Every year, I remind juniors that winter break is the best time to begin brainstorming topics for your Common App essay. ’Tis the season of family, nostalgia, and tradition. And those themes? Well, they make for the best essays.
So, involve the whole family. Zooming with your grandma in Florida? Seeing your cousins for the first time in a while? Has quarantine meant you and your parents have exhausted all possible topics of conversation around the dinner table?
Ask them questions:
- What are your favorite memories of me?
- How would you describe me in five words? Five sentences?
- How have I changed in the last five years?
- When were you most proud of me?
- What places and events are most important to our family?
- What should colleges know about me?
- What family disasters have turned into hilarious anecdotes?
- What makes me different from the rest of the family?
- What are our traditions? (Think small: favorite vacation spots and restaurants, family recipes, family activities, family sayings and superstitions, etc.)
- What was the best vacation we ever had? What was the worst?
- What objects are important to our family? What’s the oldest thing we own, and how was it passed down?
- When you picture me as an adult, what is my job?
- What am I best at in our family? (Think big and small: e.g., comforting others, fixing computers, finding the cat when it hides, linear thinking, writing, planning surprise parties, singing, etc.)
- What was I like as a little kid?
Ask them to send more anecdotes as they think of them. Write them all down. Look for common threads and themes. Write those down, too. Re-read the Common App prompts. Which anecdotes fit?
I promise: your entire extended family won’t be this involved in the rest of the writing process. But it always helps to see yourself through the eyes of someone else—particularly those who’ve known you longest. And at the very least, it will give you something to talk about.