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Articles / Applying to College / Tackling the College Essay “Of Your Choice”

Tackling the College Essay “Of Your Choice”

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Oct. 20, 2020
Tackling the College Essay “Of Your Choice”

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College-bound high school seniors, have you decided which application(s) you'll be using? There are a number from which to choose, depending on your college choices and application strategy.

For an excellent overview of application possibilities, check out this helpful article: Understanding the Different Types of College Applications. There you'll find explanations of "the Common Application; the Universal Application; Individual College Applications; the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success Application; and A Shared Application for a System of Colleges."

I want to discuss the popular "essay of your choice" option that appears on many of these applications. For example, here are the "your choice" prompts from four different types of applications:

Common Application

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Universal College Application

Please write an essay that demonstrates your ability to develop and communicate your thoughts. Some ideas include: a person you admire; a life-changing experience; or your viewpoint on a particular current event.

Coalition Application

Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

Individual college applications

Using the University of Chicago as an example [my bold emphasis]:

Essay Option 7: In the spirit of adventurous inquiry (and with the encouragement of one of our current students!) choose one of our past prompts (or create a question of your own). Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun!

The door is wide open with these prompts. If, after reading through the other application prompts, nothing else inspires you, I urge you to use your own imagination and creativity to fashion a truly outstanding statement.

Understand How to Create Your Own Topic

Your next question may be: How can I do that? Maybe I can help.

Let's talk about attention-grabbing opening sentences. Put your best efforts there! Are you familiar with the term "lede"? As defined, a lede is "The introductory section of a news story that is intended to entice the reader to read the full story." Incidentally, the spelling of lede is allegedly done that way so as not to confuse it with lead (/led/), which refers to the strip of metal that at one time separated lines of type in former printing processes.

How does that apply to your essay? Like this: "The first sentence of your essay should inspire admission officers to read your full statement."

The titles of my blog posts serve as a kind of lede. I try to make them interesting to inspire you to read the rest of what I have written. The same applies to application essays. A strong lede can draw your admission committee readers into your essay. Let me give you a real-life example from one of my former client's experiences.

Aiden [not his real name] was applying to the University of Pennsylvania. He was searching for an idea in response to Penn's famous (now discontinued) "Page 217" essay question: "You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217." (If you're curious about why this unique prompt was discontinued, see the three reasons here.)

In discussing what he wanted to write about, I thought Aiden had hit upon a perfect topic. He told me that he was on a Little League team for four years and, in all that time, thanks to his coach, he never got into a single game. Not for one inning. Zero at bats. He never took the field, all four seasons.

I immediately knew that this was a winning idea, so I coached Aiden about the value of the lede. Here, from my notes, are some of the many variations we explored for that all-important first sentence:

  • "Ferguson! Centerfield!" Words of Coach Edminston I never heard.
  • What becomes of kids who never get to play?
  • What comes from a little-league career of riding the oak?
  • I did some of my best thinking in the dugout.
  • I rode the oak into the cosmos.
  • My contempt for the prosaic was born in a dugout.
  • Little League was a metaphor for life; Coach Edminston was Fate.
  • Dugouts are like wombs; a life can be formed in one.
  • This should be a tribute to Coach Edminston, but he was such a jerk.
  • Being an INFJ and playing Little League isn't easy.
  • "INFJ" isn't short for I need funny jokes.

All this experimenting may seem excessive, extreme or even obsessive. However, try to imagine the hundreds of essays admission officers read during a typical admissions cycle. How many times would a Penn committee member see a Page 217 essay begin with: "In my autobiography, Page 217 would begin by explaining …" — followed by the sound of the reader's head hitting the desk, sound asleep. Thus, the importance of your essay's opening can't be overestimated.

Aiden finally decided on this opening, which, interestingly, implied that his Page 217 began in mid-sentence, as in a real book:

going through an old shoe box of keepsakes, I found this unsent postcard that simply said:

Dear Coach Edminston,

This comment is years overdue. Thanks for never letting me play in any games.


Aiden Ferguson

The essay went on to discuss how being a benchwarmer for all those years taught Aiden patience, which allowed him to accomplish a number of challenging goals in his young life. I thought it was a unique and completely captivating statement. By the way, Aiden got into Penn.

Expand Your Thinking

Now that you know about the power of the lede, let's stimulate your thinking about topics for that essay "of your own design." Getting back to the University of Chicago, the full list of prompts should kick you into creative overdrive. Don't use these prompts verbatim, obviously, but let them expand your thinking. Allow them to create your own fresh, original topic and approach. Here are three of the seven:

Essay Option 3 — The seven liberal arts in antiquity consisted of the Quadrivium — astronomy, mathematics, geometry, and music — and the Trivium — rhetoric, grammar, and logic. Describe your own take on the Quadrivium or the Trivium. What do you think is essential for everyone to know?

— Inspired by Peter Wang, Class of 2022

Essay Option 4 — Subway maps, evolutionary trees, Lewis diagrams. Each of these schematics tells the relationships and stories of their component parts. Reimagine a map, diagram, or chart. If your work is largely or exclusively visual, please include a cartographer's key of at least 300 words to help us best understand your creation.

— Inspired by Maximilian Site, Class of 2020

Essay Option 5 [My favorite] — "Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" - Eleanor Roosevelt. Misattribute a famous quote and explore the implications of doing so.

— Inspired by Chris Davey, AB'13

Here are a several older ones for inspiration:

  • You've just reached your one millionth hit on your YouTube video. What is the video about? (Lehigh University)
  • What does #YOLO mean to you? (Tufts University)
  • Create two questions that drive you. (Hampshire College)

Use the "essay of your choice" to highlight your originality and creativity. Show your colleges who you are and how you think. That's what they want to know!

Share Your Thoughts

We'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Check out our forum to contribute to the conversation!

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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