Every great essay begins with an idea. But finding this idea is no easy task. Often you have to search through your entire life's collection of experiences to find that one "thing" that will encapsulate who you are and do so in less than two pages. And if you're like most students, you have plenty to choose from; so the real question is how do you know one topic is better than another?
This guide is designed to help you sift through your ideas and find those gems that will turn into powerful admission essays. So get out a pad of paper or fire up your computers, and let's find a great essay topic.
When we got our Australian cattle dog named Sushi, the first thing she learned (much to our dismay) was how to successfully coerce humans into giving her "people food". Her method was not elegant but very effective. Sushi simply tried every trick she knew—sit, jump, lick, crouch, whine, stare, bark—until she found the right combination that would entice each individual to do what she wanted. Instinctively she knew that the process of trial and error worked.
When it comes to finding the perfect topic, we can all learn something from Sushi. While it is not elegant and relies on trial and error, the best way to discover a great topic is brainstorming. To get off to a blustery start, first read all the questions in the colleges' application forms. You want to have these questions in the back of your mind as you evaluate possible topics. The key to successful brainstorming is to record every idea that pops into your head. Remember: No topic is too silly, complex or stupid (at least at first) to write down.
Once you have a list of ideas, you will need to narrow your choices. For each idea, spend a few minutes thinking about what an essay on that topic might look like. A key to writing a successful essay is that it must be original—unique—something that only you could write. Therefore, you need to eliminate any topics that would not yield an original essay. One of the best tests was told to us by an admissions officer who used what he called the "Rule of Thumb" test. Basically, if he can cover the name of the author with his thumb and insert the name of any other applicant, then the essay is not unique. You can perform a similar test on your topics. Think about each idea and what you would write about it. Then ask yourself if someone other than you could write this essay. If the answer is "yes", then the odds are that your take on that topic will not be different and unique.
If a topic fails the thumb test, see if you can find an original approach. For example, imagine that one of your topics is "Dad." Without a doubt, you already know that an essay on Dad is going to be a common topic. After all, most of us have been influenced by our parents. So already you see that the topic may not be original. But does this mean you should eliminate the idea? Not so fast. As you think about how your father has been a strong influence in your life, you might consider how every morning he wakes up to make your breakfast. You also realize that of his many breakfasts, his specialty is banana pancakes. In fact, he takes great pleasure in preparing this for you. You then think about what this act has taught you about dedication, commitment and not settling for anything but being the best. Now ask yourself if another student could write this essay. How many will focus on their dads' preparation of breakfast? How many will construct an essay around what they have learned from their dad through his perfection of banana pancakes? Even though dads are written about often, this approach is highly original. This topic may lead to a great essay after all.
Most students find that to be original they will have to find a unique approach to what is often an ordinary topic. You don't need to wrack your brain for an original topic. In many cases, you can be original in your approach to an ordinary topic.
Gen and Kelly Tanabe
Founders of SuperCollege and authors of 13 books on college planning.
By: Gen & Kelly Tanabe
Learn how to write the essay that will get you into your dream college with this step-by-step guide that includes writing strategies from top students and admission officers. Read over 50 successful essays, and learn the 25 essay mistakes you must avoid.
By: Gen & Kelly Tanabe
The only how-to book which shows all students how to get into the school of their dreams. Based on the experiences of dozens of successful students and authored by two graduates of Harvard, this book shows you how to ace the application, essay, interview, and standardized tests.