How much pain is required for a great college essay?

Written by Mark Ionescu

The good news is, no – pain is not an essential ingredient in college essays.

No, we’re not talking about the pain that goes into writing in general – brainstorming, creating multiple drafts, editing and revising, and sometimes scrapping whole essays to start fresh with new ideas. That pain is inevitable.

The pain that’s avoidable is the anguish or hardship that some applicants assume they must have experienced in their lives to have a viable college essay topic. I decided to focus in on this topic in particular for a couple of reasons.

For one, it’s a frequently asked question or concern expressed by students in the early stages of selecting essay topics. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard some version of, “Nothing terrible has happened to me, so I don’t really have anything to write about.”

Also because I recently stumbled upon a letter to the editor from Audrey Smith, who spent nearly 40 years in college counseling. Regarding the many essays she has read over the years, she says, “Those that I remember best are not the essays that reflect the greatest hardship or the most pain, but those that show the ability to make meaning from everyday situations, demonstrate a sense of humor, reflect a commitment to the community and, most of all, demonstrate the joy the student finds in learning.”

Her comment is an incredibly important one to consider in the context of selecting a college essay topic. Let’s consider the excellent options for topics that she suggests, one by one.

Meaning from the everyday

Extracting “meaning from everyday situations” is perhaps the most overlooked option, as first-time essay writers generally assume they must tell a grand story with overwhelming stakes. Sometimes being stuck for a topic may mean you need to step back and start with something simple, such as considering the events of an average day or week in your life. Things that you do regularly, and your perspective on them, may seem mundane to you because you do them every day, but may be far more interesting for an admissions officer with a different life experience.

Sense of humor

Demonstrating a sense of humor is also excellent advice, with a potentially fantastic payoff – if you make an admissions officer smile, or even laugh out loud while reading your essay, chances are they’ll be more likely to remember you. Expressing a sense of humor, while being careful not to come across as too sarcastic or insulting, can arguably take more time and effort, and certainly such an essay should be read by others before submission to gauge your success.

Commitment to Community

Showing commitment to community doesn’t mean that you have to be a volunteer at a soup kitchen (although that’s a great idea too). Commitment to community can take many forms, but what those forms have in common is explaining how you contribute positively to the world, and the people, around you. That could be through volunteer work, or it could be from being a productive member of teams, clubs, and groups in your school or community, and what those experiences have taught you.

Joy in learning

Finally, the “joy the student finds in learning” can be expressed through every topic mentioned above, and many more. One key to almost all good storytelling is to make the reader see and appreciate the growth that the characters experience over the course of the story. Whatever story you share, you want college admissions officers to see how it helped you learn and grow into a better person, and allow them to see your potential for continued learning and growth at their school.

If you’re not sure that you’re crafting the best possible essay and making yourself stand out from the crowd of other applicants, contact us for a free consultation. i2i can help you improve existing essay drafts or help you generate ideas if you don’t know where to begin.

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