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Forget Topics! 7 Tips to Jumpstart Authentic College Admission Essays

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Sep 30, 2015 12:29:00 PM


There are many places students’ college admission essays get derailed. The first is the search for “the right topic.”

A college admission essay is a completely different beast from the 5-paragraph essay students write in school. There is no amount of trying to write an essay that shows how great you are (a.k.a. makes you “stand out”) that will connect with admissions officers, who are responsible for creating communities of people who can live and work together.

Your essays are where colleges look for your character. What matters most in college essays is who you are and what you do with other people.

So forget topics. Stop searching for them. Start instead with your lived experiences. Very quickly you’ll notice how every moment of your life reveals a story about who you are, what you do (or don’t do), and what difference you make--in simple, everyday ways--in the lives of other people.

Here are 7 ways to jumpstart authentic admission essays that animate your application and show schools what their community will miss if they don’t admit you:

  1. In everyday situations amp up your attention to detail: Follow your senses, one by one, by dialing down the others. For instance, pretend you can’t hear and what else do you notice? Take one sharp detail--like your worn out sneakers or your favorite soup--and explore how it came to be. Not what it means or why it’s important, but what happens around and through that one detail?

  1. Pick a picture from Instagram: Describe that moment. Who was there? What did they say? This is where you are already telling stories, so start there!

  1. Walk outside: Many students describe to me how they become paralyzed when they “sit down to write.” Instead, walk outside, let go of your usual thoughts, and see what ideas flow from physical movement.

  1. Ask someone what they most value about you: Most young people are so busy chasing down grades, test scores and resume-filler, that they are pretty much oblivious to all the other important things they do. Ask people from different parts of your life--family, friends, teachers, a boss--what they value in you, and see what patterns emerge. Which moments do they remember that are truly you?

  1. Reflect on your life in 10 moments, 5 moments, or 3: What are the big moments when your life changed? One my mom always talks about: when she was 10 her older brother died, and when she was 11 her baby brother was born. What are your Defining Moments? How did you change and grow through each of them?

  1. What is the most important thing that most people don’t know about you? This is also a great thing to ask someone you want to know better. What’s just beneath the surface you usually show people? If you peel away those predictable layers, what else do you want people to know?

  1. What’s in your drawer or closet? Literally, and what does it say about you? I collected writing paper and envelopes from every hotel I visited with my parents. I left behind those lavishly textured papers, under a metal box of crayons in my desk, and rediscovered them right before my mom sold the house and moved. What are your cherished objects? How do you keep them?

Once you have some memories bubbling up from any one of these essay-starters, head to the Story2 EssayBuilder and workshop your first essay free. You’ll start by telling your story out loud to activate your creativity and stimulate your memory. When you do this, without even trying you’ll find specific details that bring great essays to life.

Next, you’ll transcribe your story (or you can have Story2 transcribe it for you); that’s your first draft. And then you’ll go through 3 simple steps to complete your essay in your own voice: you’ll Map It; build a memorable Magnet, Pivot and Glow (more on that in EssayBuilder), and edit each sentence by Focusing Out.

In working through EssayBuilder, you’ll move from general ideas that many people can say to a story that reflects your unique character and point of view. And revealing your character is your best bet for winning admissions and scholarships at the most selective colleges.

Topics:college admission