When beginning to write college application essays, students often worry about having lived an “ordinary” life, under the assumption that a dramatic event is a compelling topic to persuade college admissions officers. A few years back, a stressed-out Senior, with tears welling in her eyes, exclaimed to her dad, “Why couldn’t you have died?!? Then, I’d be sure to get into any college I want!” Everyone’s laughter broke the tension, with the student laughing and crying simultaneously. (Incidentally, she was accepted at several colleges of her choice and is preparing to graduate in 2014, where her dad will be proudly applauding from the audience.) Her experience is telling of the pressure college applicants can feel to pick the “perfect” topic that distinguishes them from the pack.
In a recent phone call, a University of California (UC) admissions officer called these “non-ordinary” topics “The Three D’s: Death, Disease and Divorce”. Given the frequency in which he reads essays with these three topics, he admitted he sometimes predicts how the story will end, rather than paying attention to what’s actually written–which contradicts the urban myth that a traumatic event can lead to a distinguishing essay. Furthermore, a recent New York Times article written by a University of California, Berkeley admissions evaluator also challenges the idea that a story of suffering is essential to make a competitive application:
Less happily, many [essays] betrayed the handiwork of pricey application packagers, whose cloying, pompous style was instantly detectable, as were canny attempts to catch some sympathy with a personal story of generalized misery. The torrent of woe could make a reader numb: not another student suffering from parents’ divorce, a learning difference, a rare disease, even dandruff!
The morale of the story is: don’t guess what an admissions officer wants to hear. Instead, tell the officer what you want them to know. There is no one “right” topic to choose. The topic should serve the greater purpose of the essay, which is to shed light on the person within the grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities listed in the application. The college essay provides Seniors and transfer students the opportunity to consider not only the breadth of their experience, but also to understand the meaning of their experience. Then, s/he will choose a topic, which may be a death, divorce or disease, that best answers, “Who am I?” AND will be told in the student’s unique voice.