What Should my College Essay be About?

By: Caroline Koppelman

Of the hundreds of essays we’ve read, we’ve found that the most successful essays fall into five categories.

The first is the genuine thought-provoking essay. This is the hardest type of essay to write because it is absolutely impossible to fake, which makes it is a favorite amongst admissions officers. Students who write a genuine thought essay are unusually insightful for their age and tend to make precocious observations. What makes this type of essay so unique is the author’s ability to bring the reader into their world, to articulate in 650 words how they see the world and how their perception has shaped who they are. In The Poetry of Lost Childhood, the author tells the reader how he sees and experiences the world by painting a picture rich in metaphors and depth. It showcases prodigious writing skills, an amazing level of intellectual depth, and a tone wise beyond its years. While these essays are not for all students, when done well they can often be the most rewarding.

The second category is the narrative told through a metaphor. These essays often toe the line between profound and cliche. The metaphor essay sometimes appears insignificant, light, or comical on the surface. We had one student write about a quest to find the best pizza in New York. Using pizza as his framing device, he told a deeper story about trying to find normalcy following his parent’s tumultuous divorce. A detailed essay on his parent’s divorce could have been a cringeworthy over-share, but by using something as trivial as pizza to tell the story, he was able to give the story emotional depth and levity simultaneously.

The third category is the commentary on failure. This essay is hard to execute for a few reasons. First, no student wants to appear to be the slightest bit flawed during the college admissions process, so even though the Common App includes a prompt about failure, some students can feel that it is a trick question. Your piece on failure should be less about the failure itself and more about what you learned from failing. For example, in the Short Ribs essay, the author initially began talking to us about a time when she messed up dinner. The story is not about her failure so much as her growth as a result: what she learned, how she changed as a result, and the impact it had on her. This is the best way to write about failure, and avoiding the trap of writing about something seriously damaging.

The fourth category is a story about a special projects or experience. The story essay shouldn’t appear anywhere else on your common app. It is not an expansion of an extracurricular activity, or a service trip you took to Guatemala. A special project is something the admissions office won’t know by looking at your activities supplement. One of our students wrote about her experience volunteering at a camp that brought together people from contentious areas of the world. She happened to be in a bunk with half Palestinian and half Israeli teenagers. There was not trite ending where she discovered the solution for peace in the Middle East, nor did it end on a happy note. However, it did show her ability to think incredible deeply and thoughtfully and her ability to empathize with the plight of different groups of people. This type of essays should really be reserved for stories that are truly “unique.” The worst thing you can do is try to derive deeper meaning from something that was not important to you. Admissions officers will smell right through this and your essay won’t accomplish what you set out to do.

The final category is the personal narrative. If you have experienced something that makes you who you are, write about it. It doesn’t have to be anything outlandish. One of our students wrote about his height, because it is inescapably a part of him and has molded him both figuratively and literally into who he is. At 6 foot 7, he has been the tallest person in his class, family, grade, and school since he was 12 years old and it has molded him into who he is today. Using his height as a metaphor, he discussed how he is an overachiever and how he uses his height to help himself and other people.

There are of course plenty of essays that do not fall into these categories. However we find this list extremely useful for brainstorming and can help direct students to the essay that works the best for them.