Some people may tell you that you need to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity to stand out in your college application essay. Others might suggest you need to find a topic that is original, something no one else has ever tackled.
Nonsense. If you and three of your friends hiked the Grand Canyon, your story would be different because it happened to you.
There are no perfect or bad essay topics. And, despite what you may have heard, you do not need to avoid certain topics, like a sports injury, working at the family’s country club, stumping on the political campaign trail or coming out as gay in 10th grade. You need to write your college application essay about something that happened to you and show why it matters. What did you learn from your experience?
Flipping burgers at McDonald’s is just as good a topic as teaching children to read at Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Calcutta. The subject is secondary and does not need to be monumental. It is fine if you want to write about working on the campaign, coming out as gay, your job at the exclusive country club or even your sports injury. Just make sure you reflect on the experience with a story that is genuine and illustrates something meaningful to you. How did this experience change you? How did it prepare you for college?
Some of our best essays this season have focused on subjects you might think are mundane, like losing a backpack in France, taking a dog for a walk, learning how to mow the lawn, pulling weeds in a community garden. These stories are fabulous and will help admissions committees get to know something unique about each student.
The boy who lost his backpack was determined to get it back, despite the odds. He went on a mission to find it, contacting the U.S. Consultate and the Paris Police. He found the backpack, long after he returned to the U.S., with all of his valuables still intact. His story demonstrates his tenacity and shows he has the skills to succeed at college.
The girl who took her dog for a walk had convinced her family to rescue an older dog rather than purchase a puppy from a breeder. Her story focuses on one small moment, the time she came home from lunch to walk the dog during the school day. Her message to admissions committee members is clear; she is practical, responsible and ready for college.
Each of these students decided ahead of time what they wanted people to know about them; that is why their stories are so good.
To find a topic that works for you, ask yourself, what do you want the admissions committee to know about you? Are you kind? A hard worker? Studious? Industrious? Funny? A bookworm? Next, find a story to illustrate your message. Keep it focused and stay on point.
Kim Lifton is president of Wow Writing Workshop, which recently launched Wow Online – College Essay, the first self-guided online tutorial for college application essay writing.