Working with high-school seniors as a college essay specialist for Moxie this admissions season has brought back memories of my own college process. Some are happy and some are harrowing. However, the common thread of emotion within these re-lived moments is one of anxiety brought about by the unknown.
For whom am I writing my college essay?
For whom am I writing my college essay? I used to always imagine, half-humorously, a massive judge, stories tall, wearing a large black robe and powdered wig while holding a monocle up to his eye to read my puny offering.
What’s worth writing about? I wasn’t sure if anything I’d done in my objectively very short and sheltered life was worth sharing.
How much does your college essay topic matter?
How much would my essay topic matter in the grand scheme of my application? Could the story that I chose really make a difference in the outcome of my submission?
The Reality of College Admissions
One of the hard truths of college essay writing is that starting out, your essay is but one of the hundreds of essays read by an admissions officer who, during application season, is probably feeling overworked. Imagine sitting at a desk all day and reading one mini-memoir after another for hours on end. This is the reality of many admissions officers, and it should inform our perspective of what a “standout” essay looks like. In most cases, the best that an essay can do for an applicant is to present its reviewer with a concise package of information formatted in the following manner. For these examples, let’s imagine that our applicant’s name is Adrienne:
Who is Adrienne:
Why would Adrienne be a good fit?:
By “Who is Adrienne,” I mean to refer to a very short phrase that will allow the almighty judge to pick Adrienne out of a massive group of other promising applicants come admissions time. Such answers might read as follows: “shampoo salesman,” “camel caretaker,” “sandwich maker,” “vintage video game collector,” “aspiring dentist,” etc.
Distinguishing Yourself from the Pack
In these phrases, you are seeing the answer to the question of how much topic matters in a college essay. Topic matters to the extent that it allows the writer to access a part of themselves that they’re proud of in a reflective manner while distinguishing them from the pack with a short byline. That’s not to say that topics regularly labeled as “cliché” are never workable. However, they must be given special consideration in order to figure out what the answer to the “Who is Adrienne” question will be. If the answer will only be something as generic as “the person who scored the goal in the big game,” then the essay is probably not focused or reflective enough. However, if the phrase is something more akin to “an athlete activist for gender equity,” then we’re getting somewhere. Thinking of how to answer this first prompt will help essay writers strike to the core of what kind of story they’d like to tell.
Why Would I Be a Good Fit?
On the other hand, the answer to the “Why would Adrienne be a good fit” question should form the bulk of the essay. This comes as a surprise to some writers. They ask questions like, “shouldn’t I focus on telling a story?” The answer here is a resounding “yes!” However, the story should be about how you’ve grown into the person you are presently, not the anecdote that you’re using to access that growth. For this reason, the “Why would Adrienne be a good fit” question is too often overlooked in favor of a flashy, episodic retelling of some event that is utterly bereft of information about the applicant themselves.
Keep it Specific
The best answers to this most important part of the essay formula should read as simple statements about the applicant’s character and/or growth. For instance, an admissions officer might walk away from Adrienne’s essay believing that Adrienne is “a confidant advocate,” “an empathetic friend,” or a “steward of the land/environment with an eye toward justice for those less fortunate than she.” The key to these messages is that they are specific and indicate growth.
There Isn’t a Perfect College Essay Topic
Finding and expounding upon this part of an essay’s “package” should be the main focus of every writer. To demonstrate just how much of a myth finding the “perfect topic” is, I’ll let you in on a little secret; one of the best essays that I’ve ever read revolved around a young woman’s Subway sandwich order. A college essay is made by a writer’s capacity to reflect and celebrate themselves, not its anecdote.
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