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Why focus on "Why?" for better college essays

After reading hundreds of thousands of essays over the years as an admissions officer, dean of admission, and now as a college counselor, I have come to accept that my own college essay was basic—at best. If I had the chance to rewrite my college essay, I would do it in a heartbeat. This time, I would ask myself one simple question: “Why?”

You see, there’s always a reason why we are the person we are, why we do things a certain way, and why our beliefs are important to us. Our family, social class, living situation, and many times the challenges we face provide a window into our soul. They are the “why” behind everything genetically and biologically distinctive of us. It’s the “why” that can make a seemingly mundane topic move an admissions officer to tears, or laughs, or put an undeniable smile on their face. The “why” sets the stage for the story you share. 

Let’s put this philosophy to the test. My college essay topic was about wanting to be the first female president of the United States. It was a fairly superficial essay because I didn’t answer “why.” It’s the “why” behind the topic that can shed light on who I was at the age of 17, and could have easily transformed my rather generic essay topic into a deeper piece.

Here's my "Why":

  • I grew up as the daughter of two hardworking parents.
  • I was a latch-key kid which in the 1980s meant that I got myself ready, made my own lunch, got myself to school, and returned to an empty house almost every afternoon starting in first grade.
  • I had a lot of time to daydream about who I wanted to become. But it was more than that. I had a father who was a staunch feminist. My dad was, and still is, the person who taught me about gender equality, race relations, ethics, and what it means to believe in this country. He never wanted my gender to get in the way of me reaching my dreams.

I thought the perfect embodiment of what I learned from my father was to be the first female president. But if you think about it, wanting to be president was secondary to the “why.” And the “why” is so much more personal.

"It's "the “why” behind your essay topic that's more important than the topic itself" TWEET THIS

Here’s another example. Many students write about a transformational trip in their life. It could be a family vacation or even a school trip. This is a fairly common topic, but if you dig deep you could turn it into a very distinctive essay. Here’s how:

  • Why is the trip such a big deal?
  • Is it the first vacation your family ever took because your parents work four jobs between them?
  • Or better yet, why are you still thinking about it?

BONUS: Read the secrets to writing a great college essay

The trick to writing a great essay is not rehashing each city you saw, blow by blow. It’s about capturing one moment, one emotion, one slice of it and explaining why that defines you in some positive way.

Your essay topic doesn’t have to be about some monumental event in your life. But if you have a monumental event that you want to write about, make sure you explore the “why.” In other words, it’s usually what led you to the event or how you respond to it that is much more reflective.

For example, if you were adopted, lay the backdrop for why or explain how it has shaped you as a result. And, if you don’t have a monumental event to write about, you are not alone. In fact, my favorite essay topics are usually much simpler because they get right to a student’s story, make-up, imperfections, or daily routines: your commute to school, your freckles, your height, the way you observe people, even eating a meal with your family. Those topics capture who we are in the most breathtakingly real way.

As I type this piece and watch my word count exceed the maximum number of a typical college essay, I am struck by how little space we have to capture one small slice of who we are. It is a reminder to pare down the scope of the topic to the most fundamentally important piece.

"Keep your college essay topic simple and always answer "why" it says something about you" TWEET THIS

If I could do it all over again, I probably would write about being a latch-key kid or having a dad who is a staunch feminist, but it might be hard to write about both topics in one essay. So, pick one concentrated glimpse into who you are that you are so proud of. Explain “why” it says something about you. Embrace it even if it is as simple as coming home to an empty house. There is beauty, relatability, and authenticity when you write about something so much a part of your DNA, and are willing to share how that has impacted you. You won’t have regrets about your college essay if you do.