Sum up your life in 500 words? Many students feel that this is the impossible mission of the college application essay. If the subject of your admissions essay had to be the entirety of your life and/or character, they’d give you more than 500 words. The truth about admissions essays is that colleges want to get a sense of your personality in order to see how you’ll fit into the academic community they’re building. Since you are yourself in everything you think and do, you can pretty much write about anything.
I just made the problem worse, didn’t I? Anything?! Not surprisingly, there are many theories about picking the right topic for your essay. I’ll outline a few common theories, and then I’ll tell you what I know.
- You don’t have to be Leonardo da Vinci describing a flying machine 400 years before anyone had ever seen a plane. Creativity, as far as admissions essays go, has more to do with looking at something you already know – like doing laundry, making a sandwich, or going for a run – and putting your personal twist on it. What does this typical thing you do actually mean to you?
- Don’t try to sell yourself with a 500 word story that outlines all you’ve ever accomplished. If you’re going to talk about your achievements, pick one that has intrinsic value. Why is your achievement an achievement in your eyes? What if nobody else knew what you did? Would it still matter? Why? Remember, the goal of the essay is not self-promotion. (The rest of your application will handled that.)
- Can you write about subjects that everybody knows to be emotionally important – like grandparents, pets, or broken arms? Sure you can, but keep in mind that you’ll have to reveal why your pet, is important to you. Tread softly with commonly emotional subjects, don’t just let the relationship speak for itself (…my grandpa is great because he’s my grandpa…), and employ a little surprising humor.
What I know is this: you can find your topic by spending time thinking about the way you’re going to write it. You have to first carefully imagine the box that they’re putting you in, before you’ll be able to think outside of it.
- Understand your audience. Admissions folks have thousands of essays to read, and they’re trying to discover applicants who are something more than just good students. Therefore, you have to write something that’s easy to read (free of errors); something that’s human (funny, poignant, caring); and something that indicates your personality will contribute to the college community.
- Understand the limits of the assignment. You’ve only got 500 words with which to work. Likely enough, the first five ideas that come into your head are better suited for a novel-length work. You can’t write “The greatest summer of my life,” “the history of my family through three generations,” or “my mother, the best woman in the world.” Try to pick one specific story from your greatest summer, your father-son relationship, or your mother’s lifetime of dedication. Once you have that story picked out, cut it in half, and start from the middle. Most of what you think is story is actually backstory.
- Interview yourself. Explore your thoughts with self-directed questions. First make a list of twenty questions that you’d like to ask the most interesting man in the world, then answer those questions yourself. At least one or two of your answers will reveal stories that you never considered. You care about, and think about, more subjects than you realize.