WHAT COLLEGES LOOK FOR IN YOUR ESSAYFirst, to know what to write, you have to know what colleges are looking for. They want to:
- Determine what kind of person you are. This means expressing your identity, values, struggles, growth, realizations, dreams, passions, talents, or achievements. It doesn’t mean you need to tell colleges everything—that’s impossible in the limited space allotted—but it means you must choose carefully about what to put in and what to slice out.
- Assess what value you’d add to their community and greater society.
NO NEED TO BE A SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE: USING AVERAGE THINGS TO SHOW EXTRAORDINARY TRAITSThere are many myths about what the college essay should embody. You might hear advice like, “You gotta write about leadership” or “you need to discuss your biggest accomplishment” or “make sure to talk about how you endured hardship.” Nope, nope, and nope. I mean, you could (and if you do it right, it’ll be great). But you really don’t have to. The thinking behind their advice is to present yourself in the most impressive way, but the truth is, there are many other (and often better) ways to come off impressively. Take the girl who just got accepted into five Ivy League schools and Stanford in 2016. Guess what she wrote about. Her adventures at Costco. Yeah, Costco, the super retailer. But her true story was about her resourcefulness and inquisitiveness. Click to read her full Costco essay. Now while I think there’s much to improve about her essay, like creating a better balance between her Costco framework and the real heart of her message, my point is you don’t have to write about conventional topics. In fact, it’s better if you don’t because it’ll instantly make you stand out. At the same time, don’t rely on a gimmick. If you have a cool premise but no significant point behind it, then don’t use it, no matter how interesting. Gimmicky essays are a surefire way to the rejection pile. One of my favorite essays was about a girl taking a shower. Showering is perhaps the most routine thing anyone can do, but she used this framework to discuss how the shower was a safe haven for her, a sanctuary in a crowded household. She reflected on everything from philosophical existential matters to her academic and social lives. The shower was merely a clever structure to discuss deeper matters. Another essay was about the kid’s dad making him pancakes every morning and the life lessons gleaned from that. One of the most heartfelt essays I helped someone with was about a simple conversation the girl had with her pastor about the importance of crying and expressing ourselves vulnerably. Notice how there’s nothing inherently impressive about any of these topics. Students freak out because they think they are squarely average. Not a special bone in their bodies. That may or may not be true, but as I just described, it’s very possible to take ordinary events and turn them into creative stories that showcase your best qualities. Mundane topics often turn out to be the most authentic, interesting, and impressive stories. You don’t need to have cured cancer, or interned for the President of the United States, or founded the next Facebook. What you do need is a clear system to help you pull out these overlooked experiences and details from your life. That’s what I’ve been doing for over ten years. By interviewing my students, I tease out these qualities and memories that they haven’t thought about for years. I help them revisit the ideas they’ve immediately dismissed as unworthy college topics (when, in fact, they’ve turned out to be excellent ones). The goal is not necessarily to write about an extraordinary topic. If you have something extraordinary, well, great, then that can be your ticket. But 99% of the time, successful essays (even to the Ivies) are about ordinary topics, written extraordinarily.
MAKING A NICKNAME FOR YOURSELFWhile you don’t need to choose an extraordinary topic, you do need your essay to be memorable. That means by the end of your essay, someone should be able to assign you a nickname, like the “Pepsi straw guy” or “kid with wavy hair” or “broken van girl” or “guy who broke into a car.” This nickname will likely be how the admission officers will refer to you when discussing your application. If they can’t easily reference you, how likely do you think they will want to continue talking about you? Not long, my friend. That’s why straightforward essays aren’t worth their ink. They are altogether forgettable, unless the story itself is somehow compelling. Allowing your essay topic to form a nickname is the easiest way to go. Molding your essay around a nickname forces you to create a more creative framework, but you have to be careful that you aren’t all glitz and no substance. Gimmicks alone are worthless, but a creative shell with real meat inside will open doors for you. Remember the saying, “All that glitters is not gold.” But real gold that is covered in filth won’t be noticed either. You need both form and function. Without knowing beforehand who wrote your essay, any close friend should be able to identify that the essay belongs to you. So think of experiences or memories—the more detailed and specific, the better—that define you. Inside jokes or identity level experiences are best.
DON’T BE ENVIOUS OF THOSE WHO WENT THROUGH DISASTERAround the time of Hurricane Katrina a few years back or the 9-11 World Trade Center attacks, I heard many students groan, “Man, I wish that happened to me! Those kids are so lucky because now they have something amazing to write about.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have my home intact and my family members alive than have something to write about. But, I get it. The frustration is real: It’s insanely hard to think of something good to write about when nothing special seems to have happened to you. Here’s the thing, though. Admission committees were swamped with nearly identical essays on these disaster situations. How much do you really think a student writing about the hurricane stood out from Student #99999 writing about the same thing? Unless you have something uniquely profound to say about such disasters, don’t write about it. Plus, the fact that disaster never shook your world doesn’t mean you don’t have worthy experiences. The point of this article is to show you how to find those hidden gems, events, or qualities you likely overlooked.
10 ESSAY TYPES THAT WORKAlthough there are an infinite number of ways to write a winning essay, I’d like to share with you a few battle-tested essay types that just work. To convey who you are and how you’d contribute (remember, that’s what colleges want to discover), you can write about:
- Personal Quality Traits
- Memorable Encounters/Experiences
- Meaningful Objects
- A Special Someone
BRAINSTORMING QUESTIONSI also wanted to leave you with some guiding questions to get your creative juices running. I won’t ask you pointless questions like “What are you passionate about?” or “What is your identity?” Those questions are too broad to really guide the thinking process, but hopefully some of these below will help:
- What singular trait or accomplishment are you most proud of about yourself?
- What is something you do every day (or frequently) that seems to define your life?
- What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?
- If you could be the ideal version of yourself, what would that look like specifically? What career? What personality? What projects are you doing? Who are your friends? Who are you engaging with?
- What are things you look forward to most? What makes life worth living for you, beyond spending time with family and friends?
- What upsets you? This can reveal things you hope to change about the world’s condition or people’s attitudes.
- What are some of your weird quirks/idiosyncrasies? How do they define you?
- What are some of your favorite childhood memories? Doesn’t have to be overtly “impressive” to colleges.
- What stories about you do your family or friends constantly bring up?
- What are some of your favorite inside jokes you have with friends?
- What is the most important thing you hope to achieve? What value is most important for you to uphold?
- What is an example of your creativity?
- How, precisely, do you lead others? What is your leadership style? Tell us about the situation.
- What thoughts do you have about your religion, race, class, environment, and culture?
- What social issues are most important to you?
- What quote do you live by, and why?
- Who inspires you, and why? Think about the values they embody or the achievements they’ve done.
- What is your greatest life lesson so far?
- What are some of the most meaningful objects to you? Why are they important?
- If you could be known for three things, what would you want people to remember about you at your funeral?
- What is something you would never change about yourself? What is the one thing you would change, and why?
- Given unlimited time and money, and no other responsibilities, what would you find yourself doing?
- If you had fifty billion dollars, how would you use it?
- What places have you travelled, and what were your most memorable experiences there?
- What is the most meaningful movie, song, event, book, or artwork to you? Why?
- Which character, real or fictional, do you connect with the most? How do you see yourself in him or her?
- What did you use to believe but no longer do?
- What was a time you changed your mind on something important?
- Who is your favorite superhero? Why? What would you do if you had his or her powers?
- What makes you extremely uncomfortable, and what have you done about it?