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How do I decide what to write my college essay about?

A college essay is so incredibly open-ended that it seems impossible to find a place to start.
JULY20

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Subject: Career question for you

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Bri’s Answer

Hi,
Admissions officers are looking for three things in your admission essay: a unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice. While there is no magic topic that will automatically ensure admission at the college of your dreams, there are experiences everyone has that you can use to find your strongest possible application essays. It can be about your challenges, failure or commitment. It’s all about telling a story having people being able to connect.
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Alison’s Answer

Hi Ellen,

Yes, college essays are tough! They usually do give you a prompt to get you started, but those can be pretty open ended. As you’re trying to sort through your entire life experience to find a good answer, remember that college is all about learning and getting to know how you fit into the world, so use that as your context for writing. For example, here are the first 5 questions from this past year’s Common App (from commonapp.org):

1.Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
2.The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
3.Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
4.Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
5.Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Do you notice anything? They’re all basically the same question. They’re all some variant of “tell us about a thing in your life and what you learned from it.”

So, the good news here is that the “thing in your life” that you pick isn’t so important. What’s more important is that you thoroughly and thoughtfully explain what you learned from it and how that makes you a good fit for the school. For example - I can still see #5 without scrolling as I’m typing into this little box, so let’s use that one as an example - a lot of students see words like “accomplishment” or “realization” and think, “holy cow, I’ve never won any big awards or discovered the meaning of life so how can I possibly answer this?!” The fact is, if you had already discovered the meaning of life, you probably wouldn’t even need the college. Think about “normal stuff.”

Maybe your accomplishment is that time you got a B+ on your algebra midterm after struggling with the class for the whole first half of the year. Maybe that taught you that you have more perseverance than you thought you did, and that it’s okay to ask for help even though it’s scary, or that as a student you work best by talking through problems but then spending some time alone to more fully reflect on them. Maybe your realization is that field trip your class took to the state capitol building, where you saw that it’s just regular people working to make a difference the best that they can who really drive government, and that inspired you to want to go into politics. Maybe that taught you the value of both the individual and the team, and how to leverage one to strengthen the other. Colleges will eat that stuff up! Being able to tell them something like “I learned that I had to work in a different way than I’d thought and at your school I hope to use that x to do this y while I aim for z” is really powerful.

Don’t stress. Start with the first thing that pops into your head and just jot down notes about whatever it makes you think of. You’ll either be able to add to and organize those notes into an explanation of how you learn and grow, or you’ll move on to the next thing that pops into your head and jot some notes about that. Once you have just some basic ideas in front of you, creating the essay itself from them will be easier.

You got this!
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Simeon’s Answer

Find a story about yourself that is unique to you. Think of memories that prompt strong emotions and you'd be willing to share in an essay. Story-telling is one of the best ways to capture and hold on to someone's attention. Write down the single word or phrase that you want your essay to convey like "Pride", "Adventure", "Fear of the Unknown", or "Embarrassment". Write a rough draft of your personal story and then replace the words in the story with adjectives, nouns, and verbs that convey the theme. Use a thesaurus if you are drawing a blank for words, but don't choose ones that come across like they came from an advanced spelling bee.
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