"This college essay writing thing is hard," said every high school student in America.
Yes, it is. If it was easy, it wouldn't be required by most colleges. It wouldn't challenge the student to look deeper. It wouldn't force the student to become more self-aware.
Most people see the essay as a means to getting into college. I see it as the most important step teenagers must experience in order to go to college.
Oftentimes, the reason writing the college essay is so difficult is because the student doesn't spend enough time picking the right topic before they start writing. Students look at the Common App essay prompts to generate ideas. And then they choose a topic that they spent mere moments thinking about. That's not enough time. The best essays I see are the ones where the student spent just as much time brainstorming topics as they did writing a first draft.
My best advice for students is to start a list of things about yourself. I call it the "Me List." Every time you think of something that defines you, represents you, or has made you who you are, write it down. Ask your parents to add to your list. Moms and dads are especially helpful in generating ideas that turn into great essay topics.
When adding ideas to your list, focus less on personal qualities (like adjectives), and more on the anecdotes, objects, symbols, and moments that showcase a quality of yours. That's the difference between a generic essay topic and a spectacular one. Admissions officers don't want to hear you write about how thoughtful, generous, ambitious, or hardworking you see yourself. They want to hear about your life. And through that, the quality or qualities that define you come through in the most breathtaking way because you let the admissions officers come to that conclusion on their own.
Once you pick that special topic that makes you think about yourself less in adjectives and more in experiences and thoughts about yourself, the writing will come more easily. The best word I see in college essays is "realize." That's the whole point of the college essay—to realize something about yourself that you never took the time to do until now.
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When the college essay is edited and finalized, then go back to those Common App prompts. You will see that your essay will always match up with one of those prompts, and sometimes multiple ones. The prompts are so utterly open-ended that they work with any topic you pick. And there is no advantage or benefit to picking one prompt over another. In fact, admissions officers couldn't care less about which prompt you pick. They care about the topic. They care about the reflection, self-awareness, and realizations you come to in your essay.
Before students dive in and write a superficial essay about themselves, take the time to come up with the perfect topic that illuminates some aspect of your life. The "Me List" is a way to start brainstorming ideas. But don't jump at the first idea you think of. It's often the last idea that makes the perfect topic for the college essay because you finally start to dig deeper about who you are.