I have seen a great number of college essays over the past few years. Working with students, all of whom are trying to get into their dream schools, I’ve noticed some patterns in terms of which essay topic areas have proven more successful, and today I will share those with you.
It’s important to remember that just because you write your essay about a touching subject, that in no way guarantees a great essay. The ideas and the creativity, in the end, must always come from you. These topics are simply meant to start you off in the right place, so that you may build upon them to create a truly successful college essay.
1. The Family Essay
It is very common for students to hear from their counselor, “don’t write about other people, write about yourself.” However, such advice often makes students become so preoccupied with writing about themselves that their essay ends up revolving around them and, consequently, lacks story.
The “family essay” seeks to illuminate who you are as a person through the eyes of people who are close to you, such as your parents and siblings. So much more about you is revealed through your interactions with people than just you by yourself, and this is where the power of the family essay comes from.
One essay I remember quite well was written by a student going to a public school in Los Angeles. Both of her parents were immigrants. Her dad owned a restaurant, and her parents worked hard to try and provide a life for their kids that was better than their own. This student’s story about her dad was powerful in that it made me feel like I was riding in the minivan on the way to school, or sitting at the Sunday dinner table as her dad cracked bad jokes. The story and the emotions were so real, I was able to not only understand but more importantly able to feel what it was that motivated this student.
One of your main goals when writing should be to elicit an emotional response in the reader. And the Family Essay’s capacity of carrying such emotion is what makes it a fantastic topic, in addition to the fact that it can say so much about you.
2. The Humble Brag Essay
This essay serves two purposes, to share your accomplishments and, at the same time, show your personality and establish yourself as a relatable, likable, down to earth human being. It is finding the balance between these two aspects that leads to a great essay that impresses admissions officers in multiple ways at once.
One example of the successful use of this essay came from one of my students, a world class musician specializing in a traditional musical form. His friends, however, never understood this art form, and consequently, did not appreciate it. The story then comes from this push and pull. On one side, his art form is not appreciated or valued in American culture. On the other, he is literally a world class musician, meeting the best of the best within that particular musical sphere. Describing this internal conflict and how it affected him, while simultaneously revealing this amazing talent, is what made this essay so good.
Another successful essay was written about winning a student council election. This student made use of light self-deprecating humor to acknowledge his faults and fears of public speaking while simultaneously highlighting his strengths. And through this story, the student learned to be himself and embrace his own imperfect nature, perhaps even turning it into a strength.
This year I had another great humble brag essay, about a student who helped her father invent something for her father’s company. It has a humility to it because there’s this family element and sincerity involved, but it’s also very impressive that she was able to contribute to a real world engineering endeavor.
If you are to take anything away, it should be that the humble brag acknowledges your limits, is aware you are only a high school student, and accepts that you don’t know everything just yet. And from this stems the desire to attend that dream university, to learn more, to further develop these childhood dreams that, until college, were not possible. You aren’t awesome yet, but you’re sure as heck trying your best to get there.
3. The Personal/Universal Essay
Also known as the “epiphany essay,” this piece will take one of your stories and use it to show the presence of some sort of universal truth. Your story becomes a metaphor for discovering this realization about how the world works.
I myself used this essay in my application to graduate school at USC. I wrote an essay about how, when I was a kid, I had a habit of crying all the time. Everyone would call me a crybaby and make fun of me, and as I grew up, the dominant questions in my life became “why am I always crying?” and “how can I stop?” The essay eventually leads to how I found and used storytelling as an outlet for my emotions, and how storytelling allowed me to learn more about myself and understand the workings of my emotions. There was a universal message to this essay, which basically discussed the truth of how our emotions work (we base them on our beliefs). I unravelled the answer to why people “cry” and how we can better handle our emotional selves.
I used this story from my childhood to tell a more common tale of self discovery and growth, and this is where the power of the Personal/Universal Essay comes into play. As long as you bring in something important, impactful, with implications for a larger community, this essay form has great potential. All you need to provide is the story and the writing.
In conclusion, at the core of a successful college essay is an awesome idea. While essay topics range widely across the board, every single one has a great idea at its center—one that is actionable, inspiring, insightful, passionate, and possibly even life changing. I hope that you remember this when you sit down and begin to write your essay. Forget about the little do’s and don’ts you may have heard from your friends. After all, the college essay is about you, and you are your own person. As long as you remember to weave a touching narrative with a powerful or inspiring central idea, you are on track to amaze anyone who comes across your application.