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Common App Essay: “Choose Your Own Topic”

I tell students that virtually any topic will work for the Common Application essay, as long as it has two critical elements.  First, it must tell an interesting story in which you are the main character (the protagonist!).  Second, you (the author!) must provide some reflection and analysis of what the story means to you.  So no matter whether you address one of the six other Common Application prompts or whether you choose this catch-all prompt, just makes sure your essay contains both elements

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Your Choice

The nice thing about this prompt is that the admissions folks leave the choice of topic entirely to you. And therein lies some of the danger of deviating from the other prompts. You are free—and encouraged—to go beyond the limitations of these other prompts, but at the same time, you want to consider the fundamental commonalities found in the above prompts.

Ideas and Concepts: Your college essay should represent you as a student and as a learner. Not every topic has to be entirely serious, but you should consider whether your chosen topic has any intellectual or academic depth.

Transitions: The heart of many of these prompts is some sort of change in your mindset, perspective, or understanding. Admissions folks are looking for young people who have made some sort of transition that demonstrates their maturity, depth of thought, or newfound ability to see the world in a new light.

A Story: You must have some sort of anecdote animating your essay that helps your reader to see your point. This is where you will “show” your reader your fundamental point. You are the main character of this essay in which you can demonstrate aspects of your personality, your values, and your point of view.

Analysis and Reflection: Every other prompt requires you to dig underneath the surface, to go beyond superficialities and to uncover the important truths at the center of your story. It is not enough to tell your reader the story: you must demonstrate the fundamental importance of the story to you. The story is the vehicle to convey a deeper understanding of you as a person.

Need a Hook for your College EssayAlready Written

Some colleges encourage the submission of essays you have written as part of a class or other assignment. These essays may represent you very well as a student and demonstrate some of your intellectual abilities and academic depth. If you choose to submit an academic paper, it is sometimes best to do so as an additional or supplemental essay to your application. In some cases, you may have written some sort of personal essay or narrative as part of a creative writing assignment. If this personal memoir has most of the elements described above, it could be an excellent college essay.

Own Design

It is perfectly acceptable to experiment with the form of the essay. Admissions folks want to encourage your creativity, and they are looking for unique approaches. I have seen students write very successful poems in response to the prompts, and a couple have written mini-plays or screenplays. You are welcome to experiment with the form. However, you will want to keep in mind the elements described above. While the form can be highly creative, it is important to keep the purpose of the college essay in mind: to communicate to your reader something important, something fundamental about who you are as a person, as a citizen, and as a learner.

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Need some help writing a great college essay for the Common Application?  Whether you’re aiming for the Ivy League or you just want to look your best when you apply to the college of your dreams, our team of experts can help you brainstorm, structure, and edit an excellent piece of writing that will help you stand out in the admissions process.  Give us a call.

Mark Montgomery
Educational consultant and admissions expert

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