The Common Application launched yesterday, allowing hundreds of thousands of college students to create their accounts and begin signing up to colleges around the country. The article portion of the Common App requires one of the most planning, the deepest thought, and the hardest work. But before you start creating your essays, it can be helpful to have a step back and reflect on who you are, what you care about, and the message you want to send to the admission officials who will read your own essay.
I always inform my students that their article topic must be internally motivated: it should be something you write for yourself, not something you manufacture for the sake of your dream school. If your approach is to try and figure out what a student who gets accepted to College X would write, you’ve defeated the purpose of the college article. I just want to get to know you, not some fictitious person. And given that during an admissions period I might read up to 5, 000 documents (and then multiply this amount by 28 years), I have learned to easily spot an article that is not sincere, that is not a passionate topic for the student, or that is not something that truly defines the individual. Your application readers have already seen the article you think you’re supposed to write; they would like to see the essay that captures who you are instead.
To answer the question, “what should I come up with? ” consider the following three guidelines:
- Imagine it is 25 years after your high school graduation. You’ve created new memories in college, started your career, and maybe even a family. If you think back on your high school years, what is the one thing you will never ignore? It could be about school, outside actions, summer(s), church, or a cultural business of which you are a part. The part of your daily life that might be most memorable 25 years from now is also probably the part of your daily life that is most meaningful to you today.
- You’ve been given an hour to respond to one of the five Common Application essay requests. Which prompt would you choose and exactly what would your focus be? If you believe about what you would write under time pressure, you might have a good clue regarding the topic in which you feel most confident—the one that will be the most fun and liquid to write.
- The admissions committee is about in order to convene and you’ve been given the opportunity to tell them one thing about yourself that they will keep in mind as they discuss and decide the outcome of your file. It could be an art and craft, a personality trait, an achievements, or something completely random, but it would be the one thing that best identifies you at this time in your life. Some of the best essay topics come from this approach, as college students think more about how they would describe themselves than what they think admission officers want or need to listen to.
The point of such exercises is to find the topic that will best fits you, and not the one that your parents or your friends or maybe your college counselor wants you to write. I’ll be honest: my least favorite essay topic is certainly football. It just makes me want to cry! But , if it is an integral part of your high school years, when you have learned volumes from this activity, if your best memories are from your group experience, then it will likely prove to be the very best essay of the day, the week, the month, or the admission season! Like a reader, I will get what I require if you will work to find a topic that actually means something to you. (But please stay away from romantic relationships, your first intimate encounter, or illnesses and stories of tragedy that are so hard that you get lost in the shock and sympathy the situation elicits. )
When you land on a topic – hiking, math competition, boxing, football, snowboarding, or your internet business – remember you only have 650 words. You want to find a single time; a story within the larger topic that will best help you get your point across. Do not write about hiking; write about that one night time, when you saw that one sunset, when it hit you what hiking has taught you about your life and exactly what it really means to you. Four months of basketball in 650 words is not happening, but you can write quite a solid story about the three point shot you hit at the end of the game. Capture the small story in the larger context, and you’ll have your reader’s attention throughout.
If you feel overwhelmed, take heart that you have something in your life that will make a terrific essay—and possibly more than one thing! I have found that every student has a story that means something in order to him or her, and finding that story and telling it will make the application really stand out.
Marj Southworth is part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts . Prior to joining College Coach, Marj worked as a senior admissions official at Cornell University, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University or college of Massachusetts Amherst.