If you’re stuck on what to write your college essay about, here’s an approach that may work for you:
Stop trying to think of good essay topics. Instead, think of bad, terrible, totally unacceptable ideas.
Most students struggle trying to come up with an impressive story about themselves. I hear it from almost every student I coach. “I’m not this amazing person,” they tell me. “I haven’t done anything spectacular. How am I supposed to portray myself as this awesomely wonderful person?”
Guess what—you don’t have to portray yourself as an awesome, spectacular person in your college essays. You don’t have to present yourself as a “leader of tomorrow” or a “changemaker” or any of those goofy words from college websites and brochures.
So take that pressure off yourself. Clear your mind. Try this brainstorming approach instead.
Here’s how it works…
Forget about your best qualities for now. Just ask yourself—what do you think you shouldn’t write your college essay about?
When I ask students this question, they come up with good answers right away. Here are three of my favorites, from real students:
1: “All the times I’ve acted like a jerk.”
2: “I got in trouble for shoplifting.”
3: “How much I actually hate school.”
Yikes! All terrible stuff you shouldn’t write about, right? Actually, those “bad” essay topics turned into fantastic college essays.
“Bad” Topic 1: Acting like a jerk and losing everyone’s respect
This student based his essay on a moment when he’d blurted out something really offensive in class. “It was the rudest, dumbest thing I’ve ever said, the worst moment of 9th grade,” he told me, “and there were even parents visiting our class that day.” He wrote about what he said, why he said it, and finally, how he was forced to examine himself and learn from it. Working on the essay, he realized how much he talked, and how little he listened. “Now, whatever room I’m in, no matter how badly I want to give my opinion, I challenge myself to weigh in no more than three times.”
“Bad” Topic 2: Completely falling apart (and almost getting arrested)
This student wrote about how she started shoplifting at age 13 after her parents got divorced. She described the things she stole, her thieving strategies, and the humiliation of getting caught. More importantly, she reflected on how she was able to stop—when she discovered a new kind of “stealing” that was much more satisfying (and 100 percent legal). She was so happy with how her essay turned out that she even gave it a title, “Beep-beep-beep!”—the sound of a store alarm going off—which I absolutely love.
“Bad” Topic 3: Really, really hating school
This student wrote about struggling in the rigid school system of his country, where students were never allowed to ask questions, be creative, or take initiative. Bored and frustrated, he decided to think of himself as a “secret journalist” and sought out opportunities to educate himself about local industries. “The more I looked around my own community, I realized I didn’t know very much, and I got really curious about people,” he said. He chose one of those learning experiences in his essay, and ended up demonstrating his passion for learning.
So what “terrible” topics are you avoiding?
All three students dug into their most humbling moments, when they felt like they were completely “losing at life,” as one writer put it. They narrated specific moments, reflected on them, and revealed how much they had gained. Their essay topics might have been inspired by bad experiences, but by the end of each essay, the writer and the reader were feeling really good about the person they’d become.
No, not all your mistakes and miseries are worth sharing. But some of your worst experiences can turn into the best essays. Admissions officers want to know that you’re human, that you’ve made mistakes like all of us, and that you’ve grown from them. Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability in your essays. It will reveal your unique strengths of character—in other words, what an awesome person you are.
So try making a list of things you don’t want college admissions to know. It could lead you to a fantastic idea.