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  • Jenny Runkel

"So....What Should I Write About?"

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

It’s the question I get from many of my high school students as they face the personal essay and the pressure that accompanies it. That question carries several other assumptions along for the ride, one of which being, “Colleges are looking for a particular kind of essay and you’d better get it right.”

This just isn’t the case. The college essay is nothing more than a personal essay. And as such, you have one goal in writing your college essay. One. Give your reader a chance to like you. That means you’ve got to give your reader a chance to see you. So, if you’ve come here to find out exactly what you should write about, I’m sorry to say that you’re in the wrong place. Not only that, but you’re asking the wrong question.

The right question to ask is, What is it that makes an essay interesting?

The answer lies in an unusual source. A camera.

Just about everyone you know has the technical equipment needed in their pocket to take a picture. But not everyone you know can use that equipment to take a photograph. A picture shows a view. A photograph crafts a viewpoint. There is a world of difference between the two.

Something about a good photograph draws you in. It tells a story and invites participation, documenting something beautiful or touching that captured the attention of the photographer. When it’s done well, you pay attention to something you’ve never noticed before. You get a glimpse into a world you can’t normally access. A good photograph makes you want to know more.

And that’s what you want in your writing. Your aim is not to show a “perfect snapshot” of you as a person. That’s basically like putting a stock photo on “website you” without even paying to remove the watermark. This kind of bland essay is even worse than a poorly written one since it’s almost guaranteed to get ignored. How do you know if you’re accidentally writing one of these? Ask yourself this question: am I telling the reader anything they can’t already see in my application? An essay is your chance to peel back the veneer of your accomplishments and allow the reader to meet the real you.

Don’t just give the reader a picture with a nice view of the world, invite the reader into your view of your world. Your essay will be much more successful and much more enjoyable for everyone involved if you can think like a photographer of your own story instead of a tourist.

So just how do photographers manage to pull off such a feat and how can you do the same for your personal essay? They have to start by identifying their viewpoint. Stay tuned or contact me for specific help. I specialize in helping students find out exactly what’s so awesome about the way they see the world.

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