Choosing Your Topic

You came up with a bunch of ideas during the brainstorming process, and now you have a few strong potential essay topics. It’s time to narrow down your list. Get rid of topics that are too vague (I’m responsible) or too narrow (I’ve only been late for school three times in four years). Get rid of topics that are too controversial (Why Republicans/Democrats are ruining America) or too risqué (Why getting high can be exciting). Save the topics that are interesting and specific (My summer job researching giant turtles in the South Pacific). Keep narrowing down until you’re left with a topic that will reveal something about you that you can write about in detail, and that, most important, you’ll actually enjoy tackling.

A word of warning: You will probably have many false starts. That’s okay! If you’ve given an idea a fair shot and it’s just not working out, try one of the other ideas you came up with during brainstorming. Remember, the admissions committee isn’t going to see that overflowing trash can full of drafts and missteps. They’re just going to see the finished product.

The Challenge Question Trap

If you’re faced with an essay question about a challenge you’ve overcome, you might worry and think to yourself, “I live in a nice house, my parents are nice to me, my grandparents are healthy, and my dog is alive. What do I know about challenges?” Even if your life hasn’t been that hard, you have surely faced difficulties of some kind—for example, striving for something and failing, or trying to do the right thing even if it’s unpopular. Your challenge may have been getting along with a sibling, developing character, or balancing studies with activities.

All you can do is rely on your own life experiences for material. Admissions officers will be perfectly happy to read an interesting, strong essay about a less-than-tragic challenge. So you don’t need to panic if your brainstorming didn’t yield any truly insurmountable challenges—just work with what you have. Colleges understand that you are only 17 years old and that you may not have had the opportunity to travel abroad or leave your hometown. Ultimately, what they care about is good writing. If you write a good essay, what you have will be enough.

The Cliché Trap

Admissions officers have to do a lot of reading. Entertain them with vivid, clear writing and original ideas, and you’ll win their hearts. Bore them with yet another essay about how an Outward Bound trip allowed your inner strength to blossom, and in their minds you’ll merge with all the other students who wrote about that topic. What’s worse, if another applicant writes a Pulitzer Prize–worthy essay about Outward Bound, yours may pale in comparison.

Admissions officers have read thousands of essays about the exhilaration of scoring the winning touchdown, the lessons learned from volunteering in impoverished areas, and the new perspectives gained from traveling abroad. If you want to write about one of these topics, leave in a little texture: Admit that things still aren’t perfect. If your story is about flawlessly perfect behavior or sober lessons learned, the admissions office will let out a collective yawn. Being flawed but lovable is more interesting than being a charitable cheerleader with perfect grades.

In the battle to avoid cliché, use details. To keep your reader interested, you will need to tell a story filled with interesting details specific to you. Talk about a specific moment you experienced and what effect it had on you. Additionally, you want to set the scene with details that give context. Use descriptive language that shows your reader what you’re talking about. When picking your topic, make sure you’re picking one you can write about in great and vivid detail.

The Lofty Topic Trap

Talking about a national or international issue that you feel strongly about can showcase your intelligence and insight and prove that you are thoughtful and knowledgeable. Don’t worry about whether the entire admissions committee will agree with everything you write. If you are able to form an argument and support it well, you will win the respect of the admissions officers even if their opinions differ from yours.

Many applicants make the mistake of trying to impress admissions officers by writing about a lofty topic even if they know next to nothing about that topic. Unless you are truly impassioned about a major issue, or personally involved in it in some way, your essay will wind up sounding phony and pious. Essays full of sweeping generalizations (In my opinion, there is no nobler cause than fighting to eliminate homelessness) will not endear you to the admissions officers. A better tactic is to be honest and write about something you know well. Don’t be afraid to show the admissions officers your true self. That is, after all, the point.

The Vagueness Trap

Don’t forget to keep the focus on you. If, for example, you write about your grandfather, keep in mind that the way you portray him and the traits you admire in him are a reflection of your own values.

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