The Common Application released their essay questions for the 2017-2018 admissions cycle this past week so we all have essays on the brain. This always creates a flurry of something between excitement and panic as Juniors start to peruse their choices and grapple over which prompt will allow them to most effectively brag about the impressive things they’ve done in high school. Unfortunately, this is completely the wrong approach.
My advice to you? Don’t bother even reading these prompts…ever. Write your essay and then go back and decide which prompt they fit best. Often this is prompt #1, a.k.a. “Topic of Your Choice.”
If you’re not using the essay prompts how do you know what to write about? I give whole workshops on how to brainstorm and develop an essay but if I could give one piece of advice it would be this: Just. Be. You. Write an essay that is uniquely yours; an essay that no other college applicant could write. Your Varsity Football team’s victory over a rival team? Not very original. How an inside joke with your teammates led to the creation of a poker club? Original! Your grandmother is the most influential person in your life? Not very original (sorry, Grandma!) How taking a trip to a WWII memorial with your grandmother inspired a love of history and world politics? Original!
And your essay does not need to be about impressing the admissions team with your accomplishments. They’ve got your resume, let them read that stuff there. Some of the best essays I ever read were about completely mundane things. Like goofing off in Physics class. Or a PBJ. Don’t believe me? Google “Costco Essay,” it sort of changed the conversation around essays last spring. The topic doesn’t need to be impressive but, as I’m sure your mom reminds you more than you’re comfortable with, you are! Be vulnerable in your essay and do some soul-bearing. Have the courage to get personal, to get silly, to be an imperfect teenager, because that’s who you are. Your ability to be introspective and honest shows a maturity that no summer building homes in Mexico ever could (no matter how noble that might be!). It’s not about what you’ve done; it’s who you are.
So take those essay topics and burn ‘em! Start to do some journaling and brainstorming now to prepare to write the final product in a few short months. Do whatever works for you—some free-writing, word clouds, or collages. Maybe start keeping a list of potential topics. When writing time comes around you want to have lots of options and ideas, not just a blank piece of paper.
And if I haven’t said it enough already this essay needs to be 100% pure you. Let me tell you how amazingly obvious it is when mom, dad, or writing tutor took over part or all of an essay. You’d think it would go without saying but 45-year-old woman writes very differently than 17-year-old boy. If you’re a “B” student that’s the essay I’m expecting and the essay you should be proud to submit. That mediocre verbal score makes it a little less probable for you to write like Stephen Hawking. If the grammar, mechanics, and spelling are clean I’m glad to meet you where you are, and really meet you! If the content is there the rest is gravy.
Good luck my little Hemmingways! And feel free to call my office if you feel stuck!