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How to Write a College Essay

Submitted by on November 23, 2012 – 12:17 pmNo Comment

College Essay Tips

Selecting a Topic: The College Essay Dilemma


by Amanda McClure, Academic Life Coach

While there is no magic formula for finding the “best” college essay topic, the writing prompt on the application is a good place to start.  Prompts tend to be generic and vast in scope, which makes it difficult for students to find their niche.  The following essay prompt on the ApplyTexas application is a great example:

Choose an issue of importance to you—the issue could be personal, school related, local, political, or international in scope—and write an essay in which you explain the significance of that issue to yourself, your family, your community, or your generation.

This topic immediately conjures up images of global warming or the effects of drought and famine in the Horn of Africa.  Perhaps the crescendo of the list – personal, school related, local, political or international in scope – lead students to believe that the bigger the issue the better, when in fact the issue itself doesn’t matter.  What does matter is how the student handled the issue.   Imagine the prompt re-written as follows:

Choose an issue of importance to you and write an essay that explains why this issue is a focal point in your life.  What actions have you taken to address this issue, and how has this helped you grow as a person?

The re-written prompt hones in on the main traits – passion, initiative, self-awareness, personal growth, and emotional intelligence – admission officers are looking for in the college essay.  These qualities are hard to convey through GPA, class rank, and test scores.  The essay provides an opportunity.  It is the student’s chance to demonstrate how they have handled conflict.  The conflict doesn’t have to be dire or large in scope, it just needs to let the student’s character shine through.

So how do you help a student choose a topic that is both powerful and personal?  The key is to identify an area that they feel comfortable writing about.  Comfort is found in intimacy.  If a student has merely studied global warming, then they can’t effectively write about it.  Rooting out an intimate topic requires asking intimate questions.

Here are a few to begin with:

  1. What is the biggest problem you have ever solved?
  2. What is the biggest obstacle you have ever overcome?
  3. Do you have any activities or hobbies that are different from the things your friends do?  What is it about this activity or hobby that brings you joy?
  4. Think of a time in your life that has stirred great emotion.  How did this change the way you view the world and/or live your life today.

Sometimes students have trouble verbally articulating their thoughts about such provocative questions.  Free writing is useful to help flush out a topic in this situation.  This exercise doesn’t concern itself with grammar, spelling, structure, or any of the other technical aspects of writing.  When a student is not confined by technicalities – or the piercing gaze of an adult – they can just let their thoughts flow.

The process for setting up a free writing exercise is simple.  First, have the student select one of the above questions.  Next, have them sit for 15 minutes and write every thought that pops into their head.  When they are done have them read their scribbles.  Usually, within the cacography there will be some inspirational nuggets that will lead to a suitable topic.

Once a topic is chosen ask these two questions:

  1. Is the student comfortable enough to write about the topic?
  2. Does the topic accentuate the student’s positive character traits?

If the answers are yes, then chances are you have a winner.


Amanda McClure is an Academic Life Coach in Plano who works with teens individually to help them manage academic stress, relationships, and the college application process.


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