Hello Class of 2015! Even though you might not want to hear it, now is the time to start thinking about applying to college, and there’s no better place to start than the essay. Not only can a top-tier Common App essay be your college application’s eye-catching masterpiece, it can also be recycled and used as the backbone of scholarship apps.
So, how do you start the college essay? You start it the same way you’d start any other essay: by picking a topic. At first, this task can seem overwhelming. You’ll be devoting a month or more to building the essay, and you don’t want to waste your time pursuing a topic that you’ll later scrap. However, with a few simple tips, you’ll be able to pick a topic resting assured that it’s right for you.
‘What is a topic?’
This ostensibly simple question is actually one of the most complex beasts you’ll have to tackle in the writing process. Sure, you know what you want to say: ‘I’m smart,’ ‘I have emotions,’ ‘I’m unique,’ etc.. But none of these are topics; these are the things that you use to build-out your topic.
The topic is the story. It’s what makes a reader want to read. Imagine your favorite book; would it still be your favorite if the author had blatantly spelled-out his point rather than spinning it into a story? Probably not, and the same is true for your essay. Use the app itself to tell the reviewer about your accomplishments. The essay should be a story in which you are one of the main characters. It should be engaging and easy to read, not a snooze-fest of your achievements, and it should be written in a much lighter tone than a book report or science paper. Keep these things at forefront of your mind when picking a topic.
‘Ok, so what story should I use?’
First and foremost, pick something that actually happened to you. Although some universities may allow you to submit a completely fictional work as long as you portray it as such, it’s just easier to figure-out how to tell the reader about yourself if you’re describing your actual emotions/feelings/actions toward a real event.
The story should be something substantive. Even though the vacation to Elitch Gardens you took three years ago might have been fun, it’s not an essay-worthy topic unless either a.) something happened to you that made it a deeply impactful learning experience or b.) you can relate it to one of your core ideals or principles. This is not to say that your essay needs to be a grandiose life-story. In fact, one of the best admission essays I’ve ever read was set in a train station, but it was a good essay because it linked directly to the student’s core ideals.
The underlying implication of all this is that you need to (gasp!) actually figure-out what’s important to you and what type of person you are. Don’t just use your essay to tell admissions officers ‘what they want to hear’ because a.) your essay will be boring and b.) it won’t work. You need to convey the real you, and to do that, you’ll need to figure out what the real you is.
‘Ok, I just finished a trippy, metaphysical journey to find the real me. Is there anything else?’
Why yes, there is; thanks for asking. The main things to worry about now are offensiveness and negative energy. Make sure that you’re not openly disparaging, and focus on the positive rather than the negative. For instance, say that you want to talk about how an eye-opening vacation made you realize that you needed to go to a school that’s far from home. ‘How junior year of high school made me realize that I hate the Rust Belt’ would be a terrible way to express that. It’s openly disparaging and full of negativity. You could say the exact same things in a positive light: ‘How my trip abroad made me realize I needed to expand my horizons.’ You’d be expressing the same ideas but in a positive way.
‘So… now what?’
What do you mean ‘now what?’ Get writing! You don’t need to spend 24-hours-a-day on your essay, but put a draft on paper this month. Print it out, put it in a manilla file folder, and, if you want to, forget about it until next month. Choosing a topic is one of the hardest parts of the essay. If you pick one now and write-out your ideas, you’ll have a Shakespearean work come October of next year.
Visit next month and we’ll figure-out what you need to do in your first revision.
Dakota J. Meyers is a Yale Alumnus, Corporate Strategy Analyst, and Freelance Essay Adviser based in Wash Park, Denver, CO.