College Essay: Framing Your Topic
Rule 1: Only write about a “background, identity, interest, or talent” if you must
Do it if you absolutely have to confront some facet of your application — like:
1. A medical or family history that has affected your education
- If possible, make this your additional essay in the common app
2. An activity for which you’re being recruited
- Though it’s the data and letters to faculty/coaches that count.
Rule 2: Otherwise, ignore the Common App prompts, and come back to them later
Note that all the prompts more or less refer to an identical story: one in which you show maturity by using problem-solving ingenuity to tackle a problem or failure.
Rule 3: You’ll probably want to talk about your personality rather than abilities
What’s the difference?
- Your abilities show how your hard work met typical high standards
- Your personality shows how you question/create your own standards
The rest of the application shows your abilities: activities and grades will speak to your self-discipline in overcoming obstacles by trying and trying again until perfection is obtained; these will show that you’re a self-disciplined dynamo determined to help the world at all cost to your once-healthy sleep cycle. Repeating such achievements in the essay is just bragging.
The essay, interview, and recs are the pieces that point towards your personality, towards what is particular about you compared to other, comparable applicants. In particular, your essay will show your ingenuity and brilliance not only in overcoming obstacles but redefining what success means to you. Officers know that life inevitably delivers heavy blows that can serve as great litmus tests of one’s values and priorities.
Rule 4: Start with the story and use a big theme to frame it — not vice-versa
Themes all sound the same to veteran officers — stories sound unique.
Any story that matters to you personally will probably speak to larger issues of your background, personality, etc.
You want about 85% showing and 15% telling: your story can have a larger meaning that you identify as a through line, but it is the story itself that will make the reader believe it.
Rule 5: The only “right” personality to show colleges is your own
One student’s quiet reserve and careful deliberation is just as valuable as another’s assured boisterousness. Colleges want both on campus.
Check that the personality you display in the essay is consistent with recommendations.
And just think: if you’re yourself, and they don’t like you — You probably wouldn’t like them.