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 topics.
Most students struggle trying to come up with an impressive story about themselves. I hear it from probably half the students I coach. “I’m not this amazing person,” they tell me. “I haven’t done anything that impressive. How am I supposed to portray myself as awesome and accomplished?”
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. You shouldn’t be trying to present yourself in your best light at all.
So take that pressure off yourself. Forget about your best qualities for now. Forget about being amazing. Try this approach instead:
What do you think you shouldn’t write your college essay about?
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 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. “Basically all of 9th grade, I was spewing opinions on everything,” he told me. “I thought that meant I was smart and knowledgeable. One day, I said the rudest, dumbest comment about women, and there were even parents visiting our class. By lunch, everyone had called me out as being a total jerk.” 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 wait. 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 highlight one of her strengths. She wrote about shoplifting for a year 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. More importantly, she reflected on how she was able to stop—when she discovered 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 setting where students were not encouraged to ask questions or be creative, self-directed learners. Bored and frustrated, he decided to think of himself as a “secret journalist” and sought out opportunities to educate himself about local industries. He focused his essay on one of his self-designed 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 deep passion for learning. And the opening line of his essay? At 15, I fell in love with a grocery store. Fantastic!
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 three students, discover a great story in your most humbling experiences—and that story 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” 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 you. Admissions officers want to know that you’ve made mistakes and that you’ve grown from them—that’s the essence of the Common App prompt about setbacks and failures. Writing about suffering and adversity isn’t the only way to reveal your unique strengths. But it is one way of showing vulnerability, which is key to writing about personal growth.