Option topic of your choice

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Option #6. Topic of your choice.

Sometimes you have a story to share that doesn't quite fit into any of the options above. However, the first five topics are broad with a lot of flexibility, so make sure your topic really can't be identified with one of them. Also, don't equate "topic of your choice" with a license to write a comedy routine or poem (you can submit such things via the "Additional Info" option). Essays written for this prompt still need to have substance and tell your reader something about you.

Eating Eyeballs

I first became aware of food when I was about six years old. Yes, I already knew that you put food in your mouth, chewed and swallowed, and that it tasted either good or bad. But I wasn't really aware of food until I noted that while my friends had dinner like macaroni and cheese, my parents were making chicken cacciatore. I was crushed; I wanted to be normal. So I retaliated by refusing to taste the wonderful meals my parents would make. I would only agree to try the dishes if my parents would let me eat peanut butter afterwards. My fall back plan was a little odd, as I didn't like peanut butter, so I would usually eat the dinner my parents had prepared after acting dismayed at the foreign sounding name of the dish.

As I grew older, I learned the value of trying new things. I learned that eating food that my friends were not used to made me more comfortable whenever I was visiting someone's home. I would eat almost anything, and my parents trusted me to eat without making ugly faces at unfamiliar food. My manners earned me invitations to adult parties where I could curl up, read, and politely eat my dinner. It got me out of having a baby-sitter, and I was proud to be considered grown-up.

By the time I was thirteen, there were only a few things that I wouldn't eat:

  • Snails: I thought the sauce was delicious, but my imagination always brought up a picture of some oozing, yellow thing right before I bit into the actual snail.

  • Fish: Fresh fish is still hard to come by where I live, and I always imagined the smell of a fish market was something much worse than it actually was.

  • Any organ of any kind: I'd heard too many people say, "Ew, gross," in response to the thought of liver or kidneys to even consider the thought that I might enjoy them.

Despite my prejudices, (I'd never even tried any of these dishes when they were prepared by a good cook), when I was fourteen my parents decided that I was ready to go to France without them along to supervise my manners. They sent me to visit my friend Anne's family. The main point of this trip was to improve my French, so I was under orders to speak only French with my new family. With Anne's family, I traveled to Paris, Privas, Saint Jean de Luz, and Saint Malo. For three weeks, my only connection to the English language were the four books that my mother had allowed me to take (I had wanted more). I always ate what my new family served because I knew that my parents were counting on me not only to speak French, but also to be polite, which included eating what I was offered.

The first couple of meals I had in France were reassuringly familiar: a little bit of cheese, omelet, gazpacho, or quiche. Then Patrice, Anne's father and a marine biologist, grilled sardines the length of my hand for dinner. His method of grilling the sardines was charring them. I had tried charred meat before, and hadn’t liked it. This dinner was charred, a fish, and it was looking at me with an eyeball in a head that I was going to have to eat. Patrice explained that the best way to eat these sardines was to eat the whole thing -- bones, skin, eyes, and all. Since my French was still a little shaky, I hoped that I had misunderstood him -- one of the few times I would have enjoyed feeling stupid. Patrice made it clear, however, that I was to eat the entire, ugly little fish when he picked one up, pointed to it, and ate it in three bites. I still don’t know how he managed to fit that much fish into his mouth.

I forged my way through three of those little fish: eyes, tongue, bones, imagined brains, and all. Then I switched over to the eggplant casserole, a dish I felt a certain fondness towards because I had displayed some knowledge of the French language earlier that evening by saying that an "aubergine" was an "eggplant." My brief moment of fluency had convinced me that I liked the dish, and I became a great fan of squash for the remaining three weeks of my visit to France.
Two days after the sardine incident, I saw little, round, brown things simmering away in a frying pan when I walked through the kitchen. Because they smelled like a particular savory pasta sauce my parents would make, I decided that that they must be mushrooms, and that even though I didn't like mushrooms, at least they weren't eyeballs. The "mushrooms" were served. I took eight, Anne took three, and Patrice took about twenty. The distribution of the food should have made me realize that the savory brown things probably weren't mushrooms (Anne usually eats more), but they smelled so good that I didn't pay attention. When I was on my last one I asked what kind they were; the reply was "mouton." I didn’t know different types of mushrooms very well, but I was fairly sure that there was no such thing as a "sheep mushroom." Patrice must have noticed my confusion because his next word, in English, was "kidney." Oh. I ate the last kidney on my plate and served myself some nice, plain bread and goat cheese, a regional specialty. Later, I reminded myself that I really had liked the kidneys before I knew what they were.

Even later that night, I heard a conversation between Patrice and Jean-Louis, Anne's Uncle. I had come downstairs to brush my teeth and heard them talking in the wonderful old stone kitchen. They were remarking (in French) that I was much braver about food then they had thought I would be. That was a real turning point for me because I'd understood a full conversation in French and I knew that I was doing well on the food front. The two men never knew that I had overheard their conversation, but it has stuck with me up to today. Their remarks made me adventurous enough to try different kinds of fish, crabs, snails (which I now love), liver, a heart, and what I think were a pair of rabbit's lungs. Although some things were better than others (the rabbit's lungs had a rather odd, spongy texture), I still tried them.

