3 rules to follow when coming up with a college essay topic

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For a good college essay topic, you don’t have to think big!

There are so many misconceptions about the college essay floating around – especially among international students. To tackle them all would require writing a book. But the one I encounter most often is the matter of the topic of the essay, the answer to the question “What should I write about?”

It feels like a daunting task. Sitting in front of a blank Word document, it’s hard to focus on yourself and drown out all the success stories you can’t help but compare yourself to. Your mom’s friend’s sister’s daughter wrote about a time she taught English to teen mothers in Vietnam and she got into Princeton, and here you are thinking you’ve never saved the world so you’re probably not going to get into a good college.

But that’s just the thing – you should focus on yourself. The college essay is ultimately about you. The most successful essays I have seen are not ones that save the world; they’re the ones that start small. So what about you? What should you write about?

Write about something you care about, no matter how small.

Sit down and make a list of things that are important to you. Maybe that’s a person in your life, an event, maybe just a moment that really sticks out in your memory. Of course, this task can be super difficult, but that’s what your tutor is for! I have to say, I really enjoy chatting with students at this stage of the process. If I ask the right questions or poke and prod at the right topics, I start to see their eyes light up for something they’re excited to tell me about or see them start squirming on the Skype screen if we hit on something that elicits different kinds of strong emotions.

And again, these things can be small. One student recalled a small but strangely nasty fight she had with her brother. Another wrote about a time he really screwed up at a Model UN competition. Yet another student wrote about the movie Legally Blonde (which is set at Harvard, and meanwhile he ended up being admitted to Yale!).

So why do these make good topics? Well firstly, if you care about something, it makes it so much easier to write about it. That makes the whole process less painful for you, but it also comes through in your writing, making your voice genuinely shine through in a way that it wouldn’t be able to if you were detached from the subject of your essay. And secondly, having a topic you care about makes it easier to…

…reflect.

You would be surprised how much you can learn about yourself if you consider why that person or event or experience is important to you. Think about why you got so excited that one time, or why that mistake you made last year has really stuck with you. Why do you care so much about that one friend, or why have you reread that book so many times? Why were you so upset when your parents yelled at you a  few weeks ago, or why do you still have the stuffed animal you got from grandma when you were five years old?

The student who wrote about the fight with her brother realized that this was a moment in which she understood the importance yet complexity of trust among family members (she got into Columbia). The one who wrote about messing up at MUN reflected on the importance of recognizing every voice in the team, even when ambition wants to push others out of the way (he’s now at UPenn). And the Yale student who wrote about Legally Blonde? He admired how Elle was a solitary voice in a seemingly homogenous community and yet was able to break down so many barriers and bring about change.

Forget about your mom’s friend’s sister’s daughter; you don’t need to write about saving the world. But you do need to give yourself some time to identify the things (big or small!) in your life that bring you joy or sadness or frustration, and reflect on why that is. If you can identify those feelings for yourself, you’ll have jumped the biggest hurdle in the essay-writing process and you’ll be just 600 words away from a killer essay!

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