Now that you have your strategy, have done all your pre-work, and prepared your Writing Map, it’s time to choose topics for your writing. (And if you haven’t done all that, refer back to Weeks 1-5 of this series and start there.) The best way to ensure that you produce compelling essays is to choose the right topics for those essays and that’s what you’re going to do this week using our tips and tricks.
1. Remind yourself that the real topic of all of the writing questions is YOU. No matter what the stated topic is, it is nothing more than a frame, a launching pad, or a prompt to get you to write about the real topic, which is YOU. This is true no matter how random, obscure, or hard the essay question may seem. It is even true for the University of Chicago legendary “stump the student” style questions. For example, consider this prompt from the 2020-21 University of Chicago application:
What can actually be divided by zero?
—Inspired by Mai Vu, Class of 2024
On its face, this essay prompt seems like a riddle to be solved, not an invitation to reveal something about yourself. But what the admissions officer is really looking for is not the “right” answer to the riddle, but instead insight into how YOU think and what you value. Maybe you’re a true mathematician type and you tackle the riddle from a theoretical math perspective. Or maybe you’re a poet type and you approach this as a metaphor for one of life’s great questions. Regardless, your answer should reveal something about YOU.
2. Use your story to generate possible topics if you have a “topic of your choice” option (like you do on both the Common App and Coalition App).This is where all that pre-work you did really pays off! Your goal is to brainstorm at least five choices for consideration. It’s even better if you come up with ten.
Your story is the place to start. Going sentence by sentence through your story, challenge yourself to come up with at least one topic per sentence – hardly a push.
What makes for the best topics? Anecdotes about experiences that reveal something important about you. Let’s say that you’ve included the word “poised” as one of the three adjectives to describe yourself in sentence 4 of your story. Your best topic would be an anecdote that shows how you developed and/or exhibited poise — like that time you kept your cool at a protest march when you were being heckled and mocked by some counter protesters.
3. Use your story as your guide to make your selection of the best topic for each writing question. Remember that your story is your roadmap to what you want admissions officers to know about you. Compare your story with the choices you have for topics and identify your best choice using these guidelines:
In other words, which topic really allows you to tell your story best? That’s the right topic.
Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.