Preparing for College

The Application Essay: Think About It

Over the years, in helping many seniors attack their application essays, I have always been surprised at how many of them are stumped for ideas, especially when faced with the "Any topic" prompt. Essay ideas are everywhere; we just don't see them.

Since I have been working with high school seniors for so many years, I go about my daily life with a "That would make a great essay topic!" mindset. For example, I tend to be an acute observer of human nature and its behavioral consequences. Shopping can be a wonderful source of essay-idea inspiration. One day while I was in the grocery store, I noticed a man placing his selected items in his cart in a very particular manner: small items went in the child seat section up by the cart's handle. Medium-sized items went in the back of the lower section. Larger items, such as big boxes of laundry detergent and bags of dog food, went in the front.

The man was dressed in business-like attire, with a white shirt, tie, and dress slacks. I wondered if his work involved numbers, such as that of an accountant or financial officer. This got me to wondering if there was any correlation between grocery shopping attire and cart-loading strategies. Once I postulated that, guess what popped into my head: "That would make a cool essay topic!"

Anyway, hopefully you get the idea. In case you don't, let me give you some essay tips from David Erdmann, Dean of Admission and Enrollment at Rollins College. Being an admissions insider, his perspectives should be very helpful.

1. Your friends know you best and are not as biased as your parents. Sit around with them and let them help think about you and your relationship with the topic. You'll find that in 30 minutes of brainstorming you'll have more than one Eureka! moment.

2. Keep your eye on the brass ring (that's an old merry-go-round feature, the brass ring). Write a big essay about a small topic, not a small essay about a big topic.

3. Unless you already know it, keep the first sentence for last, revisit it a number of times. First sentences can be door openers, or door closers. But avoid cuteness. Nobody likes cute unless it's on a puppy dog.

4. Write, write, rewrite. It's not done, and not a mistake, until it goes in the mail (email).

5. Make sure the essay is written in your “voice." Read it out loud to a friend, have a friend read it out loud to you—does it sound like you, is it your voice?

6. Ask someone who knows grammar to proofread for errors — we don't expect that everyone can write in perfect English, but we do expect that applicants will respect the process enough to think quality in their essays.


I especially like that one about "Write a big essay about a small topic." That's what I was thinking when I noticed that grocery shopper's big-items-in-front/small-items-up-top cart approach.

See? Essay ideas are everywhere. Go find one today.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.