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Tips & Info: Selecting Your Essay Topic
 

A good topic is key to a strong essay. How do you select your topic? What criteria should you seek to fulfill? To start, your choice of topic should be guided by two main concerns. You should choose a topic which allows you to showcase your individuality and strengths. You should also choose a topic which allows you to answer the essay question and tell the reviewers what they want to know.

How do you begin? First, read the question carefully. Ask yourself: what, specifically, do the reviewers want to know? Remember that all essay questions are designed primarily to help reviewers find out who you are and why (or if) you deserve admission or an award (see "Putting the Essay into Perspective"). Different types of essay questions approach these ends differently, however, and many have specific other intents as well. Let's look at four common types of essay questions and the purposes behind them.

TYPES OF ESSAY QUESTIONS
Goals Questions This type of question asks what your goals are, or asks you to make a personal statement--which implies you will state your goals and qualifications. Usually, the question focuses on one or more types of goals: academic (what you want to learn more about, or what you want to achieve through your studies in college), career or professional (what you want to achieve in your career after you receive your degree), research (what you want to accomplish in your research), or personal (what you want to accomplish in realms outside of academic and work life).

In responding to questions about goals, it is important--first--that you state your goals clearly. Demonstrate that you are goal-directed, motivated, and that you have a clearly-defined set of goals. It may also be required to distinguish between short-term and long-term goals, sometimes even intermediate-goals. Think of it as: what do I want to be doing in the next two-four years (short-term), what do I want to be doing in five-ten years (intermediate-term), and what do I want to be doing in the next decade and beyond (long-term or ultimate)?

The second part of this type question, whether explicitly posed or not, is: how will attending X University (or Y MBA program, Z medical school, etc.), or winning B award, help you to achieve your goals? In other words, the admissions or scholarship committee is interested, not just in your goals, but also in why you want to attend their school or get their academic award as a way to obtain your goals. It is important, therefore, that you demonstrate your understanding of how studying and getting your degree in a particular academic program, or winning a particular award, will help you advance toward your goals. Show detailed knowledge of the school or award and what it has to offer you. Demonstrate why you are focused on gaining admission to certain institutions or winning specific awards as the best means to achieving your goals. Applicants for college admission should note specific attributes of the program (curricula, research orientations, general educational philosophy, faculty specializations, etc.) that will help them overcome deficiencies in their knowledge that stand in the way of achieving their goals. Applicants for awards should note specific attributes of the award (financial, reputation, academic requirements, etc.) that will boost their goal achievement.

Key Influences Questions Another type of essay question asks what or who is the most influential person, event, idea, work of literature, film, issue, etc. in your life. Here, the specific influence that you discuss is probably as important as what you say about it, so be sure it is something that holds great value for you, casts light on your strengths, and, of course, is not discussed elsewhere in the essay. Don't dwell on the influence, however. Instead, emphasize its impact on you, how it changed you for the better in some significant way(s) and made you the person you are. Show specific ways in which the influence changed you into someone who will succeed in a competitive college setting.

Growth Questions Personal growth-type questions include: "What is your greatest achievement?;" "What is the greatest challenge or obstacle you have confronted?;" "Show how you have demonstrated initiative in your life;" etc. In each case, it is important to highlight a major event or experience in your life that changed you in some way. As with questions that focus on key influences, however, it is important not to focus on the particular event or experience. Emphasis should be put instead on its impact on you: how it changed you for the better and, in particular, made you likely to succeed (e.g., how it made you confident, capable, mature, ready to handle pressure), etc. In other words, show that you grew as a result of the event or experience and, specifically, that you developed character traits that will promote your success in college or your research, career, or profession.

Open-ended Questions Non-specific essay questions are sometimes required, sometimes optional. Examples include: "Tell us about something of importance to you;" "Please provide any additional information about you that you would like us to know;" etc.

