If you’re stuck on what to write your college essay about, here’s an approach that might work for you:
Stop trying to think of good essay topics.
Instead, make a list of bad, terrible, unacceptable topics.
Most students struggle trying to come up with an impressive story about themselves — especially one that isn’t already represented somehow in their application. I hear it from probably half the students I coach: “I haven’t done anything really amazing.” I can tell they’re feeling the pressure to look heroic.
Guess what — you don’t have to portray yourself as a hero in your college essays. You don’t have to present yourself as a “leader of tomorrow” or a “changemaker” or any of those goofy buzzwords. In fact, you shouldn’t be trying to present yourself in your best, “holiest” light at all.
Holy is boring. And when you try to write holy, it comes off as insincere and self-aggrandizing. You’ve done awesome things, but you haven’t saved the world. Don’t pretend like you have!
So take that pressure off yourself. Forget about impressing colleges. Forget about your best qualities. Try this approach instead:
When I ask students to brainstorm on this question, they come up with handfuls of topics right away. Here are three of my favorites, from real students:
“All the times I’ve acted like a jerk.”
“I got in trouble for shoplifting.”
“I actually hate school.”
Yikes! All terrible stuff you shouldn’t write your essay about, right? Actually, each of those 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. “Basically all through 9th grade, I spewed opinions on everything,” he told me. “I thought that meant I was smart and knowledgeable. One day in history class, I made the dumbest comment about women, and there were even parents visiting.” That mortifying day, he realized, had been a turning point for him. He barely spoke for weeks, deciding he needed to be “the king of shutting up,” which he now felt was his proudest accomplishment. “Now, whatever room I’m in, no matter how much I want to give my opinion, I keep my mouth shut. I listen. And I finally have smart things to say.”
“Bad” Topic 2: Completely falling apart
This student was hesitant to write about shoplifting at first, and with good reason! In general, you should avoid writing about illegal activity in your college essays. But after discussing it with her college counselor and her family, and workshopping the story with me, she discovered how the topic of “stealing” could actually highlight one of her defining personality traits. She wrote about shoplifting for several months in middle school after her parents got divorced. She described the things she stole, her thieving strategies, and the humiliation of getting caught by her own aunt. Then she explained how she was able to stop — when she invented a new kind of “stealing” that was 100 percent legal, ethical, and awesome.
“Bad” Topic 3: Really, really hating school
This student wrote about struggling in a traditional, rigid school system where students were not encouraged to ask questions or be creative, self-directed learners. Bored and frustrated, he decided to think of himself as an “undercover journalist” and designed “secret research” missions. “Just looking around my own community, I got fascinated with a grocery store run by the same family for five generations. I took places like that for granted, but not anymore.” His essay brought the store and its family to life through vibrant detail, and demonstrated that despite his feelings about school, he had a deep hunger to learn. And the opening line of his essay? When I was 15, I fell in love with a grocery store. I love it!
So what “terrible” topics are you avoiding?
If you are struggling for an impressive topic, brainstorming “unacceptable” ideas can be liberating. You might, like these students, discover a great story (or stories) in your most humbling experiences. One of those stories might be the narrative that best captures who you are.
Not all your mistakes and miseries are worth sharing. If you brainstorm a list of “terrible, unacceptable” topics, many (if not most) of those topics won’t be appropriate. And revealing a traumatic time in your past — “selling your pain” — is not necessarily the best topic for everyone.
Writing about suffering and adversity is not the only way to reveal your defining qualities. But admissions officers do want to know that you’ve made mistakes and that you’ve grown from them — that’s the essence of the Common App prompt #2, about challenges, setbacks and failures. It’s one way of showing vulnerability, which is key to writing about personal growth. And personal growth is arguably the whole point of the personal statement. So give this exercise a try. Which of your stories, your personal truths, seem “unacceptable”? And what have you learned since then?