A Topic of Your Choice

May 2, 2011

The big fear that many of you are experiencing right now is how to begin this assignment–to write a college admissions essay that will reflect well on you and capture the attention of your extremely overloaded reader. If you’re planning to file a common app, which almost all of you are, then maybe you’ve been going to sites like About.Com to read things like “Tips on Writing the Common App Essay.” I’m not going to say you can’t find good advice on those sites…but you’re also going to find advice that’s not so good.  Here for instance is what About. Com has to say about picking Option #6 of the personal statement prompts on the common app:

Option #6. Topic of your choice.

Sometimes you have a story to share that doesn’t quite fit into any of the options above. However, the first five topics are broad with a lot of flexibility, so make sure your topic really can’t be identified with one of them. Also, don’t equate “topic of your choice” with a license to write a comedy routine or poem (you can submit such things via the “Additional Info” option). Essays written for this prompt still need to have substance and tell your reader something about you.

As a matter of fact, I always urge the students I work with to write to Option #6: A Topic of Your Choice. Why? Because I want them to write terrific, vivid, one-of-a-kind essays that can’t be consigned to a “category” (as in Option #3, let’s say, which asks the writer to Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence). Quite a few of my students write a about people who have had significant influences on them, but writing a narrative about being with your Turkish grandfather in a rug bazaar in Istanbul feels a lot different than writing an essay in which you explain why your grandfather has had a significant influence on you.

I’ve found that when my students write on the topic of their choice, they are much freer and more fearless and that’s what makes good writing. If a school decides that you really have flubbed it by writing a terrific Topic of Your Choice essay on a Person Who Has Had a Significant Influence on You instead of identifying it as one that meets the Option #3 essay prompt…well, that’s probably not the school for you anyway, right?

If you write about the Topic of Your Choice, you can and will go anywhere in the world with it and that will be exciting. You want a road map, however, and that map will be your understanding of the narrative form. That’s where my book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, can be helpful to you. When you have an understanding of the narrative, you’ll have the confidence you need to tell any story you want…and then take your best shot.

And, by the way, I take issue with About.Com’s cautionary note that you not write a “comedy routine” for Option #6. Since they’re not really explaining what they mean, this seems to suggest that you stay away from humor in your essay. To which I say, Why? Humor’s great, as long as you understand that it’s one of the more difficult things to pull off. And humor that is not good really has a way of going over like a lead balloon. So trying something humorous is certainly a worthy thing, but make sure you get some readings from people you trust to determine whether you’ve pulled it off or not.

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