Writing the College Admissions Essay: Step Three

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Writing the College Admissions Essay: Step Three

Having completed steps one and two, you should now have a rough idea of the elements you wish to include in your essay, including your goals, important life experiences, diversifying features, spectacular nonacademic accomplishments, etc. You should also now have an idea of what impression you want to make on the admissions committee.

Consider topics that will allow you to synthesize your important personal characteristics and experiences into a coherent whole. While most essays allow great latitude in topic selection, you must also be sure to answer the questions that were asked of you. Leaving a lasting impression on someone who reads 50 essays a day will not be easy, but here are some guidelines to help you get started.

Consider the following questions

  • Have you selected a topic that describes something of personal importance in your life, with which you can use vivid personal experiences as supporting details?

  • Is your topic a gimmick? That is, do you plan to write your essay in iambic pentameter or make it funny? You should be very, very careful if you are planning to do this. We recommend strongly that you do not do this. Almost always, this is done poorly and is not appreciated by the admissions committee unless a creative approach is explicitly recommended. Nothing is worse than not laughing or not being amused at something that was written to be funny or amusing.

  • Will your topic only repeat information listed elsewhere on your application? If so, pick a new topic. Don’t mention GPAs or standardized test scores in your essay if they are mentioned elsewhere.

  • Can you offer vivid supporting paragraphs to your essay topic? If you cannot easily think of supporting paragraphs with concrete examples, you should probably choose a different essay topic.

  • Can you fully answer the question asked of you? Can you address and elaborate on all points within the specified word limit? If you plan on writing about something technical, make sure you truly can back up your interest in a topic and are not merely throwing around big scientific words. Unless you convince the reader that you actually have the life experiences to back up your interest in neurobiology, the reader will assume you are trying to impress him/her with shallow tactics.

  • Can you keep the reader’s interest from the first word? The entire essay must be interesting, considering admissions officers will probably only spend a few minutes reading each essay.

  • Will your topic turnoff a large number of people? Do not write on how everyone should worship your God, how wrong or right abortion is, or how you think the Republican or Democratic Party is evil. The only thing worse than not writing a memorable essay is writing an essay that will be remembered negatively. Stay away from specific religions, political doctrines, or controversial opinions. You can still write an essay about Nietzsche’s influence on your life, but express it while understanding that not all intelligent people will agree with Nietzsche’s claims. Emphasize instead Nietzsche’s influence on your life, and not why you think he was wrong or right in his claims.

  • In this vein, if you are presenting a topic that is controversial, you must acknowledge counter arguments without sounding arrogant.

  • Will an admissions officer remember your topic after a day of reading hundreds of essays? What will the officer remember about your topic? What will the officer remember about you? What will your lasting impression be?

Step Three: Selecting the Topic

After evaluating your essay topics with the above criteria and asking for the opinions of your teachers or colleagues, and of your friends, you should have at least 1-2 interesting essay topics. Consider the following guidelines below.

1. If you are planning on writing an essay on how you survived poverty in Russia, your mother’s suicide, your father’s kidnapping, or your immigration to America from Asia, you should be careful that your main goal is to address your own personal qualities. Just because something sad or horrible has happened to you does not mean that you should be accepted to college. You don’t want to be remembered as the pathetic applicant. You want to be remembered as the applicant who showed impressive qualities under difficult circumstances. It is for this reason that essays relating to this topic are considered among the best. If you only use the horrible experience as a lens with which to magnify your own personal characteristics, you will not write a good essay.

2. “Diversity’ is the biggest buzzword of the 2000’s. For this reason, so many applicants are tempted to declare what makes them diverse. However, simply saying you are a black, lesbian female will not impress admissions officers in the least. While an essay incorporating this information would probably be your best topic idea, you must finesse the issue by addressing your own personal qualities and how you overcame stigma, dealt with social ostracism, etc. If you are a rich student from Beverly Hills whose father is an engineer and whose mother is a lawyer, but you happen to be a minority, an essay about how you dealt with adversity would be unwise. You must demonstrate vividly your personal qualities, interests, motivations, etc. Address specifically how your diversity will contribute to the realm of campus opinion, the academic environment, and the larger society.

3. Don’t mention weaknesses unless you absolutely need to explain them away. You want to make a positive first impression, and telling an admissions officer anything about drinking, drugs, partying, etc. undermines your goal. Admissions officers have read more essays on A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder) than we would ever have imagined. Why admit to weakness when you can instead showcase your strengths?

4. Be honest, but not for honesty’s sake. Unless you are a truly excellent writer, your best, most passionate writing will be about events that actually occurred. While you might be tempted to invent hardship, it is completely unnecessary. Write an essay about your life that demonstrates your personality.

Essay Topics to Avoid

Here are a few essay topics you should probably avoid. Some of them are simply bad topics that are inappropriate for college applications. Others are extremely popular topics that make admissions officers’ eyes glaze over. So, either don’t write about the following topics, or, if you do, make sure it is written in a way that only you could do and include significant detail.

• Your relationship with your girlfriend or your boyfriend.

Your trip overseas, unless truly worthy.

• “The Best Game of My Life” or other athletic incidents written in glib style.

• Your college entrance exam (ACT or SAT) scores.

• The importance of a college education (overused topic).

• Your political views.

• Your religious views.

• Big, vague topics such as how you plan to contribute to world peace.

• An autobiography, “Hello, my name is”

Remember creativity and a little thought, more than anything else, separate a successful essay from an average one. Your essay should reveal something unique about you - it may help to think of if as an interesting letter to a friend or a compelling feature article. As one Dean of Admissions puts it, “Your essay is the one part of the admissions folder that you control - you can’t change your grades or your test scores, but you can make your essay anything you want it to be.”


  1. Select one topic to use for your admissions essay from your Step Two Brainstorm.

  2. Write out the entire question on the top of a sheet of loose-leaf paper. If your college/university does not have an essay requirement, choose a topic from the pre-writing handouts to write a personal statement to submit with scholarship applications.

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