More Bad College Advice: "Write about something that's important to you."

Unpopular opinion: Search for “college essay advice” and you’ll find things like this from leading college-prep companies as their top essay writing tip: “1. Write about something that’s important to you.” Bad advice. Hear me out.

Maybe you’ve played basketball or danced since you were five. You’ve devoted hours to perfecting your moves, overcome awful ankle sprains, learned important lessons about discipline, practice, failure. “This is so important to me. It’s central to my identity. How can I leave this out my college application?”

Because you’re missing the mission: When you apply to college, you’re engaged in a persuasive effort to convince a stranger to select you to be a 𝑠𝑡𝑢𝑑𝑒𝑛𝑡 at their 𝑠𝑐ℎ𝑜𝑜𝑙. And that stranger has a key goal (among others, relax, among others): Find the most thoughtful, intelligent, talented kids to join an intellectual community of 𝑠𝑐ℎ𝑜𝑙𝑎𝑟𝑠.

All those hours you logged on basketball and dance? It’s important. Your college essay just isn’t the place to discuss it.

Do this instead: write about 𝑖𝑑𝑒𝑎𝑠 that are important to you. Write about why you want to study those ideas in college. Write about what you want to do after college because you’ve studied those ideas.

So before you chime-in to jump on my provocative title, understand my position:

Telling students to write about what’s important to them is bad advice because it misleads most students–into thinking they can write about anything that’s important to them.

Of course you should write about what’s important to you. But not all things that are important to you belong in a college essay.

For most of you, the best advice is to stick to intellectual topics that are the most important to you: books that influenced you; research that challenged you; summer internships that exposed you to new ideas that motivated you to attend college so you could pursue a certain career.

The big mistake in college essay writing for most students is writing about purely personal topics. I’m suggesting for most of you a course-correction by focusing (at least a little more) on academic topics instead. And I’m not saying do this as some cheap admission strategy to stand-out. But as the logical move for someone filling out a job application this summer:

Position: University Student.

Job Description: Read, write, research, think, and debate important ideas with others in and out of class each day.

Job Requirements: Smart students who love, care about, and are good at writing, researching, thinking, and debating important ideas with others.

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I don’t think essays have to be about what is intellectually important to you either: books, research, internships and so on. Certainly it is not wise to cover what is covered adequately in other parts of the application, either.

Some of the best essays are whimsical. Some of the best I have read include topics like waiting in line at the grocery store, blueberry muffins or a childhood toy. Good writers can then relate the topic at the end to something relevant about their college goals.

The “academic topics” suggested by the OP can be deadly serious. Essays need to be engaging and likable and can even be conversational.

The OP was in admissions at Stanford apparently, and my qualifications are certainly different.

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I have been so charmed by some of the essays I have read over the years, that I can’t seem to help myself from commenting.

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No one can make such generalizations.

Writing about ideas and intellectual pursuits definitely works for some kids.

It does not work for others.

One of my sons wrote about his summer job making hay on a farm. It got him into a T20 university.

I do agree that one shouldn’t beat a dead horse – ie write about something already in the application.

Personally, I think if you are aiming for something, it should be to think outside the box.

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I think each and every last generalization is wrong, I confidently state with intended irony😀

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My D wrote about our annual trip to the same beach my parents brought me when I was a kid and how much her family, and traditions, matter to her. It got her accepted ED to her LAC. It was her first choice topic, she wrote one draft, had one person read it, made 2 slight changes and it was done. I don’t think there is any substitute for a student writing in a clear manner about something important to them in their own voice.

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This exact same thread starter/advice was posted on Reddit.

I think there are many approaches to writing essays that can work, and any particular prescription may work for some and not for others. Applicants should most of all be themselves.

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How, specifically, would you recommend applicants “be themselves” in college applications? Don’t you think that’s the type of vague advice that’s unhelpful to a student?

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My kids wrote about something that was important to them. Both had comments about their essays in acceptance letters. In fact, my DD had a positive comment about her essay handwritten on every acceptance letter she received. Her essay was genuinely about her. It was her voice speaking in the writing, and clearly the adcoms at her schools saw that.

It’s not bad advice to write about something important to you…because something important to the student is going to sound very genuine, sincere, and will convey a feeling for the student.

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The entire application is a “pitch” to the target college of “why me” over the thousands of other applicants with similar classes, grades, activities and test scores. Top colleges definitely are looking for scholars who will contribute intellectually, but that contribution is more than just personal intellectual achievements, it is also how you will be part of an intellectual community: how do you lead, how are you as teammate/collaborator, do you listen, do you persist, are you curious, do you have a sense of humor, are you empathetic? Are you a person who will make the best use of a school’s resources and opportunities by identifying them and having some kind of game plan? Your canvas to paint this are the essays and short answers. View each essay/answer as a way to show “why me”.

To this end, I don’t think you have to write about an academic topic in your main Common App Essay. You certainly can as well. I agree that when an applicant writes about “something important to them” that turns into an indulgent brag piece about how great they are or why some cause is important to them without connecting those dots to “why this student will be an asset” to college X is a mistake. Your grades, test scores, LoR’s should have set your academic bonafides.

Neither of my kids wrote about an intellectual subject in their main Common App essay. One just graduated from an HYPS and another from a top LAC. They wrote thematically joined anecdotes covering character, such as leadership, persistence, humor and empathy. For some school specific essays, they did address intellectual questions as the prompts were so focused. I am sure many successful candidates did write about academic topics in their main essay, but the reason why they were successful is that the essays told a compelling story about the desirability of that student, not necessarily because they showed off some intellectual brilliance.

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What would Papa write for his college essay?

Hemingway said -

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed”……He also said “Write drunk, edit sober” :face_with_monocle: : :cocktail:…….

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Adding…the kid who got the nice comments about essays in acceptance letters did not write about anything “intellectual”. No books, research etc. Essay was about something she accomplished.

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My kid’s essay, which was about our common humanity (at least that was my take of it) would probably have been better liked by Hemingway than the OP. She is going to a college she is excited about and I don’t know where in the Top xx, this institution finds itself as I don’t keep tabs.

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Closing for now while I address the numerous questions posed to me in the last day or so about this thread. We do appreciate different perspectives on CC, as long as they are respectful.

Thanks everyone for your passion - I’ll re-open when I can be confident the discussion will be fruitful.

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Chatted with OP and a couple other folks. I’m opening so that the discussion can continue. Please be kind to one another.

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I think being yourself can be helpful advice. Many students try to be something they are not. It is hard to fool a pro.

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