How to Get Deep With Your College Essays

In College Admissions, Personal Statements by Peter PengLeave a Comment

One of the sweetest things about my job is creating incredible content…

And then just giving it away to you for free. Today, it’s your turn to learn how to create your own great content.

If you missed out the other day on my massive guide on how to pick the perfect college essay topic, then download it quickly HERE. One of the major takeaways I was making was that a standout essay doesn’t need to be about a unique or special topic. Ordinary, everyday, common, mundane, usual topics are just fine (any other thesaurus words I miss?), if you write about them in a unique way.

Writing Pro Tip #1: don’t be redundant like I just was haha.

But how, you ask? How do you write about ordinary topics extraordinarily? Well, young grasshopper, I’ll tell you right now. First, slap the water 100 times with your palm.

Okay, kidding aside, let me explain how I help students get real and get deep.

Before that, though, a quick disclaimer. If you do write about an unusual topic, that’s great! That may even be better than an ordinary topic, if you don’t veer too much into the Gimmick Land. Stay far away from there—I hear it’s haunted by ghosts of college applicants who were rejected from all their top choice schools.

But the point I want to make abundantly clear is that it doesn’t really matter what topic you choose. What truly matters is WHAT INSIGHTS you have about said topic. This is where virtually everyone runs into problems. Students take these common topics and proceed to turn them into the most clichéd rehashes possible.

I can see the heads of admission officers rolling already. Their eyes are glazed over. Are they having a snoozefest over there?

There are two elements that make writing powerful: content and style.

Style is great, but it’s not functional. It’s pretty, but it’s just presentation. Of course, strong writers all have their own unique style and can carefully package their ideas into beautiful words. But colleges are looking for far more than simply style. They care much more about your content, which is to say, the heart of what you’re trying to express.

Colleges aren’t necessarily on the lookout for the next Pulitzer Prize winner; they just want to identify capable, intelligent students, whose strengths may lay outside of writing. And that’s okay. Your first job is to wow the admission officers with real meaty stuff. Any literary flair is the cherry on top, not the main course.

So how exactly do we produce remarkable content?

By staying away from conventional or cliché ideas and, instead, producing unexpected reflections. That’s how you get deep.

Let’s take the common topic of volunteering. Ugh, I hate these essays because 999 times out of 1,000, I can already predict what they’re going to say before I read the first word.

Think about it yourself. What are some clichéd thoughts people would instantly have about their volunteer experiences? Here are a few:

  • I feel so blessed, so I want to give back.
  • My parents sacrificed everything for me, so I just want to help others have the same opportunities as me.
  • In the end, I realized I had gained much more than those I had helped.
  • My church mission trip, Boy Scouts, or volunteer club taught me to be humble.
  • I learned to be a leader by guiding a team to fundraise for my cause.

Pachssh! That’s the sound of my head exploding at how completely uninspiring these reflections are. They are totally expected and took zero effort to come up with. They are literally the same things thousands of others writing about volunteering would say.

Clichéd = not deep. This doesn’t bode well for you if your goal is to come off as reflective and insightful (which it should be if you want to get into college).

We have to go deeper. We have to come up with some unique lessons or thoughts about volunteering, something people wouldn’t normally be able to guess.

Maybe we can say that volunteering gave you increased sensitivity to sociocultural norms. Maybe community service taught you the power of vulnerability as a means of connecting with others. Perhaps giving your time and energy showed you how to be creative and resourceful. Or could it be that volunteering showed you the debilitating effect of stereotypes? Whoa! Now isn’t that interesting? Who would have thought of any of these? These are by no means ordinary reflections, which is why these ideas are considered deep.

“Deep” simply means different. You could then go on to tell the story of HOW your volunteering experience helped you develop any of these realizations.

I already mentioned the following example in my free guide, but I want to dissect it more here. One of my favorite recent essays was about a student who volunteered by tutoring local Hispanic kids. Hordes of students tutor—nothing special here yet. This is the epitome of “common topics.” But what I loved about this essay was that he focused on the failings of an educational institution, perhaps even the failure of an entire economic system, which he realized as he tutored. What made this essay shine wasn’t so much what he did (which honestly wasn’t much), but what he learned.

