Writing Your College Essay: It's the Simple, Little Things That Count!

I have been preaching for years that the most fascinating and effective jump-off points for your college application essay are simple, everyday stories that give the reader a picture of your personality. Finding a topic is often easier than it may seem. So, I decided to take my own advice.

Challenge: To come up with essay topics for each of the Common App prompts based on the events of this past weekend (a lovely Labor Day filled with friends and their families).

Obstacle: Virtually nothing out of the ordinary happened. We swam and ate and hung out.

Results: Each of the prompts is listed below, along with an event that occurred this weekend and a corresponding essay idea.

Whether or not any of these ideas would end up making a stellar essay is debatable. However, the fact remains: No need to write about an earthquake, or death, or your childhood as an orphan. Simple, little things make the world go ‘round!


Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

(Even though I don’t consider myself to be a candidate for this question, I’ll give it a go.)

Inspiration: Looking at the photos of my brother’s Catholic wedding ceremony.

Story: Examining the ways in which Catholicism has shaped my life—specifically, the shock of transferring from a Catholic, uniform-wearing eighth grade class of 17 to a mixed-religion, anything goes freshman class of 300.

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Inspiration: Watching my friend’s eight-year-old niece try and try and try…unsuccessfully…to dive.

Story: Discussing swimming lessons at the lake, the time I finally psyched myself up to jump off the dock (only to get tangled in seaweed and dragged out by the lifeguard), and more unsuccessful (and this time GPA-related) swimming struggles in high school.

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Inspiration: Seeing a college student on the train with a science textbook in hand.

Story: Explaining my indignation at a male science teacher who told me that boys are better at science than girls, and my subsequent campaign to (successfully!) earn an A in the class.

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

Inspiration: Seeing my friend’s family gathering together for a birthday.

Story: Sharing the joy of my family’s Sunday schedule: church, dinner, and Buffalo Bills football.

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Inspiration: Watching my friend’s family disperse into smaller groups to eat at several picnic tables.

Story: Explaining how magical it felt to be moved from the kid table to the adult table at Christmas.

Need extra help? Meet me in cyberspace!


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