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.