I’m a few weeks into the first session of my College Essay Bootcamp (or as I think of it, “Christmas in July,” as essays are my favorite part of the admission process) and most of my students are moving nicely out of the brainstorming phase and transitioning into writing what will eventually become full-fledged essays. Some students begin the next step with incredible ease, quickly identifying solid ideas and fleshing them out into sentences and phrases, but others get bogged down in the brainstorming process and are reluctant to take the leap. They fear their ideas aren’t good enough, that they don’t have anything to say, or that once they do get an idea on paper, it will be a poor choice of topic.
Here’s the secret I tell every single student, readers:
There are no bad essay topics.
Don’t stop reading this to begin your 800 page manifesto outlining the fascinating direction your life has taken since you had your tonsils removed at age six just yet, however. When I say there are no bad essay topics, I speak along the lines of Goldilocks and the Three Bears – as in, there aren’t bad topics, but there are topics that are too big, topics that are too small, too personal, to impersonal, to political, too scattered, too meta, not meta enough… (You get the idea.)
Amongst all of these too “something” ideas, however, lurk one or two gems that are absolutely just right. Or rather, they’re just write.
(Sorry – essay season makes me punchy. Or punny.)
So how do you wade through the chaff to get to the good stuff?
It depends on the type of writer you are. When you write papers for school or blog entries or creative fiction projects, do you prefer to throw a bunch of ideas onto paper, let them sit, then go back and see what stands out? Or do you just start writing and see where the idea leads you? Do you form an outline and structure the shape of the whole essay before you even insert the idea into the process? The method that works for you when it comes to writing is by now fairly firmly set and if it’s working well, there’s no point in altering it for your college essay. Thus, there are a few different approaches you can take to brainstorming the appropriate topic for you:
- The random approach. (For the record, this approach isn’t really random; there’s method in the madness.) This is the one I use with students; instead of going right to an essay prompt and identifying an idea or experience, we instead go to the source material (the student!) and talk about their life. I ask questions that range from their tastes in music and movies, to family traditions (good and bad), and about favorite possessions of the present or past. The answers given often bring about follow-up questions that allow us to go deeper on particular topics as well. It’s a lengthy process to approach the essay this way, but at the end, I usually have two or three topics to suggest to students that they start writing about based on their own stories. What’s more, they don’t feel stressed about having to find the essay of “EPIC PROPORTIONS” because we simply have a conversation about things the admission office should know about them. No muss, no fuss. And as the essay evolves, we later shape it to fit a specific essay prompt and we’re home free.
- The themed approach. College essay prompts generally follow similar themes, even when their wording varies between different schools or between the Common Application and a state university. As you can imagine, admissions offices want to know what challenges students may have overcome, what they believe in, their special cultural or familial background, their problem-solving and teamwork abilities, and perhaps about a specific experience that shaped their life’s direction. (Some colleges have quirkier topics – and are famous for them – but that’s not typically the norm.) Knowing this, students can make a list of their own specific experiences or abilities or challenges and write essay drafts about these themes, then go back later and direct the finished product to the specific essay topic of the particular school(s) to which they will apply. Having a more specific framework can be helpful to students who feel they need some structure or are working without professional support from a counselor or teacher.
- The on-topic approach. I’ve listed the seemingly most obvious approach last not because it isn’t a valid way to approach your college essay, but because in my experience, it’s the method that tends to provide the most vanilla finished products. (A lot of people like vanilla – including myself – so I’m not saying this is a bad way to go; it simply allows for less happy accidents and writing breakthroughs than the other two approaches.) Writing on topic from the outset is also the most straightforward method, whereby you take the list of colleges to which you will apply, track down their essay prompts (or utilize those from the Common Application), pick your favorite(s), and write an essay based on the guideline. Boom. Done.
I’ve had the privilege both as an educational consultant and as an admission counselor to read some outstanding essays over the past decade and nothing ever gives me as much pride as working with a student to watch them develop a simple idea into something that’s really well put together, a piece that reveals his or her personality and goals and makes the application more than just a series of numbers on a page. Rarely does the writing process ever follow a straight line and I know full well that students often get frustrated along the way, but by the end they also feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment at what they’ve been able to produce – something that isn’t too big, isn’t too small, and tells their story in a way that is just write.
(Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)