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The College Essay: Content is King. Or is it?

Content is king. Well, . . . kind of.

Students often agonize about the topic of their essay. The internal critic tells them that they haven't lived long enough to be interesting. That they haven't experienced anything earth shattering. That the essay should be about something dramatic and their life has been drama free. Or conversely, that their life has been nothing but drama and no one wants to hear about that. That no matter what they write, it will be wrong.

Saboteur! Liar! That internal critic needs to shut up. Given such incessant yapping, the only rational response is procrastination. Surprised?

The topic matters and it doesn't. Because the topic is really, always, certainly you, student. Not your failure. Not your achievement. Not your common app prompt. You. How you think, feel, manage, learn, adapt, interact, engage, rebound, persevere, change, and treat others. And if you don't know yourself pretty well, what you value, what your character traits are, who you are in any given moment, you will remain stuck searching for a big story that never appears on page.

The essay isn't the story. Say it with me now. The essay isn't the story.

The essay is the big reveal. And the topic is . . . you.

You. In all your glory and maybe shame. You.

I've seen fantastic essays incorporating such mundane events as raking leaves, failing a driver's license test, and taking the train--even one amazing essay about drinking a milkshake. Another about falling into doors. One about Dungeons & Dragons. All effective. All engaging. All admired.

Each essay brought the writer to life for the reader in revelatory snapshots, snippets, or small slices of life scenes. As if the reader was standing there in the scene witnessing, hearing, feeling, empathizing, reflecting and growing with you.

Fill in the blanks.

I am . . .

I value . . .

I demonstrated ______________ (character traits) when I _______________ (snapshot of life).

The time I __________________ (moment from life history) revealed _____________________.

Only then are you ready to write.


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