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?
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.

Taboo Topics for Your Story

Taboo Topics for Your Story

Sometimes, no matter how vulnerable you want to be, there are taboo topics that just shouldn’t get brought up in your essay. While it’s important to show your most compelling side, there are a few topics that, even if you believe they are compelling, probably aren’t worth including.

Don’t politicize your essay

This is different than talking about politics. If you firmly believe your experience campaigning for a candidate or leading a political club over the past few years is important to you, that’s fine. What you don’t want to do is use your 500-650 words to defend (insert politician here). This is true regardless of party affiliation. No one wants to read about why you think (politician) is the greatest person since Jesus and no one cares about how you believe (politician)’s policies will make your country better. Keep the focus on you, your experience, and your learning experiences. It’s your story, not (politician)’s story.

Don’t brag about anything illegal or ethically questionable.

This is a little different than what most people say. Some will tell you never talk about illegal activity. I wouldn’t talk about the vehicle you stole or the credit card fraud you committed, but if you show repentance and how you’ve grown, it can work with carefully chosen words. This does not mean you should talk about crimes from your past. But if you consider them essential to your story and you’ve outgrown those moments, you can write about them—just tread carefully.

Don’t talk about your love life.


Other than that, I don’t really have any rules for content. Common sense will help you a lot, but don’t be afraid to get personal and show vulnerability. That’s the difference between mediocre content and compelling content.

Just don’t get so vulnerable that taboo topics come up, or your reader will never get past your choice of topic.

How Do You Tell Your Story?

How Do You Tell Your Story?

The personal statement is usually open-ended, 500 to 650 words, and has very few other guidelines to tell your story. With all this freedom, you have the chance to write something magical.

The flip side, of course, is that with this freedom comes the burden of too many options. What do I write about? How should I write about it? Is this an appropriate topic? Is this topic too boring? Too general? Too cliche? What if I’m a terrible writer?

Here’s the funny thing about these essays. As discussed before, you don’t need to be a great writer to tell a great story. So even if you think you aren’t a great writer, don’t let that give you cause to panic. This is not an AP English essay. This is your chance to tell a story.

But what if you’re still uncertain about doing that?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself that can generate some ideas:

What moments fundamentally changed you or the path you were on over the last decade?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing this has to be a Hollywood-type moment where you hit the game-winning three-pointer, nailed the audition that got you a role at a professional theater, or witnessed the death of someone close. If you had such a moment, then great! But if not, don’t despair. It’s about what’s fundamental to you being able to tell your story, not what would make a great film moment.

What moments trigger strong, almost overwhelming emotions?

The way to great writing is to write the raw truth. This is an absolute whether you’re writing an essay, an online column, a confessional, or even fiction. The more vulnerable the writing, the more painfully true, the better it is.

Oftentimes, this kind of writing will revolve around a failure you experienced that you overcame. Writing about truly exhilarating moments is fun, but not many people learn from them—they just indulge in them. The darkest, saddest, most frustrating moments are the ones we most often learn from and most often make compelling.

What moments represent the core of who you are?

If you know yourself well, you know there are certain traits that you value above all others. Be it kindness, empathy, leadership, determination, anything—if you can bring it to life in a story, it can make for a great personal statement.

There are, however, some topics that you do NOT want to talk about when you tell your story. Stay tuned next week to find out what those are.

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Want to know everything about writing a personal statement now? Find out everything you need to know here.

Want to have a professional take such a look at your personal statement? Let me help you get into your dream school.

It’s the Story, Not the Writing

It’s the Story, Not the Writing

When you hear the word “college application essay” or “personal statement essay,” one crucial word in those phrases may make you believe you have to be a great writer: “essay.”

Hearing the word essay likely invokes memories of reports about themes in The Count of Monte Cristo, a historical analysis about the implication of the 1812 War, or a case study in a psychology class. All of these require strong, technical writing skills, and if you struggled in English or hated learning about the Oxford comma, there’s a great chance that hearing that may make you groan.

But there’s something crucial to know about when it comes to these essays that can make your life much, much easier.

It’s not about your writing. It’s about your story.

Necessary, Not Sufficient

To write a great story, it is necessary to have writing without grammatical errors, incorrect verbiage, or glaringly bad typos. This is true whether you’re writing fiction, a thesis paper, or a blog post. If this blog post used apostrophes incorrectly or misspelled words, it would stand out rather egregiously.

But that just sets the floor for your writing, it doesn’t actually raise it to the level you want it to.

When the admissions committee reads your story, they want to do so without getting pulled out of the story by the aforementioned mistakes. But simply avoiding these mistakes won’t make for a great essay–it’ll merely ensure that you meet the necessary requirements to avoid having a bad one.

It’s the Story

Name your favorite movie. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, Captain America: Civil War–those are just a few for me.

Name your favorite books. The Coldfire Trilogy, American Gods, The Name of the Wind, Game of Thrones–those are also just a few.

What do all of these have in common, regardless of their medium? They’re great stories.

Explaining why these are great stories goes beyond the point of this post, but the universal acclaim they have, the repeated viewing/reading nature of these stories, and the way they have invaded modern culture says everything about the quality of those stories.

And do they have great writing? Well, some of them, yes. The Avenger films are notorious for having great humor in them, and no one would ever call Neil Gaiman or George RR Martin a bad writer.

But do you know who has been called a bad writer? Stephen King and James Patterson. Two of the greatest selling authors of the last 50 years have received critiques for poor writing quality. You can find similar, harsher criticisms for E.L. James, author of the 50 Shades series.

So if their writing is mediocre, why do they sell like fresh ice cream on a weekend in July?

Because their stories are too compelling not too read.

It’s Your Story

Everyone has a story to tell. Just because you haven’t traveled to an exotic country, won an Olympic medal, met a president, or won a national award doesn’t mean you don’t have a story to tell. My story–specifically, the one I wrote for my college applications–involved growing up and taking ownership of my life after an embarrassing story at the gym.

Another person’s story talked about overcoming their alcoholism. Another talked about starting a business off of rare shoes. Another talked about using statistics to improve their defense in high school basketball.

Some of these had great writing. Some of them had writing that was good enough.

But all of them told a story that made you want to read more, to learn more about what’s going on. Their stories sucked you in and didn’t let you go until the final period.

That is what college application essays are looking for. They are not looking for technically strong writing that makes a reader go “oh, man, their handle on metaphors is perfect.” They are not looking for an essay that you would submit to your English teacher.

They are looking for your story. What is your unique, compelling story? How do you stand out?

Those are questions for another day–but for now, just take solace in one simple fact.

You don’t have to be a great writer to write a great college application essay. You just need to have a great story.

Want to know everything about writing a personal statement now? Find out everything you need to know here.

Want to have a professional take such a look at your personal statement? Let me help you get into your dream school.