Writing the Weird College Essay

This blog was originally featured on the parenting website, "Grown and Flown." 

“That’s weird.”

In conversation, some people might balk at that response. In college essay writing, “weird” can be a great start. People, especially socially conscious teenagers, try to avoid the label. However, unique interests, like playing the ukulele or collecting antique spoons, often reveal something significant, or at the very least, spark questions. That’s the key—inspiring your reader to want to know more. There are only so many ways to put a distinctive spin on winning the championship game or learning a lesson at overnight camp. But an essay about a wrestler who takes dance lessons? That will raise an admission’s officer’s eyebrows—in a good way.  

Identifying one’s most compelling quirks is a challenge. I often start brainstorming conversations with the question: what’s the strangest thing about you? However, it’s tough to look in the mirror and see beyond the familiar, especially when you’re feeling the pressure of application deadlines.  

Writers must dig deeper to uncover the real personal essay gems. One strategy is to literally, dig. Most teenagers’ rooms could qualify as archeological excavation sites, layered with relics, old papers, ticket stubs, etc. While this is annoying for parents, it can be ideal for brainstorming. Sifting through a random collection of stuff is a great exercise; teens might be surprised by what they find. Maybe it’s a trove of old sketches or a forgotten journal, or maybe, a receipt that reminds them of the snowy day they went searching for sleds and wound up on cookie sheets. Sometimes, our subconscious tells us to save things that seem trivial, but have a special meaning or memory tucked within.

Another trick is to turn the question around, asking family or friends, “What’s the strangest thing about me?” While this might turn a family dinner into a roast, especially if siblings are involved, people close to us can often see endearing quirks we can’t. I tell my students that many of the best essay topics involve paradoxes: things that seem absurd or contradictory but are somehow true. Perhaps, it’s a surfer who’s afraid of the ocean or a kid teaching a parent how to ride a bike. One of my favorite essay samples features a mom who creates artwork entirely out of garbage. The core theme of the essay is embracing differences and finding beauty in strange places. That’s step two of the process. After identifying “the weird,” colleges expect students to delve deeper—extrapolating a quirk or experience into a larger, more meaningful idea.

To parents beginning the college process: encourage your teenager to welcome the weird, the paradoxical, and the downright bizarre as possible essay topics. Writing about these things not only separates human beings from clichés, it shows a self-awareness that comes from genuine introspection.  In a sky-high pile of essays, it’s always refreshing for a reader to think, “I’ve never seen that before.”   


More Specific = More Relatable

When writing about a personal experience, many express the desire to be "relatable." What does relatable mean, in writing? Does it mean an event should be loosely drawn, open to interpretation? We often think that to reach a universal audience, writing should be porous so readers can fill in the gaps.

Actually, the opposite is true. The more specific a writer is, the more concrete her memory feels to the reader. When explaining this phenomenon to my students, I use the example of describing a car. Many think that employing the generic term “car” allows a reader to create his or her own image, therefore anyone can relate. While that may be true, “car” doesn't establish a connection. This type of writing conflates generic with relatable, when the two serve very different purposes. The goal is to use specific language to create a joint, vivid picture—one that the writer and reader can share. Unfortunately, vague writing can only produce vague images.

Instead, I tell my students to describe any specific car in detail, adding key adjectives. Suddenly, "car" turns into the "red corvette with butterfly doors" or the "pick up truck with a patriotic bumper sticker" or the “old hatchback with a busted fender and duct-taped mirror." Specificity brings these images to life--everyone can picture a version of these cars they've seen in reality. Part of the craft of personal writing is figuring out which of these details help illuminate an experience and which can be tossed to the curb. You don’t want to overload your images, but you do want to handpick your adjectives to paint the picture you want.

I love the moment when a student suggests a certain type of car—maybe a dirty station wagon with “wash me” on the windshield—and the whole classroom nods in understanding and laughter, picturing their own, slightly different iteration.

Bottom line: specific, concrete descriptions put you in the driver’s seat when it comes to connecting with your readers.   

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