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How To Give College Admissions Officials Essays They Want

How To Give College Admissions Officials Essays They Want

I’ve read several news articles in recent weeks featuring college admissions officials sharing what they liked about college application essays they read over the last year.

This feedback may be invaluable for students just starting to think about their essays and brainstorming topic ideas.

The admissions staffers at some of the best schools in the nation talked about the types of topics they enjoyed, and why they found them effective in learning more about the student applicants, and connecting with them (and admitting them!).

What the articles didn’t include, nonetheless, were ideas on exactly how you can find your own unique topics, and craft them into engaging and meaningful essays.

But don’t despair!

I have loads of tips and useful advice on how to not only find these awesome types of topics, but where to find your real-life stories and use those to power your essays exactly like these bright students.

I’ve extracted some of the feedback from 3 of the top colleges featured in a U.S. News article at the Top Colleges Share Notes on Great Application Essays and will share my recommendations on why they worked along with links where you can learn to write your own.

1. Williams College

The admissions counselor from Williams shared an essay she read about a student’s love of language, according to the US News piece.

The student explained in the essay how he developed this passion from sharing stories along with his grandmother, who had dementia. And how he went on to join a neuroscience lab to help understand her condition.

My Related Tip: Notice how the way the student didn’t just come up with how much he loved languages. Instead, he used his real-life experiences of sharing stories along with his grandmother to SHOW the reader what inspired his passion.

HOW YOU CAN DO THIS: Learn to Find Your Stories

2. Johns Hopkins

The dean of undergrad admissions at Johns Hopkins noted one memorable essay a student wrote about his role reading the morning announcements at his high school, according to the US News article.

The dean pointed out that the essay gave him idea of the student’s personality beyond just his accomplishments, and got a sense of how the applicant would subscribe to the college’s community.

My Related Tip: Notice that the writer’s topic was not something impressive, but something everyday and simple? I call those ‘mundane’ topics and they often make the best essays, hands down.

HOW YOU CAN DO THIS: A Lesson in Mundane Topics

3. Middlebury University

In the US News article, the Middlebury University admissions counselor enjoyed an essay a student composed about his Pez dispenser collection.

The counselor noted that the humorous writing not only caught his attention, but allowed him to see the student’s quirks and personality traits.a good thesis statement for police brutality

My Related Tip: Writing about something as everyday as candy also falls into that magic topic camp of the mundane. Also, the student apparently featured real-life moments (‘a hilarious take on people’s odd reactions’) in his essay, which were entertaining and brought the piece to life.

Turning real-life moments and incidents into ‘anecdotes’ is one of the most powerful writing devices it is possible to use to power your essay. Take the time to learn how to achieve this with your stories!

THE METHOD THAT YOU CAN TRY THIS: Learn how to turn your own real-life moments into engaging ‘hooks’ for your essays.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire U.S. News article to see the other examples from schools, such as Swarthmore, CalTech and Dartmouth.

See for yourself how the topics that made the biggest impression on the admissions staffers were those that used everyday topics, including Legos (even though that is way overused!), working behind the scenes in drama and being a sensitive ‘Bro.’ (Learning topics other students wrote about is a great way to inspire your own ideas!)

Still not convinced that everyday topics can get you into your dream school? Read how one Girl Got Into Yale After Writing About Papa John’s Pizza.

In all of these essays and topics, the students were about to reveal both their personality and character. This is the magic combination of a winning essay. Learn more about this in Start Your Personal Statement the correct way.

I’ve been reading college application essays for the last decade.

I’m probably into the thousands by now.

Looking back, I have identified the most common flaw in many of them.

They are too general.

Which make them borrrrrrringggggg.

Many students become with generic essays because they make an effort to say a lot of about themselves in their allotted 500 to 650 or nonetheless many required words.

This happens many when their essay topic is too broad.

I believe we all make these mistakes in writing because we fear that we will error on leaving out something important.

So we try to work in as information that is much we can.

More is better, right?

These colleges and universities want to learn as much about us as possible, yes?


What happens once we cover a lot of ground about ourselves in our college application essays is that we become not saying much of anything meaningful.

Our most interesting points about ourselves get diluted because we try to cover too many.


Here’s my tip for avoiding generic, dull essays: Get specific.

The best way I have found to narrow an essay topic into one that is more focused and meaningful is to brainstorm ONE PART of yourself to showcase in your essay, instead of cramming in everything great you can think of about yourself.

I have a nifty post on exactly how to do that by learning how to Find Your Defining Qualities.

If you are just starting your college application essay writing adventure, this is the time to read and discover your defining qualities and characteristics.

It is possible to also rein in your topic by framing it around one of your core values, which it is possible to find in this post: Find Your Core Values to Rock Your Essay.

If you sharpen your essay topics right at the start, you have already greatly improved the chances of your essay being more interesting and relevant and more effective in its role to help differentiate you from other applicants.

So as opposed to writing about how you certainly are a natural leader in your community and go into all the activities and lessons you have learned, find a way to write about a smaller piece of your leadership experiences.

