The College Essay as a Social Experiment: How to Start a College Essay About Yourself

By: Caroline Koppelman

You can write your college essay about anything, which is part of the reason it is hard to find a subject. Having no predetermined topic will undoubtedly feel overwhelming, especially since most high school students aren’t used to writing that way. You’re stuck looking for an answer to the question “what colleges are looking for?” The answer is, frustratingly, nothing. They’re looking for well-crafted, thoughtful essays that tell them something about you they can’t glean from your app. 

The common app gives you five writing prompts, but there is so much room within all of them that you really can pick any story, subject, or idea from your life and run with it. So, where do you start? There are thousands of ways to answer this question, but one tip we give our students is to make this a social project: go talk to your friends. 

Choose the friends who know you the best and ask them to describe you in three adjectives. You’ll surely get a lot of overlap. From this list, pick the category that seems to come up the most. Let’s say your friends give you words that fall into the category ‘ambitious’: driven, focused, inspiring, enthusiastic, etc. Take those words, or that category, and sit on it.  You want you college essay to convey these characteristics, so ask yourself what prompted your friends to say that about you. They will have multiple stories about you as that exemplify these adjectives. If you are unsure of which one to choose, write down a one or two sentence summary of all of them, and ask your friends again. Generally speaking, our students are able to narrow down the best story pretty quickly. Likely, any one of these stories will be good fodder for your first essay draft.

After you figure out which specific story to tell, it is time to craft the best narrative. Remember, the strongest college essays are the personal narratives that let the reader into your heart and mind and tell them what type of person you are. The story is simply the vessel used to convey who you are. The hard part is figuring out how exactly to tell your story. Starting from the end and working backwards can often be an interesting way to catch the eye the admissions committee.  

Here are the steps:

  1. Ask five friends for three adjectives each 
  2. Use the adjective, or group, that inspires you most
  3. Ask friends to tell you the stories that inspired their choices 
  4. Brainstorm your own stories that fall into that category 
  5. Write down all stories you are considering
  6. Have people you trust, who know you best, read them 
  7. Decide on a final story
  8. Write the essay 
  9. Edit, edit, edit. 

This may seem like an odd way to come to an essay topic, but crowdsourcing ideas from the people who know you best can make an essay more organic than a topic borne of you sitting alone brainstorming.