad opened their front door, he exclaimed to his son, "The College Essay Whisperer has arrived!"

The fact is that I love a good story about a student, their upbringing, struggles, triumphs, quirks, family, and secrets. I am not alone. One of the most unifying characteristics of all admissions officers (or at least the ones that care deeply about this process) is that we are so curious about students' lives. The secret to a winning essay is not only good writing; it's the topic that gets to the heart of who that student is. If you're having trouble coming up with an essay topic, you can become your own "college essay whisperer" by following these tips:

  1. Don't worry about the essay prompts. The Common Application now has seven essay prompts to choose from. Any topic you could possibly think of will fit into one of them.
  2. Think of some thing (object, saying, etc.), some place, or some experience with deep meaning, which few people know about you. If you wouldn't be as strong, independent, confident, resilient (or fill in the blank with another transformational adjective) without it, you have found your essay topic.
  3. The best topics are hidden beneath the surface. I tell students to imagine their life behind a heavy theater curtain. If an admissions officer were pulling back the curtain just slightly to get a peek, what would they learn about you? What would you want them to know? How could you show them the silver lining or uplifting aspect of something challenging about you or your life?

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  4. Be willing to share. When students open up and are willing to be vulnerable, admissions officers melt—as long as there is a happy ending to the story.
  5. Consider the moments in your life in which you are proud of how you handled yourself. If there's not one distinct, monumental event, consider how you handle something routine every single day.

The best essays come from self-reflection. Brainstorming with mom or dad or someone like me (an objective voice with experience in the college admissions world) can be helpful too. In the end, you have to tap into the things that make you different—truly different than everyone else. It should be something you are proud of about yourself and that you will be proud of for a long time to come. Being your own "college essay whisperer" means that you see something in yourself worth sharing.

Read more of my college essay advice in Advice from “The College Essay Whisperer”– Part 2.