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A Two Step Process for Selecting Essay Topics

Great college admissions essays can't be written in a day or even a week. They require a lot of planning and preparation. But the good news is that great college admission essays can be – and are – written each application season. The key is to remember your selected topics will define the foundation and structure of your essays, so you want to ensure you select the best topics.

You can think of essay topic selection as a two-step process.

Step 1: Think Holistically

When the admissions committee makes a decision on your candidacy, it won't be based just on your test scores, grades or essays. They are going to make the decision after reviewing your file holistically. Therefore, to ensure you are successful, you need to view your candidacy the same way.

Do you have strong grades and test scores? If so, you will easily clear the school's academic qualifications hurdle and you won't want to write about how smart you are. (Besides, you might just come across as arrogant and insecure if you did.)

How strong are your extracurricular activities? Do they adequately evidence your commitment to your community and your leadership and teamwork skills?

What are the key strengths and differentiators you want to showcase? Do you have any weaknesses that need to be actively mitigated?

What do you think your recommenders will be able to say about you? Will they be able to substantiate anything in the essay that may sound "too good to be true"?

How many essays does the application require? What are they asking and how will you choose to allocate your story themes over them? (If the school presents you with 3 essays, will you choose to highlight your extracurriculars in one or two of them or will you only allocate one paragraph of the longest essay towards your extracurriculars?)

And don't forget about the interview. Will you interview with the school? Is the interview by invitation only after they have reviewed your application? If the interview is by invitation, you won't be able to use it the same way as an open interview where you can guarantee an additional medium through which to convey your message.

Only after answering all of these questions will you be able to determine the focus for your essays.

Step 2: Define Your Universe

Very few great accomplishments have been pulled off without significant planning. Writing effective college admission essays is no different. This is why it's important to start early and take your time. Just as you can't paint a picture until you've decided exactly what you want to paint, so too is it unfeasible to begin writing your essays until you know exactly what topics you have selected. Ideally, you will start this process no later than the end of your junior year. That way, you will have time to carefully reflect without the panic you would feel with a looming deadline.

Starting early means you need to be actively thinking about what experiences or insights you can use for essay fodder. For many applicants, this introspection occurs as part of their daily 'multi tasking' routine. If, however, you find you are not making any progress after just one or two weeks, then you are going to need to set aside regular time for the task.

And, of course, you won't be able to successfully capture your ideas if you try to store all these thoughts in your head. The task will not completed until you have captured your ideas on paper or, perhaps better yet, entered them on your computer so you don't have to worry about them getting lost. Once all of these ideas are captured, you will then be able to review them all, possibly find new 'hybrid' ideas and select the best ones for your application.

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