Of all the aspects of applying to college, the essay can be the most mysterious… and the most stressful. Admissions officers only have a few minutes to get to know each student, and the 650-word personal essay in the Common Application is their best opportunity to do so. That set-up understandably puts a lot of pressure on applicants to write something amazing in that space—something that will hook readers’ attention, something that will make them memorable and appealing to admissions committees, and maybe even something that will get them a spot in the incoming class at their dream school.
Given all those ambitions for this text, what should you write this essay about, anyway?
There’s no one right answer to that question. Indeed, if you’re writing your application essay about the exact same thing as everyone else, you’ve already put yourself a step behind. But there are some topics that do and don’t work especially well, as well as some approaches that can be successful regardless of topic, as we at Spark have seen over the years. Below, we’ve offered some suggestions for how to start thinking about the college essay and how to decide what might be the strongest topic and approach for you.
The main essay in the Common Application offers students 650 words to respond to one of seven prompts or to write an essay of their choosing. That might initially seem like a lot of words, and your first instinct might be to amass several stories or examples to help you fill up the whole space: maybe a few different times you showed leadership or a series of classes and academic experiences through which you’ve developed your interest in a particular major. But as you start to write, you’ll likely find that 650 words is actually pretty short!
For that reason, it’s often most effective to use this space to tell just one very meaningful story, whether about a single moment in time or a narrow slice of your life. (In fact, you’ll notice that many of the Common Application prompts encourage this approach by asking for “a time” or “an event.”) By writing about a relatively narrow topic, you’ll have space to describe your experiences in a lot of detail and to unpack the significance of this story with regard to your life and goals, which is what admissions officers most want to hear. Though it might seem like a small story will never fill the space, you will be surprised to see how quickly 650 words run out!
Remember, admissions officers read your whole application at once—and quickly—so there’s no need to repeat yourself across any parts of it. Of course, you may want to elaborate further on an activity or experience from your resume in certain places or return to a similar theme or interest, but in general, it’s best if each part of your application showcases a different side of your interests, goals, personality, and values. Nowhere is this truer than in the personal essay, the ideal spot to give admissions readers a totally different view of who you are and what makes you tick.
What this means for you, of course, depends on what else is in your application! If you’ve used other spaces to describe your academic interests in detail, then you won’t want to repeat that same theme in your application essay; similarly, if you’ve talked a lot about a certain club or activity elsewhere, try to find a different topic for the personal essay. As you think about the best topic for this essay, it can be extremely helpful to think about how you’re going to use the rest of your application, to ensure that all the pieces of it, once finished, will show admissions committees a complete picture of you.
With all that said, the college essay is called a personal statement for a reason: admissions officers read it with the primary goal of getting to know you as a person. So, regardless of what topic you pick, make sure you’re showcasing one or more important personal qualities, like leadership, curiosity, initiative, compassion, or the like.
One of the best things you can do in your college essay is make yourself stick in college admissions officers’ minds—in a good way, of course! Ask yourself if someone who reads your essay might find themselves thinking a few days or even weeks later, “Oh right, the ___ essay!” What word or phrase might they slot into that blank? Were you “the millionth ‘overcoming a sports injury’ essay” they saw, or were you “the Publix essay”? “The tooth fairy essay”? Often, the details that stick in admissions officers’ minds are the small, particular ones because those tend to be the most distinctive.
So, as you’re thinking through possible topics, ask yourself: is this an essay that someone else (or a robot!) might write? Or is this something genuinely unique to me, something only I could have written? Additionally, if an admissions officer only remembers one thing about it, what will that thing be? Even though you do want to present an authentic and personal narrative here, there’s a sizable element of branding to a college essay, too. Admissions officers can’t really get to know the real, full you in just a few minutes, so think about what side of yourself you most want to highlight.
Finally, one of the biggest pitfalls of writing the college essay is the temptation to get really serious. Some students have the misimpression that the application essay can only be about the biggest challenge they’ve faced, which sometimes leads students to assume they need to use this space to write about the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. Certainly, writing about challenges you’ve overcome can be a good use of the essay! But it’s absolutely essential that readers come away from your narrative feeling positive—about you, about your experiences, and about your potential as a student on their campus.
If you’re excited to write about a big challenge you faced and overcame and you can end the story on a positive note, that’s great! But sometimes the best topics for this essay are smaller things, like an unexpected setback in your research or a confusing moment in your volunteer work, things that made you take a step back and think deeply about the right path forward before proceeding. We can learn as much from small obstacles or minor epiphanies as we do from the biggest things that happen in our lives, and for the application essay, those little moments often produce the strongest, most authentic, and most memorable essays.
Finally, it’s important to note that no admissions officer thinks that a student must lay out their trauma or pain in their college essay. Indeed, in almost all cases, they would prefer to hear about something that excites applicants, brings them joy, or piques their curiosity. Students who can write essays that highlights those sorts of emotions, while also imbuing their experiences with personal significance, are the ones college admissions officers are most eager to see on their campuses.
If you take away only one thing from this blog post, it should be the notion that there’s not “one best topic” about which to write your college essay. Indeed, such an approach would defeat the whole purpose of this particular essay, which is to show college admissions officers a unique side to your personality that complements the rest of your application and helps you stand out from the pack. The right topic for you won’t be the same as it is for anyone else!
Lastly, beyond the content, it’s also important to bear in mind that you aren’t going to write a great college essay in a single draft. Truly strong essays require at least a few rounds of revision and constructive feedback from a trusted editor. So, if you’re looking for a little assistance on that front, schedule a free initial consultation with us!
For the 2023-2024 college application cycle, there are seven different prompts for the Common App personal essay. Read on to understand what admissions officers are expecting from each prompt, as well as tips to ensure that you’ve written a truly great essay.Read More
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