College Essay Topics: It’s the HOW not the WHAT

“I’m not allowed to write about that.”

I just finished conducting a flurry of Common Application essay brainstorms and I was surprised by how many students have been told that certain topics – moving, traveling, adversity — were considered taboo personal statement subjects. Quite a few said, “I was told not to go near that material.”

My advice? I urge students to focus on how they approach their topics rather than on what their subject matter is.

How #1

An essay on the difficulty of transitioning from one home to another can leave admissions readers with various “takes” on a student depending on how the narrative is framed. Creating scenes whereby the student shows growth and maturity, how they forged new friendships and tried new activities, can detail a challenge met with success and excitement.

How #2

One student wrote about the death of a parent, a subject matter that many admissions officers advise avoiding. Despite my advice to find other material, this student was determined to not only detail the close bond she had with her parent, but also how losing them made her realize how deeply she feels emotions in general and how much she learned from that parent in their short-lived relationship. The student received a handwritten note from the college admissions director of the university she ultimately matriculated to.

How #3

Often students come up with ideas that aren’t initially essays; they’re simply good ideas. Together, we brainstorm ways to either transform those kernels into delicious popcorn – or toss them out and start again! How we do this is called: Process. The student writes a few lines and shares those pearls with me, so I can ask questions or make comments that spur the student to craft a few more gems. Ultimately, with some blood, sweat and tears, this back-and-forth yields paragraphs that become a can’t-put-down narrative, one that the student is proud of.

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