In my experience, the majority of problems students run into with their college application essays are based upon picking a bad topic. By “bad” I generally mean the topic falls into two categories:
- Done to death
- Too weird for its own good
The first one I can easily provide samples for: probably my most common one is running track. A lot of students run track and want to write about their experiences. That’s great except that a lot of other students also run track and have similar things to say. There are only so many ways to write about track – see if you recognize any of these classics:
- I joined track and was bad at it, but then I tried harder and now I’m good
- I’m really good at track and here is a list of my accomplishments you already saw on my EC that prove how good I am
- I’m just ok at track, but through the team, I have gained other skills like leadership that are important to me
- I don’t actually like track, but in being forced to do it, I learned some valuable lessons
- Here is a live recap of me running the anchor on the 400 relay, with every student I pass symbolizing an obstacle I have conquered in life to get where I am.
That last one is a bit of a joke. But it’s indicative of the problem that I think drives elite students to get so…creative in the framing devices on their essays. You students know track isn’t that special, but it is something important to you, and you want to talk about it. The end result is…well…something like this.
And then the other problem is with “le quirky teen” essays. These never seem to work out as well as anyone wants. That penguin collection may be as important to you as you write about, but without anything more substantial to link those interests to, the essay falls apart.
So, what do we do about all this? How do we manage to write about what matters to us, but in a way that’s still fun and original?
The answer is half-ideas.
What Are Half-Ideas?
“I like track because it taught me responsibility” is a half idea. So is “I have trouble sleeping when I’m nervous. So is “I collect stuffed penguins.” So is “I like making people laugh and try to lighten the mood when things are hard.” A half idea is anything about you or your world that you think colleges should know about. What makes half-ideas different from normal ideas is that we want to come up with these ideas with the full intention of combing those ideas together to create an original topic.
Some people stumble upon combining half ideas by accident. I did! I wrote an essay ten years ago that perfectly encapsulated how easy and powerful combing two ideas can be. My two half ideas for the topic were:
- I have ADHD
- I like to run
Either of these topics could be converted into a competent, if unexciting, essay on their own. I guarantee AOs will read hundreds of similar essays this year. But luck would have it I combined those two half ideas a full idea that worked a lot better. All I had to do was look at those two topics and try to find a connection between them. I’ve found that the best connections will pop out to you. Mine did:
How running helps me deal with my ADHD by giving me a way to quiet my mind and think clearly
The hardest part of my ADHD is getting my brain to stop moving so fast. As quickly as I start to think about something important, that thought gets batted away by garbage. I like running because I find when I get tired enough, my brain will quiet down, and I can think about things that are important or bothering me. I get most of my best thinking done six miles into a run. That’s my essay.
I guarantee there aren’t many students writing that essay. By combing two ideas into a single one, I make the topic much more personal and unique. I also build myself a natural narrative structure by both presenting a challenge and a way I conquer that challenge. “How X helps me with Y” is a great way to frame an essay Cool, right!
So let’s get practical. The first step is to build as many half-ideas as possible. Just start posting as many ideas as you can. Don’t worry about how you’ll match them or if they’re even worth matching. You’ve likely heard similar “just write; it doesn’t matter what!” advice before, but I think that advice kind of sucks because it DOES matter what you write. With half-ideas, you should feel more comfortable posting weird factoids about yourself because you’ll no longer have to worry about turning those ideas in a full essay. Just write them.
Here are some sample list groups you can start with, along with as many personal half ideas I can think of for each.
Cool stuff you’ve done that would make a traditional essay
- 4 years Cross Country
- 3 Years Track
- 2 Years School Newspaper
- 4 years Parli Debate
- Hosted a school zombie tag game
- Active non-fiction writer
- Started my own College Consulting business and made a sweet website, nbd (CollegeWithMattie.com)
Obstacles you’ve overcome
- I suffered through chronic illness in my 20s
Weird “quirky” facts about you
- I love cats and have one named Penny
- I love football and refuse to work on Sunday
- I taught myself piano using a video game
Positive personality traits
- My mom says I’m funny
- I’m easy to talk to and once won a bet by speaking about my cat and college admissions for 3 hours straight
- I think differently and often come up with solutions for problems no one else has (like this one!)
- I see patterns well and am always looking for a more efficient way to do things
Goals/Passions/Proof of those passions
- Want to be a private college admissions consultant
- Finishing UC Berkeley certification on topic
- Worked past three years as a counselor with company
- 10 years of writing experience
That’s just a short selection. Locate any “idea suggestion” posts and you will find more topics to think about.
Now that I have my list, it’s time for me to look for connections between the two. Often the best value for this method comes when one of the half ideas is from the “challenges/hardships” section. This is especially true for URM or any other student with a background hook. You want to present that background but do it in a way that’s more tasteful than “I grew up X, and here’s why it was hard.” Combine that half idea with another interest of yours, so the topic becomes “How Y helped me overcome my Childhood as X”.
Yay half ideas!
When looking at my list, two ideas that come to mind are my history of illness + that I taught myself piano. I decided to teach myself piano two years ago as a way of signifying that my life was going to be different now that I was better. It turned out that way, and now I celebrate my piano playing as a symbol of the fact that life doesn’t take things from me anymore; I gain from it.
Pretty good topic, ya? Seeing these topics all out in front of me made it easy to compare them to one another and see what kind of connections I could identify.
Here are some bonus tips as you develop your half-idea stable:
Your ideas don’t have to share 50/50 content.
Sometimes one topic is just more interesting than the other. Don’t be afraid for a single idea to encompass 80%+ of an essay, with another idea coming in as support. Maybe you write about charity work and realize that every time you read to a kid in the hospital you leave him with one of your stuffed penguins. That’s exactly why you want to introduce those penguins earlier so you can add it to your experience.
You can even have third ideas. Whatever
Going back to my illness/piano essay, I’d probably also want to add my wish to be a counselor in near the end. Just as I gained piano in my life, I also want to obtain success in counseling. Seeeee? It’s so fun and eaaaaaasy!
Keep every half-idea about you
This goes into advice for another blog post, but keep the focus of your essays on you. Your friends, family, famous people, politicians, and everyone else can cameo in your story, but the vast majority of content needs to be about you. The easiest way to ensure this is to keep all half-ideas that way from the start.
You can think of half-ideas retroactively
Write something and just feel like it’s missing something? Think hard about other aspects of your life that may fit into the essay you’ve already written. Maybe you wrote about a big camping trip. You can bring up the fact that you’re always the one who tries to keep the group calm, so when things were rough, you took it upon yourself to provide moral support. The goal is writing an essay that showcases what happens when different aspects of your life come together.
Try to form your full topics in the form of a narrative
Utilizing “how” is a great way to do this. How my love for paper airplanes made me a better engineer. How my daily NYT crossword puzzle influences my taste in authors. Get both topics in there and try to present one as having a causal effect on the other.
Don’t go insane
You may have a topic or two that are awesome and don’t need tinking with. Don’t! This may be advice for essays 2-27 you’ll be writing. Keep the list of half-ideas handy and constantly be adding to it. You never know when you’ll be inspired by it.
Mattie Culkin is a college admissions advisor based in California. He handles every aspect of college admission, from building your college list to crafting the perfect essay. Mattie specializes in UC applications but offers complete admissions packages for any school. Learn more about Mattie and his college admissions services here.