I visited Anne's family during the next two summers and had several more food and language adventures. During my last visit, Patrice informed me that I was not only to speak in French, but read it, too. I sadly packed away my English books and picked up a book in French. As it was the fourth Harry Potter book, I wasn't really very miserable at all, and I still find it funny that the French word for "wand" is "baguette."

Critique -

The Title - Lora's essay has a great title. In fact, there's a good chance you read her essay because the title grabbed your attention. Even if the essay has some weaknesses (which all essays invariably do), the readers in the admissions office will remember her title.

The Topic - On one level, Lora's topic is rather trivial. After all, we all have foods we like and don't like. Nearly every kid finds certain meals disgusting. That said, Lora succeeds in taking a rather slight and commonplace topic and using it to say something about encountering a different culture. The essay isn't just about "gross" food. It's also about family, travel, social discomfort, maturation and introspection.

Lora was correct to submit her essay under #6 on the common application, "Topic of your choice." The essay could potentially fit under question #1: "Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you." However, is eating an eyeball (or a kidney or a lung) really a "significant experience"? Not everyone reading the application would think so. Topic #6 gives Lora a bigger umbrella under which to explore her rather unconventional subject.

The Tone - Lora's essay is certainly not as serious or philosophical as Sophie’s essay. But put yourself in the shoes of the readers in the admissions office: do you want to read thousands of essays about personal tragedy, poverty or suffering? Of course not. A lighter essay is often a welcome change. However, an essay does need substance. If it has lots of laughs but little depth, the admissions folks aren't going to be impressed. Lora strikes a nice balance on this front. Her essay is light and quirky beginning with its title and ending with Harry Potter. But it also has substance. We learn a lot about Lora through her discussion of food. By the end, we know that Lora is thoughtful, that she tries to overcome her biases, that she likes to travel, that she works hard to make a good impression.

The Writing - Probably the biggest problem with Lora's essay is the same problem that Sophie had: the essay is too long. At over 1,100 words, the essay needs about 25% hacked out. These cuts don't need to remove any substance. Lora's prose is certainly clear and grammatical, but she does on occasion repeat words and phrases, and some small details don't add much to the overall essay. In a few places she uses many words where a few would do. As a quick example, consider the first item in Lora's bulleted list of gross foods:

  • Snails: I thought the sauce was delicious, but my imagination always brought up a picture of some oozing, yellow thing right before I bit into the actual snail.

A little rewording and we get a tighter sentence, and we go from 28 words to 21, a reduction in length of 25%:

  • Snails: the sauce was delicious, but I always imagined some oozing, yellow thing right before I bit into the actual snail.

Even with its length, Lora's essay shows that she can write. The essay has no glaring errors. It has has some pleasing structural elements such as the early mention of her four English language books and the conclusion with a French edition of Harry Potter. The essay is wonderfully accessible and down to earth. We get the impression that Lora is presenting her true self -- we don't get the feeling that she's abusing a thesaurus or having a professional editing service write the essay for her. Overall, the essay will convince the readers in the admissions office that Lora can handle college-level writing.

Final Thoughts - The greatest strength of Lora's essay is that we finish it feeling like we've gotten to know Lora. Is she the type of person we'd like to go to college with? Would she make a good roommate? Does she have a sense of humor? Is she thoughtful? Can she handle college writing? In all cases, yes.

However, this is an essay that easily could have gone astray. When applicants try to be clever and creative, they run the danger of writing something that's more fluff than substance.

4 tips for Option 6 -- Topic of your choice.

1. Make Sure Options 1 Through 5 Aren't Appropriate

I've rarely seen an admissions essay that doesn't fit into one of the first five Common Application essay options. Even the essay which she submitted under option #6 could fit into option #1. In truth, it probably doesn't matter much if you write your essay under option #6 when it could fit elsewhere (unless the fit with another option is obvious) -- it's the quality of the essay that most matters.

2. Don't Try Too Hard To Be Clever

Some students make the mistake of assuming that "Topic of Your Choice" means that they can write about anything. Keep in mind that the admissions officers take the essay seriously, so you should too. This doesn't mean you can't be humorous, but you do need to make sure your essay has substance. If your essay focuses more on a good laugh than on revealing why you'd make a good college student, you should rethink your approach.

3. Make Sure Your Essay Is An Essay (No Poems, Drawings, etc.)

Every now and then a budding creative writer decides to submit a poem, play or other creative work for essay option #6. Don't do it. The Common Application allows for supplemental materials, so you should include your creative work there. The essay should be an essay -- non-fiction prose that explores a topic and reveals your character.

4. Reveal Yourself

Any topic is a possibility for option #6, but you want to make sure your writing fulfills the purpose of the admissions essay. The college admissions folks are looking for evidence that you'll make a good campus citizen. Your essay should reveal your character, values, personality, beliefs and (if appropriate) sense of humor. You want your reader to end your essay thinking, "Yes, this is someone who I want to live in my community."

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