Ask An Expert: How do I get started on my essays?!

September 10, 2014

This week’s Wednesday expert advice from Joie Jager-Hyman of College Prep 360 answers:

Q:  I am ready to write my essay but I am completely stuck on where to start. Do you have suggestions on how to brainstorm?

As you begin to brainstorm your college essays, remember that the admissions office will be reading lots of information about you. They will see your transcript, test scores, courses, and extracurricular activities listed on your application. The essay is a unique opportunity to showcase your voice, viewpoint, and personality. I advise students to concentrate on communicating something to the admissions office that they will not find elsewhere on their application. Many students love to write about their after school activities. However, to an admissions officer, these can feel redundant and rarely stand out in a pool of other applications.

Some of the best college essays I’ve ever read have centered around commonplace observations and events that provided the reader with insight into the student’s unique character and perspective. One of my favorite student essays was about a student named James who volunteered to show the new student around school. Through this casual story, strongly written with lots of sensory details and action verbs, James demonstrated his sympathetic, friendly side. He presented himself as the sort of student other students love to go to school with, the type of student who makes a great roommate and addition to any campus.

In my latest book, B+ Grades, A+ College Application, I include a list of several questions to jumpstart brainstorming about what makes you interesting and unique. Here are a few to get you started:

  • What makes your family different from other families?
  • What you do you better than almost anyone else?
  • What really makes you laugh?
  • What’s your all-time favorite book and why?
  • Do you have a favorite object or item of clothing?
  • If you could do one thing over in your life, what would it be and why?

Q:  I know I should take risks and get personal, but what topics are too personal or too controversial to write about?

As for sensitive and personal material in college essays, there is a fine line between an appealing vulnerability and inappropriate disclosures. I have guided students through writing with maturity and grace about topics such as a parent’s struggle with alcoholism, or how being bullied in early childhood has made him or her a more compassionate individual. A good rule of thumb is to judge your potential topic in light of how it will reveal you as an individual to your readers. Will the topic make you sound unstable, or make the admissions committee question your judgment? Run your topics by a trusted adult or two and ask their opinions as well.

Next week, check back for advice from Dunce on whether to take a gap year and applying to college after taking a gap year. If you have a question you’d like answered in a following blog post, let us know in our Contact Us form!

Browse Successful Application Files

Barnard ‘18

Accepted to Barnard

Barnard '18 | My passions lie in education, psychology, and human rights, all from the lens of an African Studies major. My transcript and application were far from conventional, but neither am I.
WashU ‘20

Accepted to WashU, CMU, GA Tech, UGA

Aspiring Communication Design and Computer Science student, food lover extraordinaire
UMich ‘20

Accepted to UMich, GA Tech, Case, Michigan Tech

I am a hard-working, motivated student, athlete, and performer who enjoys having fun on the side.
Tulane ‘20

Accepted to Tulane, UC Berkeley, Cincinnati, UPenn

Hi y'all! I'm an incoming freshmen at Tulane University in New Orleans, where I'll be studying Architecture, with a coordinate major in International Development and a minor in Urban Studies. Hope I can help with this #difficult process!

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