The first wall that students hit when tackling the college essay is the struggle with ideas of what to write about. Don’t worry, this happens to everyone: students with strong personalities, excellent writing skills, and unique life stories all struggle with finding a good topic. One common concern from students is that they feel like they are not interesting enough, or that their lives are boring and dull. This is not true. Everyone’s life is worth writing about, and it just requires a bit of thinking to capture the nuance and detail of your own identity. Read on for some concrete strategies on digging out those gems.
Draw a Life Graph
One activity you might want to begin with is to visualize your life in the form of a line graph. The x-axis should be time, spanning from your birth to the current moment, and the y-axis can be anything, although happiness is a common choice. Throughout your life, when did your happiness dip? When did it peak? What were the periods of decline or ascendance, and why? The turning points of your graph are often critical moments in your life that may be worth writing about. For your essay, it’s good to focus on something that happened in the last 2~3 years of your life, so consider making that portion of the graph even more detailed. It’s important to try to graph your entire life because earlier events are worth reflecting upon, even if they don’t end up being the focal point of your essay. When you’re done, try graphing things other than happiness: your interest in music, time spent with family, financial situation… you’ll be surprised how many things a graph can capture.
Look back at your records – Photos/Calendars/Diaries
Another useful strategy is to utilize records. This can be a diary or journal you’ve kept for the past couple of years, your Google calendar account, or simply the photo gallery on your phone. Many interesting or poignant moments are forgotten just because they don’t feel very profound at the time, and they might have newfound significance to you as you look back with an older and wiser outlook. Skimming over your past calendars can also have the useful function of simply reminding you what you have spent the bulk of your time on in the last couple of years. The things we spend a lot of time doing—commuting, cooking, taking care of your brother—can be overlooked in favor of the more glamorous parts of life, but they are nevertheless a source of formative experiences.
Ask Yourself a Series of Questions
The final strategy is perhaps the most common: asking yourself a series of questions. This is a popular method of brainstorming, but many students just ruminate on the answer and move onto the next question. Instead, try making it more physical. Actually take out a pen and some paper, and write what comes to mind. Draw lines and arrows. Connect different points. Doodle and highlight. While it may not necessarily feel like it, your brain can generate so much more when it’s actively and visually engaging with its thoughts. Here are some questions to consider:
What do I value, and why?
In what ways do I appreciate the environment I have grown up in? In what ways am I critical of it?
Who have been the greatest influences on my life?
In what ways do I consider myself to be different from my peers?
What is one thing that I never want to change about myself?
What do I dream about during the day? At night?
When I have a few minutes of time to spare throughout the day, what do I do?
As you make notes, you’ll find that many of the answers connect with each other and that some topics, people, and events reoccur throughout your reflection. That’s a sign they have been particularly impactful for you—pay attention to those things.
It is important to remember that there are certain topics to avoid, as well. While it is generally encouraged to be as honest and open as possible, it is never wise to write about something that paints you in a negative light. This isn’t to say you need to package yourself or conceal your flaws, but if the essay covers criminal or discriminatory actions, colleges will instantly see it as a red flag. Discussing shortcomings is okay; discussing malice, maybe not. It is also not advised for you to write about anything that paints you as unaware, disconnected, or out-of-touch. Reflect upon your social, cultural, and financial privilege, and make sure your essay doesn’t come across as tone-deaf.
While choosing a topic is difficult, it is also one of the most enriching parts of the process. Rather than viewing it as a chore, try to see it as an opportunity to get to know yourself better, and to strengthen your sense of identity before going to college. Given the right tools and strategies, you will most definitely end up with a topic you’re happy about.