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College Essay Fail #1 – Obsessing about your college essay topic

In Blog, College Essay, News by Mason Schecter

“What should I write about in my college essay?”

I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard this question. My students torture themselves, wracking their brains, hoping to discover THE perfect essay topic. Should I write about something impressive, like my summer research project? Or something inspiring, like winning at basketball? Or maybe something introspective, like the mistakes I made in 10th grade?

Unfortunately, these mental gymnastics only leave my students tied up in knots. Add to this the “helpful” input from family, friends, and teachers (well in my day I wrote my essay about my fascination with belly button lint and it was a winner!) and it is no wonder that college-bound kids choke when it comes to the essay. It’s the most important part of my application and I’m going to get it WRONG!

Let me tell you the secret to college essays. Are you ready? Here it is. There is NO perfect subject! There, I said it. (drops mic)

I want my students to understand that few subjects are truly unique and special (like snowflakes) to admissions officers and the quest for the mythical perfect essay topic is about as useful as a snipe hunt (though snipe hunting can be much more fun).

Your subject, so long as it’s personal, doesn’t much matter, because the subject is just a tool to display your character traits. Consequently, even though your father’s accomplishments are poignant, your trip to India was deeply spiritual and juvenile diabetes is heart-wrenching, the undeniable fact is that your father, India and diabetes are not applying to Penn. All are perfectly valid subjects, but none is sufficient to get the job done

This statement of course begs the question: what exactly is the job? Or more precisely, what should your goals be when writing a college essay? If you can’t identify the target, how can you hit it?

The goals of the essay are two. The first is to reveal something about you, and in so doing demonstrate your positive character attributes. Not to name, or describe, but DEMONSTRATE. One might be, say, the ability to write really, really, really, well. If you happen to be one of those rare individuals (like my wife) who can just sit down and crack out jaw dropping prose, that’s about all you need to do. But for those of us who lack such Olympian talents (and need to demonstrate other attributes), I recommend focusing on the following, evidence based approach:

1) Passion – What you care about. This is also, indirectly, your reason for going to college.
2) Action – The proof that you are in fact, passionate about your passions. You walk the walk.
3) Commitment – Grit, perseverance, and proof that your passions, while evolving, are persistent.
4) Achievement – Proof that your efforts produce results.

I will discuss how to usefully define your passion (it’s there, even if you don’t realize it ), the other attributes and the second goal of the essay (to provide context to your history, i.e., why you did what you did) in greater detail in my next post.