The essay is perhaps the most daunting part of the undergraduate college application, and is likely to cause an equal or larger amount of hand wringing and hair pulling than even the dreaded SAT. Such a high level of stress is caused by, but also justified by, the fact that the essay, unlike all other parts of the college application, is the one you have almost complete control over. It is therefore a unique and exciting opportunity to tell the admissions officers exactly why they should invite you into their college, and as such it should not be squandered.
As you have probably read in our overview of how colleges use the essay, your essay will be judged on two levels: content and form. What did you choose to write about, and how did you write about it? Our grammar and style article can help you with the second part, but what about the first? Well, this depends on whether the essay question is specific or open-ended. If it is specific (i.e. If you could have lunch with one person living or dead who would it be? or What is your favorite word, and why?) then you already have a topic and you must, above all, make sure to answer that question. (There is no excuse, other than laziness, for going off topic or trying to adapt an already-written essay to one with a very different topic. Colleges will notice, so don’t try it.) However, if the essay is unrestricted (i.e. Write 500 pages on whatever topic you choose), then you have a daunting choice ahead of you. There are an almost unlimited number of subjects you could write about, so how do you choose just one?
First of all, don’t panic! Try not to think of the plethora of options as overwhelming;instead, consider it a one-of-a-kind opportunity to tell your first choice college exactly why they should admit you. The essay is the only part of the application that allows you to break free of your SAT and GPA shackles and speak in your own distinctive unique voice to those who will control your fate.
Therefore don’t waste your breath on empty and uninspired words; rather, speak fluently and passionately about yourself. Think about it. The college is asking you to talk about yourself! No one knows you better than you, right? After 17 or so years of staring at yourself in the mirror, you should be the world’s expert on you, so don’t hold back or be modest.
Second, do NOT wait until December 31st to start brainstorming your essay. The earlier you start, the more time you will have for reflection on and revision of your essay, so the sooner the better. I would suggest you start thinking about your essay during the summer before your senior year. If you are visiting colleges during that summer, that is even better, as you can speak directly to admissions representatives about the essay. Ask them what they like and don’t like to see in a college essay. Most admissions officers are pleasant, forthcoming, honest people, and not at all the humorless gatekeepers many students seem to think they are. They will give you a helpful answer. (Another good reason to introduce yourself is that most colleges track what is called "demonstrated interest," and sometimes take it into consideration when deciding between two similar applicants.)
Finally, how do you figure out which topic will best display your radiantly passionate personality? One of the best ways to pinpoint a topic is to ask yourself a bunch of thought-provoking questions: "What is your favorite movie?" "What do you do when you’re not sleeping or doing homework?" "If you were an animal, which would you be?" (A long list of these stimulating questions follows the end of this article.) The point of these questions is not necessarily to give a specific answer, but to compel a response that will direct you to a topic you will be comfortable and excited to write about. Keep asking yourself these questions until you hit on an event, quote, person, book, idea, episode of Seinfeld, or type of food that makes you sit up and say, "That’s me!"
Another method is to ask the people who you well-your best friend, teacher, or parent-what their favorite or least favorite thing about you is. To ‘know thyself,’ as Socrates said, is difficult indeed and often it is those close to you who can see things that you cannot. Don’t shy away from criticism, either; admissions officers love to see thoughtful, analytical students because those students do well in college. In fact, if you had a very poor semester because you had mono, or if you have never gotten the hang of calculus (even though you tried and tried and got tutored and extra help), the essay is the perfect opportunity to explain why those lapses in your transcript occurred. Don’t whine or complain, but take responsibility for any shortcomings in your record. Take action yourself: colleges like proactive students.
The point of all this is to find a topic that you will be excited to write about, and that will display to the admissions office your unique and winning personality. One college counselor, tongue in cheek, once told us that he knows that his students have hit on the right essay topic when they begin to cry. Although the hoop jumping of the college admissions process certainly is enough to make you weep, choosing an essay topic needn’t be. Still, the idea is that you should write about something that engages you, otherwise why would the admissions officers want to read it or you to write it in the first place? As we have said a number of times on this website, colleges want passionate students, not wet blankets or conformists. So choose your essay topic wisely.