Countdown to College: Time to start thinking about the essay

Families often are surprised when I tell them that brainstorming essay topics is typically more difficult than writing the essay. Writing the essay can be a breeze if a student has pushed themselves to think openly during the brainstorming effort.

The first question students need to ask themselves is: “What do I want colleges to know about me?” This is a great time to think about what matters to them and how they have changed or matured.

Here are a few ideas to help you get started:

Step 1: Think about what your friends or parents mean when they say: “That is so you!” What sets you apart from other 17-year-olds? What do you do? How do you act? Ask friends and family members for adjectives that describe you and specific anecdotes when you displayed those characteristics. This can be entertaining and educational.

Ask yourself about the important milestones in your life as well your most important relationships. Why are/were these events and people significant? What have you learned from these events and people?

Jot down a short list of role models or people who have influenced you in school, in your extracurricular activities, within your family and among your friends.

Try summarizing some of your biggest accomplishments; favorite courses, sports you’ve played or most unusual summer experiences.

Compile a list of your service activities. Have you had an opportunity to be exposed to new people and new experiences that taught you some lessons? Have you held a leadership role? Were there obstacles or ethical dilemmas you had to work through?

Step 2: Examine your results. Ask yourself “why,” “what” and “how” questions. Why was this important? Why did I choose to volunteer? What did I contribute? What did I learn from each of the experiences? How have I changed because of my relationship with that person?

See if you can identify any underlying theme. Focus on “influence” and “impact” – how have you been influenced by events or people in your life and how have these experiences led you to have an impact on others?

Things to remember: A strong essay will be reflective, introspective and even analytical.

Focus on depth not breadth. Think of moments in time that capture what’s important to you, a change of belief or a time you struggled. A good essay is not a laundry list of your accomplishments.

Make the reader like you and think you’d be a great addition to their campus. Your essay should make them want to invite you out for a cup of coffee so they can get to know you better. It’s harder to reject someone you like.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;