Image from Pexels

Image from Pexels

Once upon a time, applicants could write their college essay about whatever their hearts desired. However, in 2013 the CommonApp said, “Screw it” and limited the essays to five choices.

Now, that’s not to say you couldn’t fit literally any topic under the sun into one of these essays. Thankfully, they’re both vague and pretty on-point about what students wrote their essays about in the first place. But the point stands: you now have to use a predetermined topic to sway your admissions officers in 500 words or less.

If you know what you want to write about, figure out if it fits into one of the questions. You might have to go about the topic in a different way to fit it into one of the prompts. For example, let’s say you decided to write about your experiences nannying for your neighbors through all of high school. You might decide to change the focus away from “Look at these crazy kids and how responsible I am dealing with their antics” to “I became obsessed with mommy blogs from nannying and then became passionate about the “pro-vaccine” movement, helping to raise awareness in my community (Question 3).”

However, you, like many, are probably a little stuck on your topic. I recommend finding a story (or series of stories) from your life, and writing about that. A really great way to figure out what to write is to come up with a story for each of the five questions. Before you start, remember that there are a lot of clichés out there. I do recommend avoiding clichés as best you can. Although you might have a unique twist on a topic, it’s best to strive for something that makes you stand out. You also want to avoid rehashing your résumé into an essay. Stay specific and personal.

Here are the questions:

1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.   

See how they say “story?”

Anyway, this is the closest thing you have to topic of choice. The question is phrased so you pick something important. However, “important” doesn’t’ have to be a big scary story. It can be something small, as long as is it’s incredibly important to you. This might be an essay about how a nickname followed you your whole life, or how you actively try to avoid wearing the color orange. Or it can be about where you came from or a truly traumatic life experience.

Whatever you pick, make sure it’s important to you.

2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

This is by far the trickiest question. It’s full of traps, so if you pick this one, make sure to be careful.

The most important thing about this essay is to remain positive. When picking a topic, it’s not about how big the failure was; it’s about how big your triumph was. What you failed at is basically a footnote.

It’s also difficult to be unique on this one, so make sure you’re picking an experience that is very personal and not one many people have.

For the love of Tina Fey, do not write a sports essay for this prompt. Every athlete lets a big game down or has a big injury. This also goes for not getting the part you wanted, not getting into an important art show, or losing a big tournament.

I also don’t recommend writing an essay about a big academic failure. If you have something major enough to get 500 words out, you should write an “additional info” essay about it.

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

This is another tricky one. Remember, it’s not about the belief; it’s about the action and what happened after. Reflect on the event, don’t stand on a soapbox.

Essays, no matter the topic, are really about you. So, going from my example before, it’s not about why vaccines are good, it’s about why you think vaccines are good and what you’ve done about it. It’s about how standing up for a belief changed you.

You need to be careful about soapboxing because you never know who’s reading your essay. Yes people should be judging you on your writing not your opinions, but the mind is not a logical place.

4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

Number one tip on this essay: Be specific.

Yes it’s fun to be vague and meta about your perfect contentment. However, you’ll just look like you’re avoiding the question. Pick something that’s really important to you, that has a ton of meaning. But again, make sure to focus on you. It’s not the place; it’s what you have done there.

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

“Community” is a savoir here because it can be pretty vague. Though this essay nicely lends itself to a cultural background story, it’s really about how you became an adult.

This is your coming of age story. This one is easy to go cliché on, but also can pack a lot of heart. It’s time to reflect on your life, and what being an adult is to you. It’s not the accomplishment; it’s why you pursued it, what it means to you, and why you’re an adult because of it.

No matter your topic, it’s really about showing your reader something they didn’t know about you before. It’s dropping a bit of your personality down and giving them a peek into your brain.

Don’t worry if you aren’t sure what you want to write; brainstorm your heart out and start a million different essays. You’ll find “the one” before you know it.



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the author

Jillian is better known by her pseudonym “CollegeApp Chick", which is half college application blog and half small private college advising business. She’s currently studying Psychology and Religious Studies at a small public school south of the Mason Dixon line. When not advising, studying, or blogging Jillian is an active member of the Shakespeare theatre club, sandbox improv, women’s chorus, and is an officer in a social sorority. She likes to talk, a lot. Most importantly, Jillian wears dresses more than 250 days a year. For more of Jillian’s tips, find her at her website or her Tumblr.

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