We know that you have a diverse set of experiences that have occured in your life. Choosing just one that best represents you to write about for the common app essay is hard.
More often than not, many students are indecisive and end up writing about everything they have done, from volunteer experience to athletics achievements. This jumble of paragraphs turns out to be an extended version of your resume, an error that can be costly for your application. From an admissions officers viewpoint, why should he or she spend the extra time reading this type of essay when the same story can be told in a short resume that can be reviewed in 30 seconds? Moreover, even if you have been awarded a gold medal at the International Math Olympiad (IMO) or first prize at the Intel Competition does not mean bragging about it with no deeper message does not help admissions in what they are really looking for in the essay: your personality.
Like we discussed in our post here, your essay should be a story. Many college essays that admissions officers end up enjoying discuss topics that you would not expect, and these often are the most successful. These topics range widely, from experiences to things to philosophical thoughts. The binding theme among all these topics is that they utilize the motifs in order to deliver a powerful message representing you. For a process in which officers spend on average 5-7 minutes reading the entire application, you need to deliver a product that will be memorable among the thousands of others.
To help you get your brain juices flowing, we asked current students who’ve been accepted to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, and others what topics they wrote about:
This student discussed his moustache he rocked throughout high school and how it represented his personality and commitment to paving his own path. Officers from Princeton sent him a message saying it was one of the most unique essays they read in the applications cycle.
This student wrote about how he was walking across a street and was hit by a car, sending him flying down the road. In the moments while he was in the air, he felt his life flash before his eyes and discussed his feelings in that brief few seconds. This student was accepted to Harvard, Stanford, and many other schools.
This student wrote about how she was on a train ride in Japan — while on the journey, she turned to look at the forest just out the window that reminded her of the beauty in life. She delved deeper into her own musings and introspection. (note: writing about philosophical thoughts is often hardest and we don’t recommend it unless you truly believe you fit that personality).
This student wrote about a chinese finger trap that his grandmother gave him as a gift in his youth. He was stick in the trap, until he “gave up” and let loose. Only then was he able to wiggle his fingers free; the finger trap serves as a representation to think outside the box, and that sometimes taking a step back to rethink a situation could deliver the best results. This student was accepted to Harvard, MIT, Dartmouth, among others.
This student who came from the Balkans wrote about the Bosnian War and and its divisiveness among family and friends. However, among the backdrop, most of the essay talked about his best friend, a Serbian who was of a different ethnicity than those who he was supposed to be friends with.
This student wrote about growing up without a father. He discussed the fact that despite the difficulty growing up without such a figure, the experience made him stronger as a person and fortified his ties with the rest of his family. This student was accepted to several Ivy League schools and the University of Chicago.
This student, a pianist who was awarded several prizes, wrote about volunteering in the rural areas of China teaching piano. Among the many students, one particularly stood out for her thirst in striving to be better. Through the extra time spent with this student teaching her after class was over, the student developed a friendship and felt the universal language of music. This student was accepted to Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Washington University in St. Louis (Wash U), and many others.
Being a pottery fanatic, this student wrote about his time spent in the pottery studio. While he did touch upon many of the aspects of pottery — its impact to him, the tradition of pottery art being passed down to him, and others — the bulk of the essay was regarding his introspections in the studio since much of his time was spent alone in his own thoughts. This student was accepted into Brown University and others.
As you can see, the topics that ultimately end up being successful vary greatly. However, what ties all these essays together is the fact that they deliver a powerful message through either experiences or things. It is not so much the motif you use as the vehicle for delivery as it is the message itself. Try this exercise: take a look around you right now and choose any random object, such as a bottle of water, and see how you can make it relate to your life, your values, or your experiences. For some, a water bottle can symbolize their passion for engineering and how humans have been able to tame one of nature’s most powerful forces. For others, a bottle of water can serve as a reminder for a volunteer trip to an underprivileged area and the friends they made there.
The most important part of the essay is that it should be a genuine window into your life and thoughts. That aspect is what admissions officers will remember the most after reading your college application.