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The Dos and Don'ts of Choosing Your College Essay Topic

With the school year wrapping up, many high school juniors will be getting started on their college essay (also called the "personal statement").

The big question lurking is what students should write about. The overprotective mama bear in me thinks about what they shouldn't write about too. 

The outcomes for the Class of 2024 give me great insight on what works and what doesn't for the college essay. Interestingly, the topics that resonate haven't changed in decades despite what many think. So what does that mean for students? Stick to the tried and true topics about yourself that no one else could write about instead of those that are passing trends or a part of the news cycle. 
For example, when affirmative action ended last year, many students just assumed their unique backgrounds didn't matter to colleges. Quite the contrary, most colleges are having to work even harder to identify and ensure a diverse student body. I spent all of last summer encouraging my underrepresented students to write about their backgrounds for their college essay. While some colleges instituted a supplemental essay prompt about diversity or what some are calling "lived experiences," not all did. The college essay, not the supplemental essay, is still the best place to celebrate your race, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic background.
But when I mention this, students from overrepresented backgrounds worry they have nothing unique to write about. I respond with an all-knowing mom moment, "You haven't realized what makes you unique just yet." I start pointing out things about their personality, family makeup, family dynamics, lifestyle, homelife, and surroundings. 
What makes us unique is often overlooked, not necessarily by others, but by ourselves. Wow. That's right. The thing that gives us individuality is something we often do not recognize about ourselves right away. It is usually something small that has enormous potential. Something the student does when no one is looking. Something seemingly insignificant in their day that they don't even notice how special, challenging, or maturing it is. It takes time to look around your life. It's not about finding the proverbial mountain to climb this summer to be able to write a college essay. It's about finding meaning in something that is already there, but needs its moment.
Which brings me back to the topics that students shouldn't write about. I have always said to avoid pop culture references or something in the news. Those topics have had their moment already. By the time an admissions officer reads your essay, that topic might have evolved into something that is no longer relevant, or even more concerning, something deeply polarizing. 

FREE DOWNLOAD: The Ultimate Guide to Picking the Perfect College Essay Topic

One of the questions I always ask a student before we finalize their essay topic is, "If you look back on this essay ten or twenty years from now, will it still reflect who you are?" The question challenges the student to pay attention to relevancy, timeliness, and timelessness. It forces the student to examine if they are relying too heavily on something that is too obvious, too fleeting, or even too prevalent. 
As much as this year brought dramatic changes in admissions policies and historic protests on college campuses, none of this changes my opinion on what students should write their college essays about. Don't follow the trends or the news cycle. Follow yourself and what has shaped you day in and day out.