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Choosing a Topic for a College Admissions Essay

Choosing a topic for college admissions essays…

The Problem with Being Un-Special

When I was faced with describing my greatest accomplishment in a college admissions essay, I was at a total loss. In inviting such a description, the committee had managed to pinpoint my greatest shortcoming. I was exposed as the bland, provincial, un-special person that any college would thumb its nose at: I hadn’t accomplished anything. I lived in the suburbs, in Connecticut. I hadn’t overcome discrimination based on my gender, sexual orientation, or race. The most exotic locale I’d traveled to had been Nova Scotia, a cold, mosquito-ridden province on the coast of Canada.

The problem was that when I pictured a great accomplishment, I literally pictured a mountain – the mountain from the logo for Paramount Pictures, snow-capped and triangular – and imagined that a person with real accomplishments would have already climbed it. This accomplished individual would see the mountain as something conquered, a standing tribute to his or her talent and determination, not to mention the unique and fascinating circumstances into which he or she had been born. I couldn’t come up with a single thing I’d done that could possibly compare to that. We didn’t have snow-capped peaks in Connecticut. And if we did, I certainly hadn’t gotten around to scaling any. I did well enough in school – was that an accomplishment anyone wanted to hear about? Sometimes, when a friend came to me with a problem, I was able to offer comfort and advice. Over time, those moments had grown in number – but could I count them together as one big triumph? Whatever they had accomplished, it wasn’t something you could measure.

After reading the question, I immediately felt jealous of people who’d suffered terrible hardships. What had I done to deserve so much happiness, so much stability right up through age 17? Troubled by this response, I reverted to feeling annoyed with the admissions committee. What did they expect from me, really? I was 17 years old. Of course I hadn’t accomplished anything! And they wanted to hear about my greatest accomplishment, as if I had more than one!

The funny thing is, I can’t even remember what I wrote. Maybe that means my answer was as bland as I’d feared. Or maybe it goes to show that no one’s mind is swimming with remembered accomplishments. Most of us don’t have the image of a looming mountain to refer to when pressed, to pull out and present as evidence of our worth, our unique status. The admissions committee wasn’t expecting a story about a mountain. I needed to dig. Accomplishments are subjective: what they really wanted to know was what I valued, and how I applied my time and energy to it. Whether I’d achieved my goal wasn’t as important as how I’d gone about it. A good essay wouldn’t depend on the accomplishment I chose to write about; it would depend on how well I communicated what it meant to me. My task was to make a genuine mountain out of a molehill, and to help the committee see it that way.

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This article is an example of ways to choose a college admissions essay.