Ask the Right Questions to Get Essay Ideas

Ask the Right Questions to Get Essay Ideas

Writing your personal statement is actually one of the easiest steps in the college application process.

The key word there, though, is “writing.” Generating the ideas, outline, and flow of the essay is much, much harder. As an example, I recently had a promising student who will likely wind up at a school like Dartmouth or Duke struggle for three weeks to come up with a topic. But as soon as we decided upon one, he had the essay written in less than a week.

There are numerous ways to come up with ideas. The best one, though, is to ask the right questions. Why? Because asking where you can focus yourself will naturally pull you to the appropriate subject for you to write about. Trying to come up with a topic without asking questions is like trying to hike from California to Minnesota without asking for directions. You can do it, but boy will life be much easier with the right questions.

Below are a list of some of the questions I send to all students interested in working with me–you may find inspiration yourself from some of these.

  • What moments fundamentally changed you or the path you were on over the last decade?
  • What moments in your past trigger strong, almost overwhelming emotions?
  • What moments represent the core of who you are?
  • What is your most notable failure?
  • What motivates you in your daily life?
  • How have you changed the most in the last five years? What catalyzed those changes?
  • How do you see yourself continuing to grow or change in the next few years?
  • Do you have any extenuating circumstances you want the admissions officers to be aware of?
How to Choose Where to Apply

How to Choose Where to Apply

Before you can begin to even think about your college essay topic or what style you’re going to write in, you’ve got to answer a simple yet sometimes difficult question to answer–where to apply for college.

The simplest way to accomplish this is to go to the US News and World Report, look at the top 25 schools, and pick whichever 6-8 you like best from a combination of price, location, academic programs, and extracurricular activities. This approach isn’t necessarily wrong, per se–if you’ve got the grades and the financial means to attend one of these schools, you’re going to wind up at a place like an Ivy League school, Duke, Stanford, or a top-tier public school like the University of Virginia.

But the problem with this approach is that it’s just not one that requires a lot of thought and, as a result, leaves you open to overlooking something crucial or experiencing stress as a result. What happens when you see, for example, that Duke has a strong engineering school, only to realize upon enrolling that it doesn’t have the specific subniche you want to study? Or what happens if you don’t consider what living across the country from your parents will do, and you hate going to school at Stanford when you’re from Maine?

Instead, deliberating carefully on where to apply will help you make the right choice both for the next four years of your life and for setting yourself up for the next four decades that follow. In order of importance, here are the two things that matter the most when picking a school:

1. The Students. It might seem strange that I didn’t put “academics” first, but here’s a statement almost every college graduate can agree with–you are almost certainly going to change your major (or at least your intended major) multiple times in your first couple of years. In high school, I excelled at math and planned on double majoring in physics and theatre studies. One failed monologue and math test later, I graduated from Duke having never taken a physics class. I never even considered psychology (my eventual major) until the summer between my freshman and sophomore years.

However, what will determine the quality of your time over the next four years and will have a profound impact on your career and social success over your adult life are the type of people you associate with. As someone who graduated in 2010, I worked for a friend’s admissions consulting business that allowed me to expand this part of my career; I launched a startup with two of my friends from college; I have traveled through Europe for a month with a friend from college; and I have helped push one friend to pursue her passion for acting in New York City.

I can do this, in part, because the type of people I associated with at Duke were driven, far smarter than me, and studious, but also just great people in general. That is not to say that I would not have met such people at Notre Dame or UNC or Cornell, but the typical Duke student, from my observations, really knows how to excel not just academically, but socially, spiritually, and globally.

When you’re considering where to apply, think about what the typical student does. Do they conduct research? Do they start companies? Do they like sports? Do they like to socialize, or do they like to work on weekends? Even seemingly trivial questions like what kind of sports do they like can matter (though, obviously, not as much as their work ethic or emotional intelligence); it’s through basketball that I met one of my co-founders at the startup I launched a few years ago.

You’re going to change your major. You’re going to move a lot as an adult. But the friendships and relationships you build will last a lifetime–so make sure you put yourself in an environment where you can find those kind of people.

2. The Postgraduate Opportunities. An economics degree is a wonderful thing, especially if you have ambitions on going to Wall Street after college. But as someone who has many friends who went to one of the Big 4 investment firms upon graduation (and has friends who have relatives in high-ranking places in those firms), it’s also worth noting that many of those firms will hire graduates with nontraditional backgrounds.

Why? Because they know that these students from Harvard, Columbia, and so on know how to think and they know how to work for long hours at peak levels. They want to see a certain baseline level of competence, of course, but to suggest that the only way in is with a business and economics track ignores that oftentimes, it depends on where you went to school as much as what you majored in to get where you want to go.

This is not just true for investment banking, but software development, consulting, politics, and much, much more. If you have a school that acts essentially as a feeder into a major industry and can land you at a major company or a major graduate/medical/law school program, that should be a major factor in your decision.


While there’s certainly something to be said for learning for the sake of learning–actually, there’s a lot of valid things to be said for that–it’s important to keep something in mind.

The top tier schools do not have a monopoly on what information you can learn.

It’s not like if you study economics at the University of Chicago that you’ll learn some mystical microeconomics theory you wouldn’t get at a state school. You won’t learn the mysteries of quantum physics at MIT.

But what you will have access to are incredible students (and, in turn, incredible professors), access to amazing postgraduate opportunities, and a chance to study in an atmosphere that truly promotes whatever it is you’re going for.

Absolutely, keep in mind price, the academics, and the athletics (or, if you’re not into that, the extracurriculars) of a school. But remember–aside from price, all of this boils down to what kind of students you’ll associate with and what kind of opportunities you’ll have after school. Price, unfortunately, is a factor that can’t be bargained with when it comes to you and your family.

