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Dear ATC Community, 

With college essay season in full swing, I thought I’d share a response to the most common questions I receive as a writing tutor/essay coach: What makes a good topic and how do I start brainstorming? Below is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for the parenting blog, Grown and Flown.

“That’s weird.” 

In conversation, some might take offense to that response. In college essay writing, “weird” is a great start. Most people, especially socially conscious teenagers, try to avoid the label. However, unique interests, like playing the ukulele or collecting antique spoons, often reveal something significant, or at the very least, spark questions. 

Identifying your most compelling quirks is a challenge. I often start brainstorming conversations with the question: what’s the strangest thing about you? However, it’s tough to look in the mirror and see beyond the familiar, especially when you’re facing down the pressure of application deadlines.  

Writers must dig deeper to uncover the real personal essay gems. One strategy is to literally, dig. Most teenagers’ rooms could qualify as archeological excavation sites, layered with relics, old papers, ticket stubs, etc. While this is annoying for parents, it can be ideal for brainstorming. You might find a trove of old sketches or a forgotten journal, or maybe, a receipt that reminds you of the snowy day you went searching for sleds and wound up on cookie sheets. Sometimes, our subconscious tells us to save trivial things that have a special memory tucked within.

Another trick is to turn the question around, asking family or friends, “What’s the strangest thing about me?” This might turn a family dinner into a roast, especially if siblings are involved, but people close to us can often see endearing quirks we can’t. Some of the best essay topics reach toward the absurd or contradictory, like a surfer who’s afraid of the ocean or a kid teaching a parent how to ride a bike. One of my favorite essays features a mom who creates artwork entirely out of garbage. The core themes of the essay are embracing differences and finding beauty in strange places. That’s step two of the process. After identifying “the weird,” colleges expect students to delve deeper—extrapolating a quirk or experience into a larger, more meaningful idea.

To parents beginning the college process: encourage your teenager to welcome the weird, the paradoxical, and the downright bizarre as possible essay topics. Writing about these things not only separates human beings from clichés, it shows a self-awareness that comes from genuine introspection.  In a sky-high pile of essays, it’s always refreshing for a reader to think, “I’ve never seen that before.”  

As always, thanks for reading and good luck gearing up for the new school year!



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