Where did this student go? Duke, with acceptances at Columbia, Washington University of St. Louis, and many other topic choices!

Here’s a handy dandy chart to understand what sorts of essays work and don’t.

CLICHÉD INSIGHT DEEP, INTERESTING INSIGHT
ORDINARY TOPIC Uber fail! Win!
UNIQUE TOPIC Still fail! Big win!

Take the winners, then sprinkle some style on top, and I’d be remiss not to call it an EPIC WIN. College, here we come!

Let’s check out another common topic: sports. Ugh, I also hate sports essays because there are so few good ones. Not saying they aren’t there, but they are few and far between.

What are the things people immediately think to write about when it comes to sports?

  • I’m captain of the team, so I learned leadership!
  • I learned the value of hard work and teamwork! ZOMG!
  • Sports eat up my whole weekend and hours each day, so I gained discipline.
  • Sports taught me everyone is important, and we all have a role, so we must respect all the players, even the not-so-great ones.
  • Never give up! Yeah, sports taught me that. Persevere!!!

Can we agree that these are horrible reflections? Trust me, admission officers aren’t even going to read to the end of the essay if they catch a whiff of any of the above.

One fantastic sports essay I read once was about a guy who absolutely SUCKED at baseball, but he kept trying. It wasn’t an essay about not giving up, but about creativity. He couldn’t figure out how to pitch the ball properly or swing the bat powerfully, so he had to get innovative and come up with his own baseball techniques. Normally, creativity and sports isn’t the obvious connection most people would make, but that’s precisely why this essay came off as different and “deep.”

Another common topic: death/illness in the family, especially parents with cancer. I’m not trying to downplay the severity of the disease and the turmoil it heaps upon entire families, but I am saying this topic is hardly ever used properly. If you’ve ever been advised to stay away from sappy or tragic stories, it’s probably not for the reason you think. Admission officers aren’t going to admit you just because you experienced tragedy. What’s offensive and cliché is using this topic as a way to pull at heartstrings and guilt trip the reader, like “if we don’t admit this student, that’s a slap in the face after he lost his mom.”

But there’s nothing inherently wrong with sappy or tragic stories. Used properly, these can be poignant pieces ripe with deep reflection.

The clichéd takeaways to avoid at all costs:

  • My mom got cancer, so I had to learn to handle increased responsibilities, like taking care of my siblings.
  • I got depressed, so I had to learn to focus at school and try extra hard.
  • Life is short, and it can be taken away at any moment. I learned to appreciate the little things.
  • My parent got terminally sick. That’s the whole story. Soooo many students make the HUGE mistake of focusing the story on someone ELSE, but they never explain how this experience affected THEMSELVES. These are PERSONAL STATEMENTS, not statements about your mom or dad.

There are an infinite number of ways to take the sickness/death in family topic in original directions. Maybe it taught you the power of laughter in periods of immense grief. Maybe it taught you a specific way to make genuine connections with people. Maybe it caused you so much grief that you needed an outlet, like theater or music, which then became a powerful activity for you.

My main point is, make sure to stay away from clichés and obvious ideas. Instead, think deeply (which really just means differently) about what your topic means for you. If the insight is unusual, then it will usually impress.

I know coming up with these deep insights is the hardest part of writing. It’s not even really writing yet, but more brainstorming. That’s why I always say good writing is 80% thinking. If you’re in Southern California this summer and want me to personally help you dive deep and uncover these insights, then check out the College Application Summit I’m hosting.

It’s an intensive workshop that covers everything from essay development and coaching to application strategy. There are powerful exercises I take my students through to dig up these gems, plus a whole lot more. If you’re a parent who wants to help your student create some fantastic essays this summer, check out THIS PAGE.

Alright, folks! Put on your thinking hats.

Till next time,
Peter

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