But outside of that, remember: when you decide where to apply, it’s the students, not the ranking, and the opportunities, not the degree, that truly matter.

Quick Reminder: Tell One Big Story, Not Several Small Stories

When you look down at a college application and see you have a half-dozen essays to fill out, it’s very easy to think “I’ll just do this essay today, those in a week, and those I can do quickly so I’ll wait until I sent my app out.”

Here’s the problem–you’re not seeing your essays the right way. Rather than having six individual essays, it’s better to think of them as six chapters in one big story that you are submitting to the universities for reading consumption.

This means that if the story you are pitching is “young girl who overcame a broken leg and medical issues to get straight A’s and succeed in soccer” then it doesn’t make a ton of sense to have one essay devoted to your favorite European destination. Similarly, if your story is “boy who overcame emotional anxiety to become a strong actor,” it probably won’t fit in to talk about any athletic accomplishments you had.

The reason essays exist on your applications is not solely so the admissions committee can see how well you write (though that is certainly part of it). It exists in part so that the school knows who you are. I’ve already emphasized before how GPAs and test scores can blur together, but memorable stories stand out. The only way–the only way–to tell a story like this is through your essays.

But if you’re telling several divergent, incongruent stories, the power gets lost.

So remember: tell one big story, not several smaller stories.

The Specific Sells

The Specific Sells

I recently had a client that had an essay question, “If you could have a contemporary guest speaker come to the university, who would it be and why?” This is a very similar question to another essay prompt, “If you could have dinner with one person in history, who would it be and way?”

Without fail, I could tell you the five most common answers to both of these questions, and I guarantee you probably nearly half of the applicants will list those options (politician, religious figure, sports star, music star, or entrepreneur of the day–just cut and paste and you’ll get your answer). Thus, it didn’t surprise me too greatly when the client said “Elon Musk” as his answer.

Naturally, I wrote to him and explained my concern that while Elon Musk would certainly make for a compelling speaker and the university would undoubtedly sell out its tickets, it didn’t make for a great presentation. 80 percent of the planet wants to hear Elon Musk speak, and in over 95 percent of those essay questions, the reason would invariably revolve around “his creativity,” “his vision,” “his work ethic,” or something else.

When he called me back, though, he brought up an interesting point that not many people do–Elon Musk not only runs two different companies right now (a car manufacturer and a space shuttle producer), he came from a third different type of company (PayPal, or a finance company). Because this client wanted to double-dip in both business and medicine, he explained that he wanted to learn how Musk managed to lead companies of such disparate differences.

This specific reason was something I had never heard before. But what made me even more sure of something was when he mentioned an obscure (in America, at least) physician in Germany who started as a surgeon but eventually became a massive investor worth billions of dollars. I had never heard of this surgeon before, but I could see specifically how this person would make for great dinner conversation with my client.

And that’s when I realized a point that I’ve known for some time but had never been able to say so succinctly  specificity sells.

It’s All In the Details

Whether you’re writing a creative essay like this, a report about your favorite city in Europe, or a dissertation for graduate school, one rule has always risen above the rest–the specific details are the difference between a boring paper and a great one.

Why? Just imagine someone told you about their favorite vacation and it was in Berlin. You ask them what they liked about it. “I dunno, it was just cool being in a foreign country and seeing new cultures and stuff.” Sure, that’s informative, but it’s boring and doesn’t tell you anything. That quote could be applied to literally any foreign country in the world–there’s nothing to differentiate Germany from everything else based on those words.

Conversely, imagine they had said, “I got to see the Berlin Wall and many of the streets and architecture that became famous from early 20th century photos. I got to experience German museums explaining the Holocaust and other historical events, and I got to try German beer with a German couple from Munich. They explained the difference between Munich and Berlin.”

Now that is interesting! You have a clear picture of what happened, you get details that clearly set it apart from other countries, and it even provides a taste of something most people don’t get on their trips–beers with locals.

You have to think along the same lines of your essay. “I was someone who enjoyed acting in musicals, and the most significant one was when I did Fiddler on the Roof,” only tells us what your favorite one was. “When I stood on stage, performing for my grandparents for the first time, and belted out the word ‘Tradition’ in my baritone voice, I got shivers thinking about what this production of Fiddler on the Roof meant to them,” implies a much stronger story (albeit with a sentence that should probably be split into two).

Specificity sells. Sell yourself to the admissions committee and get into your dream school.

Want to know how to be specific on your personal statement? Find out everything you need to know here.

Want to have a professional help make your personal statement more specific? Let me help you get into your dream school.

Quick Reminder: This Is NOT An English Essay

A common refrain I hear from clients is “I’m worried about this because I’m not a good writer,” in large part based on their English essay grades. While I understand what this is saying, this is equivalent to saying, “I’m not a good athlete.” It implies something, but for the sake of the discussion, it’s not specific enough. A basketball athlete? A tennis athlete? A baseball athlete?

Thus, when I get that question, I in turn typically ask my clients, “what kind of writing have you done?” For 90 percent of high school students, the answers will revolve around class essays for English, history, and a few other subjects. Occasionally, you’ll get the student who has worked for the school newspaper or writes a blog that actually gets traffic, but those students wouldn’t be saying “I’m not a good writer.”

The reason I ask this is simple–your college essay is NOT an English essay.

You will need to follow certain rules such as proper grammar, good flow, and compelling content, but this is not a literary analysis or a historical thesis paper. This is your story. This is your life, come to being on the page. This is creative writing, but it’s not really creating something so much as it is bearing the most compelling part of you that already exists.

So no, you don’t need to be a good English essay writer to write a good personal statement. You don’t need to have gotten an A on all of your research papers to feel confident about your application essays. You just need your most compelling story, a willingness to do a few drafts, and a willingness to tell the truth of your story in full.