If the application requires you to respond to an open-ended question, and it is the only essay question your application includes, then you are left with wide choice. You might consider treating the question like a goals question, or personal statement of goals and qualifications, as this is probably the most common specific type essay question, and it will allow you to cover central facts that the committee will want to know. Alternatively, you might choose a single topic that has personal significance, helps to reveal who you are, and helps to highlight strengths that will promote success as a college student and beyond. Go deeply into that topic (for example, the biggest challenge you have faced) and discuss it in detail. While you might consider touching on more than one topic, it is generally advisable to aim toward depth over breadth.

If you get an open-ended question for an application that requires more than one essay, make sure that whatever you discuss is a topic not available elsewhere in the application. In other words, select a topic that gives the reviewers important additional information about you. This is especially important if you get an open-ended question as an optional essay question. In fact, if the open-ended essay question is optional, don't feel bound to answer it unless there is something truly important that you want to discuss that is not covered elsewhere.

SELECTING A TOPIC Once you've read the question and figured out its purpose or intent, move on to selecting your topic. The essay question charted out a broad subject area for you: your goals, key influences on your life, your major accomplishments, etc. Now you need to select a topic within that subject area that shows who you are, what your strengths are, and why you deserve admission or to receive an award. How do you narrow down a good topic?

The first step is to think broadly and expansively about who you are, what is important to you, what others may want to know about you. Using a technique called brainstorming (described below), you can gain a fuller perspective on who you are, remember forgotten details about your life, and see your individuality more clearly. It is important to call forth as many important details about your life as you can so that you can select the best topic from among them. What is brainstorming and how do you do it?

Brainstorming is a process of developing ideas from spontaneous, free-flowing writing or talking. However you record your ideas, it is important to think about a topic and just let the words flow, trying to call up details continuously for a period of time without stopping. Give yourself a series of autobiographical topics to cover, starting with basic information you'd include on a resume first: schools attended, courses taken, research projects undertaken, jobs held, extracurricular activities, elected offices held (if any), etc. Record as much specific information as you can recall, including years and places if possible.

Then take yourself deeper into the introspection process by tackling more specific topics. We suggest several topics below to stimulate your thinking. Don't feel it is necessary to cover all the topics suggested here, nor to stick only to these topics. You may think of more topics as you go along. Try to come up with three to five items per topic. If you get stuck on any one topic, just move on to the next. This shouldn't be an exercise in meticulousness. The main point is simply to generate a mass of autobiographical information.

  • your most memorable experiences
  • the most influential people in your life
  • the most influential events in your life
  • the most influential ideas in your life
  • the most important lessons you have learned
  • your talents or skills
  • your accomplishments
  • your likes
  • your dislikes
  • your academic goals
  • your career goals
  • your personal goals
  • obstacles or challenges you've faced and how you overcame and grew from them
  • your failures and lessons learned
  • your key strengths
  • your favorite written work
  • your favorite movies or other performance art pieces
  • your favorite quotations
  • your favorite extracurricular activities
  • your favorite intellectual activities
  • the attributes you most respect in others
  • the most memorable things about you
  • how you've grown and changes you've made
  • times when you've shown leadership
  • times when you've helped others
  • times when you've shown creativity
  • times when you've shown ingenuity
  • the attributes of a good education or a well-educated person

Once you've brainstormed about many topics, put the lists aside and let them sit for several hours or a day (not much longer or you may lose your train of thought). Then look at them again and revise--add, chop, refine. If possible, do this as many times as you can over a period of a week or two to develop your thoughts. It is also a good idea to show the lists to people who know you well to get their feedback. They may recall details of your life you've forgotten, or offer a perception of you that sparks your thinking.

When you're done brainstorming, you'll have generated many pieces of information about yourself. The beauty of it is that you'll also have created the nub of several essays--so that when you get presented with specific essay questions, you'll already have formed ideas how to respond. You won't need to come up with something from scratch. Rather, the task will be to decide which piece of information is most interesting and revealing, and which fits best with the essay question. Remember that your main criterion should be: which topic addresses the essay question directly while revealing positive, memorable details about you?

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