Tutorial One: Deciding on Your Topic
This is where it all begins. Deciding on an essay topic usually causes the most anxiety among applicants. You struggle to come up with the right essay idea, but it’s not that easy. To compound the problem, colleges aren’t much help since they often pose only generic questions, leaving the part of conceiving something creative and clever up to you. So when it’s time to write your essay, you’ll need to crunch your brain cells.
But before you do some serious crunching, you should know this: your application essay is not a term paper. It should not feel like a term paper, nor walk or talk like one. A mistake many students make when deciding on their essay topics for college is searching for a scholarly, all-engaging topic that’s more suited for a term paper than a personal essay. While a good research or term paper is supposed to demonstrate your mastery of a particular academic subject, an admission essay is supposed to reveal the kind of person you are and eventually hope to become. In other words, the college essay is written for a different audience and a different purpose.
Do’s and DONT’s to Consider Before You Decide
DO convey an overall positive message. Sarcasm and cynicism will not get you far.
DON’T let others – such as your friends or even your parents -decide what to write. While it’s perfectly fine to brainstorm with them and help you come up with ideas, YOU are the final decision maker. They should not decide what to write for you.
DO be sincere no matter what your topic is. Whether you choose to write about a personal possession you have grown irrationally attached to, whether you write about how an overseas trip enhanced your cultural awareness, write with your heart.
DON’T use the essay to over sell yourself. This is not a forum for you to show how smart and clever you are. The reader is not interested in your absolutely brilliant solutions on how to solve the world’s problems. While you can use the essay to pose thoughtful questions, don’t try to tell the reader what the answers to the global problems are, they will simply not be impressed.
DO write about something you believe in and feel strongly about no matter what the topic is. Whether you choose to write about a personal possession you have grown irrationally attached to, whether you write about how an overseas trip enhanced your cultural awareness,
DON’T overuse imagery. Though imagery should definitely be incorporated into your work, especially as you relate to the reader the full scope of the experience when describing sounds, or sights, or smells, you don’t want to abuse it. Otherwise, it will look like you’re forcing it and will give the reader you’re trying too hard to be creative.
DO focus on just one theme or idea, rather than trying to cover a complete subject. For example, if you were writing about a trip to another country, the trip itself would be the subject of your essay, but a theme could be how in this trip you fell in love with the food (or how you hated it), or how a particular set of customs impressed you, or how the trip taught you to accept people who are different, etc.
DON’T write anything that might make the reader feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. Stay away from topics involving religion or politics. And if you write about a sensitive topic involving drug abuse, sexuality, etc., be sure to handle it carefully.
DO write about something you observed and experienced firsthand. Avoid a theme based on secondhand information. Remember, the essay is personal account of something that happened (or you wish would happen) to YOU.
DON’T write about or mention popular TV shows, musicians, actors or movies. It will not fare well with your admissions officer.
DO be genuine and honest. If you try to portray yourself with values or interests that aren’t really yours, your essay will probably sound fake.
Time to Select Your Topic
If you haven’t already, make sure to see ideas for college essay topics, first. When it comes to deciding on a topic, it is so much easier when you have a clear understanding of what is expected of you. What’s this essay really for? Simply, it is to help the admission committee learn about you as a unique person. Why? Because they want to judge whether you will be a good fit for their school. They want to be sure you will add quality to the student body through participation and input in student activities. They already know all about your grades and test scores. They might even know you play an instrument or do volunteer work in your community.
But that’s not enough. The admissions staff wants to know the way you interact with the world around you. The way you express yourself. So think of your essay topic for college as a means to an end. The end – your goal – is to show the special qualities and characteristics you possess. And you will reach your goal if you leave a memorable impression on the reader’s mind. Ideally, after reading your personal essay, the admission officer would say to himself “…what a nice kid; I’d like to have him in the school.”
To explain this concept a little better, let’s use an analogy. Let’s compare the admission essay to a photograph. Imagine a college admissions officer sitting at her desk, where she’s got three photographs of three different student applicants right in front of her. She can only admit one more student and has to select from among the three photographs.
The first photograph was taken at a professional studio and shows a well-dressed student candidate neatly sitting on a chair, with a soothing background behind him…very nice.
The second picture shows a candidate also sitting, only it’s an out-of-focus, crumbled up shot taken from a cell phone.
Finally, the third photograph is a shot of the candidate holding a paint brush in her hand, while painting her living room wall. She’s wearing a baseball cap and a long flannel shirt. She’s completely covered with paint, but is smiling and appears to be having fun. It’s not a professional photo, but the quality is still fine.
So which picture would you say left the admissions officer with the most memorable impression? If you guessed number three, you are absolutely right. Why? Because the third one gave the reader some helpful and revealing information about the candidate. The reader concluded that the candidate is a productive individual carrying out a worth-while task. Though she might not be the world’s best painter, she’s able to maintain a healthy and positive attitude.
A professional photographer would likely have been impressed with the first picture. Their criteria for judging the quality of your work is just a little different than the admissions officer. But remember, the admissions officer is not a professional photographer, and right now this is the person you’re trying to impress! So don’t forget to check out ideas for selecting college essay topics.
Formula for a Winning Essay
So now that you understand that the admissions staff wants to learn things that do not appear in your application package, think of it as a great opportunity! This is a chance to shine by showing yourself through a story and positioning yourself as a unique individual. And don’t think for one second that you are not unique! People are like raindrops, there may be many of us but there are never two of us exactly the same.
This is why, as I mentioned earlier, the topic is just a means to an end. It is not about the topic, but rather how you approach it. After all, who knows you better than yourself? if we had a room full of students and everyone selected an all-consuming world-wide issue (world hunger, the spread of COVID, etc.), we’ll probably end up with a room full of similar essays lacking in individuality and sounding alike.
On the other hand, only you can write about what it felt like the first time you rode a bike, or about a family trip to the countryside, or about how your uncle Charlie once saved a dog’s life and the impact it had on you…etc.,etc.
Remember, the college admissions staff cares about substance more than they care about content.
If you have a unique and insightful approach to a plain and ordinary experience, then you have the essay topic for college you need and the formula for a winning essay.
We’ll talk more about formulas later on our tutorial, but right now let’s move on to how to answer those specific college essay questions they will ask you.