Make an effort to find a quality or core value that you have developed as a leader while making your case for how you learned about it.

Are you a leader because you want to be at the head of the pack and a role model?

Are you a leader because you want to bring people together and build consensus?

Are you a leader even though you are more of an introvert?

When you can narrow the main point you want to produce about yourself in your essay, you will end up going deeper and revealing more about yourself when you explain the method that you got this way.

Trust that it’s better to say more about one part of yourself than trying to explain whatever you can think of.

Here’s a great post to get you started: How to Write Your Essay in 3 Easy Steps

You got this!

If you happen to live near Laguna Beach, California, I’m holding essay writing boot camps this summer. Learn more.

If you are just starting brainstorming ideas for your college application essays, one of the first pieces of advice you might stumble upon is to avoid ‘cliche’ topics.

I always warn my students about these often over-used topics, which range from:

Death of loved ones

Sports (especially injuries and victories/losses)


Mission trips (volunteering)

Tutoring (especially special needs kids)

Travel (family trips)

RELATED: College Application Essay Topics to Avoid

The main reason to avoid them is that droves of other students have already written about these topics, so they aren’t as effective at helping you differentiate yourself from other applicants.


I have seen numerous college application essays and some of the best ones, in fact on these exact red-flagged topics.

While it’s helpful to recognize potentially cliche topics, it is possible to still write a brilliant essay about them.

As I like to say about ALL college essay topics, it’s what you have to say about them that matters the most.

The challenge with cliche topics is that often students tend to say the same thing about them, which only makes them worse.

For example, if you come up with the loss of a loved one, and you mainly share how terrible it made you feel and how it made you now appreciate all your living loved ones, and you include only general observations like that, your essay could fail to rise above its cliche status.

The trick is to find solution to shift your cliche topic beyond the predictable.

Here Are Three Tips to Fix a Cliche Topic

1. Find a unique angle about the cliche topic

If you are kicking around writing about one of these red-flagged topics, look for a unique ANGLE.

An ‘angle’ in writing means the point you want to produce about your topic in your essay.

When you can find an unusual point to produce about a cliche topic, or the method that you relate somehow to this topic, your essay could go from trite and dull to fresh and surprising.

For example, one student composed about the sport of crew.

Despite the overdone sports theme, his essay was excellent because he found a unique point to make about crew, which reflected on how it shaped his character.

His essay made the point that crew taught him where to find his ‘crazy’ side from the intense physical and especially mental challenges.

If he had simply written about a race he won, or lost, his essay would have been more cliche.

Or if he composed about learning that hard work paid off, or something generic like that, it would have been cliche.

Instead, he featured this unusual point or ‘angle’ about almost going crazy and went on to explain how he applied that intense energy to other endeavors in his life.

And that made all the difference.

Related: Read the Actual Sample Essay About Crew and Being Crazy

2. Give it a twist

A twist is similar to an angle, but it’s more about what happened in your essay than your unique point you want to produce.

To find a twist, look for a way to find something unexpected that involved you and your topic.

Maybe you learned something from dealing with it that surprised you.

One former student composed about taking a family trip in a large camper with lots of siblings for half her summer that she dreaded. But then she discovered some unexpected pleasures and lessons along the way mainly about herself.

Another student wrote about not getting her typical starring role in the school musical, and how she learned the value of being a supportive actress and person.

RELATED: Find the Twist in Your College App Essay

3. Make the cliche topic itself more specific

When you can make the cliche topic itself more specific a topic within a topic often you will make it more original and different.

For instance, if you would like write about sports, and pick football or basketball or running, those are especially challenging to find new things to come up with them because they are so popular.

(And admissions officers have probably read many essays about those popular sports for similar reason.)

It’s not impossible to write about the more popular sports, especially if you apply Tips # 1 or #2 to the topic. But know it won’t be easy.

If you participate in a sport that is unique in itself, nonetheless, such as pole-vaulting, bobsledding, yo-yo-ing, karate, fencing, or other less popular sports, it could be easier to write an essay that doesn’t express similar old stories about winning the state championship or injuring an ACL.

Or maybe you have a physical feature that needs to have kept you from excelling at that sport (your twist), such as being under 5′ and being a basketball star, or a girl playing football (sadly this is still pretty uncommon), or water polo and having to swim. (You get my drift.)

Again, it’s what you have to say about it.

If you would like write about your mission trip to Africa, make sure to find something specific and unique that happened to you while on that trip, and focus on that and what you learned (as opposed to writing about just the trip itself).

Often, when you can think of something that happened to you related to your cliche topic that is different, unique or unusual, that could set it apart from other essays on the same topic.

Do the Extra Work if You Pick a Cliche Topic

The main reason these cliche topics often make lousy essays is that students say the same general, predictable things about them.

If it is possible to find something different or unique to share about them either about what happened to you or what you learned they are no longer cliche.

You mainly need to dig deeper with your ideas and stories, and get more creative and insightful about your own personal experience.

So don’t cross these off your topic brainstorm list yet.

Just know they will require extra work to make your essays awesome.

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