The power of the college essay – no dying dogs

My favorite college admissions adage is “A good essay can heal the sick, but can’t raise the dead.” That sums it up pretty succinctly – a strong, well-written essay has the power to move a teetering applicant into the “yes” pile but it’s not a miracle drug that will assure an acceptance letter to a less-than-qualified student.

The essay seems to have taken center stage in the application process for a variety of reasons. With so many students applying to many more colleges than in the past, the essays are really the best opportunity for a student to set themselves apart. Since interviews are no longer standard fare, the essay is where the student introduces themselves and helps the admissions committee get to know them.

Perhaps this is why high school seniors are feeling particularly stressed. What’s worse is that the advice from colleges is so general that it’s hard for students to know how to respond:

Here are some of the do’s and don’ts from colleges:


“Be authentic, show us who you really are”

“Share your passion; write about what’s important to you”

“Make it memorable”


“Write what you think we want to hear”

“Tell us what we already know about you”

“Forget to proofread”

I used to say that students needed to avoid the three “D’s” when writing a college essay: Divorce, Drugs and Death, but recently I’ve heard college admissions staff add two new double- D’s: don’t write about your dog dying or a deadly disease.

Was that helpful? Maybe, but what most students really want to know is how do I pick my topic? How do I figure out what to write about that shares something about me and is still interesting and insightful?  Thankfully most high school students haven’t overcome huge obstacles, have not likely had a world-shaking epiphany and if they were being honest, given the choice, they would rather hang out with their friends than do community service work. So, generating a 500-word-worthy essay topic can be challenging.

When I’m working with a student to brainstorm essays I ask a variety of questions to try and tease out the best potential topics. Here are a few to get started:

  • What are your favorite subjects? Why?
  • What are your greatest strengths/talents?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • How are you different than most of your friends?
  • What are your relationships like with your family (siblings, parents and grandparents)?
  • What is important to you/what do you care about?
  • How do you spend your time outside of school?
  • What is your greatest achievement/most unusual thing you’ve ever done?
  • Have you learned any “life lessons”? What? From whom?
  • How would someone that knows you really well describe you?

After answering these and other questions, the topic typically, and  almost magically, begins to reveal itself.

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