26 Weeks to College: Week 6

Here's how to pick the right college application essay topics for YOU
August 10, 2020

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.

WEEK 6 TO-DOS

THIS WEEK

  • Choose your topic for each question on your Writing Map. It’s not going to be as big a chore as you think — even if you have 25 writing questions to tackle (a fairly common number), you’ll likely end up with a core set of 4-8 short answers and essays because you’ll be able to reuse or revise these core pieces for every application. So you’re really going to be choosing 4-8 topics.
  • Continue working on supplementary materials, such as portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like if you will be submitting them. See our advice about these materials in Week 4 and these blog posts on arts supplements and academic work samples.
  • Check the websites of colleges on your list to see what they are planning in terms of fall events for prospective students. Given the pandemic, it is unlikely that they will be doing their usual rounds to high schools, but they may be organizing specific virtual events for students from your school or your area. See our tips and tricks in Week 5 for why we recommend you make it a priority to attend these events.
  • Continue researching scholarships. Refer back to Week 5 for tips on scholarship search services.


THIS WEEK AND EVERY WEEK

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.


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:

  • Choose the topic that speaks to your most essential qualities or your most formative experiences. This is particularly true when it comes to the personal essay on the Common Application, or any other essay that is the “one and only” essay on the application.

  • Choose the topic that seems easiest to write about and easiest to make your own. Is there a topic that relates directly to some part of your story? Then it should be easy to write about, and the content will stay naturally focused on you. Don’t make the mistake of eliminating a topic just because it seems easy (and you therefore think it can’t be “right”). Exactly the opposite is true. If you’ve written your story properly, the topic should seem easy.

  • Choose the topic that reveals something about your story that you haven’t been able to tell elsewhere in the application. Remember, it’s important to think about your application as a whole, because admissions officers will be reading it and evaluating it as a whole. They will not be reading any of your essays in a vacuum. Pay attention to how the various writing questions come together on a particular application. You should use each writing question to reveal something different about yourself. Do not duplicate within an application! What part of your story has not been fully told?


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.

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