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5 College Essay FAQs


You’ve probably heard that it’s a bad idea to write your college application essay about world peace, a sports game (or sports in general), a trip, the death of your pet rabbit, and so on. The truth is that no topic is 100% off limits. Students have gotten into Harvard and Yale by writing about sports. I’ve seen excellent essays that fit into all the above categories. (OK, I’ve never seen a good essay about a dead rabbit, but I believe it could be done.)


What matters more than the topic you choose is how you tell your story. Here are a few common questions with useful tips on how to get started.


What should I write my college essay about?


The number one thing to keep in mind as you brainstorm topics for your essay is that you’ve only got 650 words max. Make sure you’re not trying to tell your life story or giving long lists of all your achievements. Do not try to emulate the coming of age novels you read in English class. Your college essay may be closer in form to the kind of story your charismatic friend tells at a party, or confides to you at a diner at 1AM. I use these examples because these kinds of stories are generally both personal and interesting. When they are told well, they allow us to get close to the storyteller, to catch a glimpse of who he or she really is and how he or she sees the world. Think small. Tell a story only you could tell.


Should I brag on my college essay?


Don’t forget that your college essay is only one part of your application. In other words, your essay is not “the whole story.” If you claim to be a natural leader, but have no leadership experience to back up that claim, you’re in trouble. Any achievements you mention must be verifiable (and relevant to your story): if you founded a profitable business, you should have news coverage to backup your claim. If you developed a great app, admissions folks are going to want to see what kind of recognition you received. Don’t hide your achievements, but know that they should speak for themselves. Refer to them in a matter of fact way if they relate to the story you’re telling.


Can I get someone else to write my college essay?


No, which should be pretty obvious. But if you think you might be able to get away with this, remember that, again, the essay is just one part of your application. If you aren’t a strong writer, your admissions committee will know that from your teacher recommendations. Having your parents write your essay (or paying someone else to do it) won’t fool anyone. Your writing style is far less important than your message. You can even get away with a few awkward sentences. Tell your own story in your own voice.





Should I write my college essay about a meaningful experience?


Sure, but don’t force meaning. Don’t feel the need to end your college essay with high platitude like: “And I knew that, if I kept an open mind, I could accomplish anything I put my mind to.” One of the reasons that students are often counseled to avoid writing their essays about sports games, for example, is that these stories tend to end with banal morals about hard work and perseverance. Regardless of what you choose to write about, let the story speak for itself. If you’ve told a meaningful tale, you don’t need to tell your reader what the message is.


Should I write my college essay about hardships?


The only way to answer this question is with another question: have you faced real hardship in your short life? If you have, then of course you can discuss your experiences. However, be mindful of what constitutes hardship. Injuring your ankle and having to miss the championship game is a bummer. It is not, however, evidence that you have experience dealing with real adversity or misfortune. Being teased in second grade because you were left-handed means that sometimes people are jerks. It probably does not mean that you know what it is like to face real discrimination. More than anything, perhaps, the college essay is meant to test your maturity and capacity for self-reflexion. Facing true adversity is not a prerequisite for getting into the Ivy League. Self-awareness is. Be yourself.




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