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Does the College Essay Topic Matter?

“There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.” – J.K. Rowling.

soccergirl“Don’t write a sports essay. Admissions people see so many of those, and they get bored.”

The above advice is often given to confused high school students, who are desperately trying to figure out a killer topic for their central college application essay. Why not write a sports essay?

Athletics is one of the chief arenas in which adoelscents can learn key lessons about leadership, perseverance, mental toughness, discipline, strategy, teamwork, courage, commitment, hard work, and professionalism. (Why else engage in athletics at all?) How can such a huge theater of experience be off-limits for college essays?

asiangirlwritingWhat is this about being afraid to “bore” admissions readers? Since when should it be an applicant’s goal to “entertain” an audience? It was always my impression that admissions professionals were interested in young people’s development, what makes them tick. How, then,  can any enormous category of adolescent experience be verboten because it might “bore” the readers? Are not admissions officers mostly young people themselves, who are enthusiastic, people-oriented and intrigued by formative experiences of teen applicants? If admissions officers so easily burn out on a specific essay topic so seminal to adolescent development, perhaps they are in the wrong line of work.

glassesgirlthinksI will certainly concede that a unique topic or colorful context may be more memorable than situations that are often chosen by applicants, breaking out from the others in the mind of an admissions reader.  However, I am convinced that it is not the essay topic that matters in the end. What matters is how the applicant is using the content area to demonstrate character.

In other words: What does the essay say about YOU?  What did you learn from the situation described in the essay? How could that learning translate into a valuable contribution to campus life? All elements of an application are communication tools,  to paint a comprehensive portrait of the applicant’s strengths, passions and potential contribution to a college. At Position U 4 College, we help clients to use all those elements to express a student’s unique positioning.

In my view, an essay should complete the picture of the applicant. It is a final puzzle piece that has not been communicated by other measures in the application (such as activity list, awards, grades, test scores, resume). I feel an essay is a waste of an opportunity if it simply repeats something that is elsewhere reported in the application. It should not be a romp through one’s resume. It should not repeat academic, athletic or artistic accomplishments. It should tell the admissions reader something that has not yet been revealed.

FOOTBALL2A proud mother once shared a memorable essay anecdote with me. Her son, an academic star, football standout and talented musician, wrote an essay about a less salient side of his personality: vulnerability. Members of the football team were asked to receive training in dance, to help them develop grace and flexibility on the field.This young man found dance training to be a humbling experience, from which he learned “beginner’s mind”, challenging himself in a new area where he had no expertise or natural ability. After this student was admitted to one of the most elite Ivy League schools in the country, the admissions officer who read his essay commented on how persuasive that self-revelation had been in his candidacy.

Technically, it was a sports essay (with a twist). But it was not a self-congratulatory, stereotypic narrative about a touchdown in the last five seconds of a game. It was about what he learned, how an experience brought about in a sports training context changed him. The context is not the point. It’s the learning.

laptopguywithdogA student’s storytelling ability is essential as well. An everyday event can be fascinating in the hands of a creative storyteller. I am not talking about flowery language meant to impress the reader, which can often sound phony, hackneyed or thesaurus-based. I mean good conversational storytelling that weaves an engaging tale with a powerful message. Period.