A while ago, I read an article in Fast Company, What does it mean to be “interesting”?
As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think about college admissions essays. So much of what makes an essay compelling is its level of interestingness—that it surprises me or challenges me or helps me learn something that I did not know before. Yet, this is what I find students most frequently get “wrong” when it comes time to choose what to write about.
Because students have been conditioned to think about what matters in the college process incorrectly, they tend to want to focus on uninteresting topics or takeaways in their essays. For example, one of the most uninteresting topics, to me, is the winning of awards and other honors. I tend to find essays about robotics competitions, big games, and other traditional wins to be a bit boring because I have read a lot of them. These are common, almost default topics because students think talking about their accomplishments is what they need to do to impress admissions officers.
These experiences could be interesting but are primarily uninteresting topics because students approach them incorrectly. Instead of focusing on how they experienced the experience itself, how it challenged them or pushed them to think or act differently etc., they focus on the outcome. Therefore, the reader is also left unchallenged, having not been surprised or learned anything new about the writer.
Students should feel confident that admissions officers will see the outcomes of their hard work on their resume—this goes for all awards and honors! There is almost never any need to talk about outcomes of this type in an essay unless a prompt specifically asks (for a supplemental essay, for example, not the personal statement!).
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