The Perfect College Essay Subject

Wow’s Kim Lifton and Pedro Abizu Campos High School Teacher Elizabeth Hoffman helped 60 students learn how to find the perfect college essay subject. Photo by Kevin Shea

By Kim Lifton

A few weeks ago, while teaching seniors how to write Common App admissions essays at an alternative charter high school in Chicago, I overheard a student say this to her teacher:

“I have had a lot of bad stuff happen. I kept myself awake last night thinking about what to write in my college essay. I don’t know which subject is best.”

This is not the first time I have heard some variation on, “I don’t know what to write.”

Whether the student is from a school like Chicago’s Pedro Albizu Campos High School that gives low-income and at- risk students a second chance, or an elite college prep academy, most get stuck before the brainstorming begins.

Why Do Students Get Stuck?

Students look for stories that are too big and don’t translate well in a short piece of writing.

Middle- and upper-income kids often choose sad or impressive experiences: an entire sports season, a tribute to someone who died, a year of volunteer work, raising money for a cause, a month-long service trip. Low-income and at-risk students opt for the challenges they face: a parent going to prison, becoming a teenage mom, facing homelessness.

Don’t Make Assumptions!

In either case, students make the wrong assumptions. You are not writing an autobiography. Readers know a lot about you already. Instead of trying to impress them with stories about victories or tugging at their heartstrings with tales of abuse or broken homes, find a moment that illustrates who you are. You come first; the subject comes second.

What Do You Want Readers to Know about YOU?

Answer this question before you brainstorm ideas: What do I want readers to know about me that they can’t find out from the rest of my application? Start there, then choose a moment that illustrates your answer.

Our message is the same for every type of student, in every type of school. I met privately with the girl at Pedro Albizu Campos High School who couldn’t sleep the night before my visit. Her father was in prison; her mother was abusive; her brother was a teenage father. She had been kicked out of schools and had failed classes. She truly believed she needed to write about something sad. Her family kept telling her she wouldn’t graduate from high school. Talking about it made me sad. She could see it on my face. And that’s not what she wanted a reader at a college to feel after reading her story.

We talked about her grades, study habits, dreams. She got all As last year and was on track to graduate.  She wanted to be the first person in her family to earn a college degree. She had avoided the teenage mom thing, and she was proud. Despite the odds, she learned to make good choices. She wanted colleges to know she was strong and was not going to give up.

The Perfect College Essay Subject: YOU!

The student left our session feeling confident, knowing she had a good, positive story to share and a keen understanding that her story needed to be about her. She was relieved, and ready to start writing!

Kim Lifton is president of Wow Writing Workshop. You can read Kim’s  blogs and get useful writing tips by signing up for Wow’s newsletter. Wow is also on Facebook and Twitter. Check our schedule to sign up for weekly webinars and workshops that will help you and your students write great college admissions essays. Remember this: YOU  are your perfect college essay subject.