Underlying all essay questions is choice. The essay question may be direct and ask you to choose something about yourself to discuss, or it may be indirect and require you to write about something such as an event, book, or quotation.
Why Your Choice of Essay Matters
The college regards your choices as a way to evaluate your preferences, values, mental processes, creativity, sense of humor, and depth of knowledge. Your writing reflects your power of persuasion, organizational abilities, style, and mastery of standard written English.
Here is what colleges look for:
Your Preferences: Your essay topic reveals your preferences. Are you an arts person or a hard-facts science type? Certainly, there is a difference between the person who’d like to talk about the Cold War with Machiavelli and someone who’d like to get painting tips from Jackson Pollock.
Your Values: Choice also reflects values. The person who drives a beat-up, rusty, 1971 Volkswagen is making a statement about how she wants to spend her money and what she cares about. We say, “That dress isn’t me” or “I’m not a cat person.” In choosing, you indicate what matters to you and how you perceive yourself.
Your Thought Process: Choosing shows how you think. Are you whimsical, a person who chooses on impulse? Or are you methodical and careful, a person who gathers background information before choosing? Questions about you and about career and college reflect these choosing patterns. Even a question about a national issue can show your particular thinking style, level of intelligence, and insight.
Think About Topics
The topic you select for your essay can also reveal much about who you are. Yale’s application instructs: “In the past, candidates have used this space in great variety of ways…. There is no ‘correct’ way to respond to this essay request….” No answer is wrong, but sloppy, general, insincere, or tasteless responses can hurt your cause.
Some of the best essays—the memorable and unusual ones—are about very similar, just more focused, topics. Essays about your family, football team, trip to France, parents’ divorce, or twin can be effective as long as they’re focused and specific: a single Christmas Eve church service, a meal of boiled tongue in Grenoble, or dipping ice cream on a summer job.For more information about writing a college essay, check out the complete guide to The College Application Essay, by Sarah Myers McGinty—it’s available in our online store.