How to Write a Common App Essay You Don't Hate

Students often ask if it’s okay to write about this or that topic in their college essays.

The answer to this question is always yes. There are no bad topics - there’s only bad writing.

Consider: an essay is a journey. The hero - you - starts somewhere, faces a challenge, and responds (and hopefully grows) in some way.

Now here's the key - most of us don't choose our challenges. We don't choose the family we're born into, or the amount of money we have, or the illnesses we contract, or the emotions we feel. Life chooses these things for us (at least initially), and we shape our lives through our responses.

University admissions committees aren't going to blame you for what you were born into - nor are they going to give you much credit for it.

A Dramatic Life Isn’t the Same Thing as a Compelling Essay

If you’re from a really poor place, or you’ve had a really difficult upbringing, that’s probably not going to buy you admission all by itself. And perhaps it shouldn’t - after all, lots of students have had challenging experiences. The question is: What did these experiences mean to you? How do you understand your experiences? What thoughts did they provoke? What efforts did they inspire?

A Quiet Life Isn’t an Obstacle to Admission

Some students are in the opposite situation: they’ve had a relatively safe, secure upbringing. They’re supported by loving parents. They haven’t suffered much, physically or otherwise.

These students often think: I have nothing to write about.

This isn’t true.

If you’re a human being, you’ve known an enormous range of feeling - from astonishingly pleasurable highs to shockingly painful lows. Your mind is the world’s biggest workshop and the world’s most capacious warehouse: it’s where everything you’ve ever felt gets produced, stored, and remembered. There’s a hell of a lot in there; you just have to go looking.

And you probably don’t even have to go particularly far - so long as you know what you’re looking for.

What You’re Not Looking For

Savvy students often read books like this and think, Well, this person got into a fancy school, so I better write like she did.

Yes and no. Many of the essays collected in books like these are good - but not because of their fancy vocab, or because they start right in the middle of a story, or because they’re about the author’s obsession with Spanish ham.

They’re good because they capture something unique about the author’s life, and they express that experience creatively and powerfully. The sequence, the vocab, and all of the other ‘writerly’ stuff isn’t just a coat of paint - it’s structural. It’s there because it has to be - because the author needed those specific elements to tell their particular story.

You Can Write About Anything, But Don’t Overdramatize

When I see a melodramatic opening paragraph, I know right away that the author doesn’t trust his material - he doesn't think it's good enough, or rich enough, or deep enough, or that he's reflected enough about it. So he's compensating by adding in a bunch of unearned intensity.

It doesn’t work, and most of my students hate trying. And they should! Faking it in a personal essay feels bad for the same reason that faking it in lots of other situations feels bad: because it’s fundamentally disrespectful to yourself. It means treating your own life as insufficient.

Aren’t We Just Circling Back Around Again? I Don’t Have Anything to Say…

If you think that, then you haven’t reflected much about your life, and you’re living in a world of platitudes.

You are a human being - a bag of flesh that somehow contains a mind that somehow registers pain, pleasure, and a billion other thoughts, feelings, and sensations. You’re conscious! (What?) You were born, and you’ll die one day! (What?!) Two people (maybe) decided to create you! (Double-what?!) You live on this big/little planet spinning through semi-nothingness around a fiery ball of gas, and you only have a couple-dozen go-rounds to understand any of it. (Dude, why are you being depressing?)

I’m not! This is fascinating. The whole freaking setup is fascinating: your relationships with other people, with the thirty-seven cultures interacting around you, with history, with the future, with nature, with desire and hope and fear and loss and ego and yourself. (What the hell is a self?!)

If you aren’t able to find something worth exploring there, then even your disinterest is interesting. (What’s going on there? Am I bored? Could I even be a little depressed? Maybe I’m preoccupied with some other challenges in my life. What are those, anyway…)

So You’re Saying…

If you’re alive, there’s almost certainly something that interests you - even if it’s your own confusion or pain. (Perhaps especially…) Find that thing - the thing that, when you start thinking about it, you feel an urge to keep going. There’s something there, and the only way to find it is by looking. You may well get a college essay out of it, but you’ll also get a lot more.

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