Hold the Cheese: 5 Topic Mistakes to Skip on the College Application Essay

When folks discover that I coach students who are applying to college on their personal essays, they sometimes offer me a grave smile or a pat on the back combined with a “Good luck! or a look that says “I’m glad it’s not me.” It seems their idea of helping adolescents with one of the most important written works of their life is a job associated with uncertainty and danger. But the truth is I love working with students who are facing down the daring crossroads of leaving home and choosing a new one, who are struggling with ways to find words to speak meaningfully about themselves even while feeling unprepared to do so. I’ve worked with so many students who struggle to get started and often restart their essays in this process, and I wrote this article to save you some pain and heartache along the way. The following are 5 mistakes you can avoid when choosing your college application topic:

Mistake #1: Hiding Behind the Assignment.

The college application essay may be required, but college isn’t. Equally important is that most students have never written an assigned essay like the prompts from the common application either. If you want to choose a great topic, take a moment and forget all about requirements, assignments, and expectations. Forget about what pleases teachers, parents, or friends. Instead, consider a story or memory from your life that dares you to be yourself. Then, not as the high school English student but as a storyteller, approach your topic. Moving from student to storyteller isn’t an easy switch, but that’s the important mindset I introduce to applicants as they select topics and plan their essays.

Mistake #2: Blending Into the Crowd.

A topic that dares you to be yourself is the definition of authenticity. It means telling a story that only you can tell. Some will tell you that authenticity or uniqueness requires forgoing topics about sports, study abroad, or mission trips. But that’s not so. For example, consider an essay about the role of baseball in your life: imagine beginning with an image of the red stitches of a baseball in order to explore a metaphor like a ‘seam’ or ‘stitch.’ This kind of a approach delights readers with a captivating read about a topic that seems obvious. Or consider an essay that uses timestamps and calendar reminders as an organizational tool for investigating themes of busyness and timelessness learned on a mission trip from a rural village in Guatemala. These are just two examples of how BoxCar students have found a way to take a familiar topic and write about it an extraordinary way.

Mistake #3: Leading with Your Accomplishments.

The pressure to impress admissions sometimes means grasping for our proudest moment. Yet, the personal non-fiction mantra of ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ informs us here because we don’t want to tell colleges we are impressive people by listing our achievements, but we want to show them our worth with story and balanced analysis of how we move in the world. There are still ways to include the art of bragging-while-not-bragging, but you must be strategic. While there’s a time and a place for it in the essay, it’s certainly not the hook you are looking for. After all, how compelling will the essay be when we already learned in the opener that you are the student body president at your high school? Instead, try the approach of one BoxCar student who opened his essay with the anecdote of entering the student body elections on a dare, making a funny video, and surprisingly winning the election, discovering himself an able leader when before he’d worried he might not be good at anything at all.

Mistake #4: Telling the Whole Story.

A great topic sometimes means tackling a BIG topic from your life. Some students are confused between telling a personal story and feeling like they are offering a confession. The trick to writing it well, however, is telling only part of the story. But which parts? Again, we are back to the techniques of storytelling, knowing we must include a balance of not only story, but detail and analysis as well. So rather than say everything, trust the construct of storytelling and the disciplines of revision and editing to create your best work. There are fabulous writing tricks on sentence structure, lists, words choice, and punctuation that convey meaning that superfluous words and sentences cannot. So before you discount a topic because of its size or dive into a topic that casts you into the deep end, approach your topic with the mindset of the storyteller not the suspect, and this shift will help you manage the sea of information that naturally occurs with all stories.

Mistake #5: Overlooking the Best Candidates.

Subtle. Eccentric. Simple. These contrasting words describe some of the best topics for the college application essay. Consider an essay from a Boxcar writer’s first independent trip to the grocery store as a teenager, when he used items on his grocery list to parallel life lessons he learned at the store. Or the BoxCar student who scrapped her topic about her very impressive experience where she spoke before the friends of the UN on the importance of education for impoverished girls. Instead, she reached back for the unique story of spending her free time in junior high making music videos for you.tube that combined pop music with historical facts. And intriguingly, she found her way back to talk about her passion for education around the world. Also: who needs to say they are innovative and hard working when they can explain the process of making videos with titles like “Incalicious?”

Impression vs Impress

The moral of this list: forget the word ‘impress’ and remember the word ‘impression.’ Give your reader a way to remember you, to distinguish you from your fellow applicants. Not because you are smarter, more accomplished, or more interesting but because you are brave enough to be original.

Want to learn more about College Application Essay topics? Contact Victoria.

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