Look up “how to write a college application essay.” Go ahead, look it up. Chances are all the guides offer the same advice: “choose a topic you’re passionate about and be yourself”.
But they don’t answer the important questions, like how do you “be yourself” when you’re trying to pitch your dream school?
Let me start by saying: It’s not the topic that matters. It’s your ability to demonstrate strong qualities, like self-awareness and appreciation. And sometimes the more mundane topics help to communicate these qualities.
I’m not a college admissions expert, but I can tell you what I’ve learned from writing over two dozen college admissions essays, and speaking with admissions representatives from Ivy League schools like Columbia and Yale, and non-target schools like Babson College.
This is what I’ve learned.
1. Choose a topic you’re passionate about
Haha. Get it? Don’t worry, I’m going to tell you how.
I used to think that an essay prompt like “describe a challenge in your life” would be a dead end for me. Coming from a middle class family, I’m not able to talk about the type of challenge that a less privileged applicant would, making for, what I assumed would be, a much less interesting essay.
But I later learned that admissions committees are not looking for the most unbelievable story about struggle – they’re looking for an applicant to demonstrate certain qualities by describing an experience, no matter how simple or common the experience.
It’s the applicant’s ability to draw insight from experience that matters.
When six Harvard students were asked what they wrote their college admissions essays about, only one had written about an academic topic. The other five wrote about topics that average 18-year old kids care about.
One of the essay prompts asked, in short, what is one challenge of leaving to go to college. One candidate responded that he would miss the morning debate he had daily with his family, about whether or not orange juice should contain pulp. The topic was so simple and described such a mundane morning scene. Yet, an admissions advisor who spoke about the essay explained that the admissions team was impressed with the students’ ability to create an interesting story out of such a simple scenario, to recognize a gift in this habitual family discussion, to demonstrate strong family values without explicitly stating “I have a strong attachment to my family.”
2. Tell a story
Don’t just list your accomplishments – tell a story that demonstrates an important quality, such as intellectual ability, curiosity, dedication or self-awareness, without explicitly stating that this is the objective of the essay.
One college applicant wrote her Harvard-accepted essay about finding a love for reading, which started when she read Harry Potter on the playground in school. She went on to describe the activities she enrolled in later in life, and succeeded in, thanks to this passion.
Throughout the course of the essay, she mentions her accomplishments, but the goal of the essay was to demonstrate she was self-aware enough to credit her accomplishments to a single, simple moment in her past.
This was a story that stood out to the admissions team, not because the experience she described was unique but because it was different from a majority of essays that list accomplishments and demonstrate the same few qualities of dedication, motivation and perseverance.
3. Don’t choose the topic you think the admissions team wants to hear
I know, you’ve heard this a million times. But let me explain to you why this is an important point.
The admissions committee has heard it all. If you’re describing an experience that you think they want to hear, you’re likely describing an experience that is not entirely yours. If you’ve heard the story before, the committee has too. The only way to tell a unique story is to tell one that is uniquely yours.
If you exaggerate an experience you think is more interesting than your own, you’re making stuff up. This means the story will not come to an adequate conclusion and will not reveal a quality about yourself that is reflected in the rest of your resume.
Finally, you don’t know what the admissions team wants to hear. Every year, thousands of applicants write about significant challenges in their life. In many cases, this is the recipe for an offer-winning essay.
In a sea of essays about personal and professional challenges, writing about an activity as mundane as debating about pulp at the kitchen counter may actually make your essay stand out.