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Advice from “The College Essay Whisperer”– Part 2

Last week I wrote about being called the "essay whisperer" by the parent of one of the students I am helping. I was flattered, but there are times when even the "essay whisperer" must be patient and wait until the student is truly ready to open up.

Most recently, I had a session with a rising high school senior who I have been working with for the past year. She has done everything I've recommended—from which teachers to ask for letters of recommendation to what to do during the all-important summer before senior year. But every time we discussed possible topics for her main college essay, she struggled. The few ideas she mentioned are things everyone knows about her already or they just scratch the surface of who she is. No matter what I said or did, she didn't want to reveal anything more. 

As our last session came to a close, I started asking her questions about herself. They were rhetorical, in a sense. I knew she wouldn't answer them right there. But I needed her to understand that these were the things I needed answers to (and so would an admissions officer) to be able to better understand her. I could tell there was something deeper and more reflective in her. There always is.

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After our session, I sent her the same questions I had asked when we met. And then I waited and waited. Two weeks later, she emailed me answers to almost every single one. As I read her answers, I began to see the young woman I suspected. I was emotionally moved by her responses. They were not only personal, they were more powerful than I expected. Without her even realizing it, the topic for her main college essay emerged and the essay began to write itself. 

For those of you still stuck, I encourage you to spend time answering the questions I asked my student. Take your time answering them—my student took two weeks. If and when you do this, you will find the perfect topic for your main college essay in your own writing:

  1. When have you been moved emotionally? What happened? What does your reaction or circumstances say about you?
  2. Do you have a collection? Why does it have meaning to you? What does this represent?
  3. Is there an object, a piece of art, or something else in your life that has meaning to you?
  4. Has there been adversity or personal challenge in your life?
  5. Has anyone ever said or done something to you which impacted you (good or bad)?
  6. When are you happiest? 
  7. What are you truly passionate about right now?
  8. What do you do for fun that you will be proud to share even many years from now?
  9. Are there perceptions of you that are inaccurate or unfair?
  10. What do people think of you? Is it true?

When my student asked me over email if anything could turn into an essay topic, I told her to combine her answers to #1 and #3 because in them were the beginnings of one of the most breathtaking essays ever. 

The lesson here is that there is usually a powerful and connecting force among the answers. By combining two ideas, the essay has dimension and literary structure. Finding meaning about yourself is the guiding force. That's what answering these questions will bring and what the essay will ultimately deliver.